Jacob Obrecht (1450-1505), a Dutch composer, was one of the most important composers in the dominant Netherlandish tradition of the 15th century.
Jacob Obrecht also spelled Hobrecht, was born on St. Cecilia's Day, 1450, in either Bergen op Zoom or Sicily. The information and the uncertainty come from his motet Mille quingentis, a lament on the death of his father, Willem, in which he states that he was born on this day when his father was crossing Sicily. Other evidence links the family to Bergen op Zoom and gives the date 1450.
Obrecht spent most of his childhood in the Netherlands, where he must have received his education. As with many of the events of his life, the circumstances of his education are unknown. He may have received a portion of his musical training from his father, who was a city trumpeter in Ghent. He must also have attended a university, since he was a priest by 1480.
The early career of Obrecht is difficult to trace. He may have been in Florence and Ferrara as early as 1474, although evidence for this is not conclusive. In 1479-1480 he held positions in Bergen op Zoom. In 1484 he became chapel master in Cambrai. This would have brought him into close contact with the music of Guillaume Dufay, who had been in residence there for the 30 years preceding his death in 1474. By November 1485 Obrecht was succentor of St-Donatien in Bruges; in 1487 he received a leave to visit Ercole I d'Este in Ferrara. Ercole attempted unsuccessfully to provide a benefice in Ferrara to keep the composer there. Obrecht returned to Bruges, where he remained until 1491. He is listed in the accounts of the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp from 1494 until 1496 and again from 1501 until 1503. He was in Bruges in 1491, 1498, and 1500 and in Bergen op Zoom in 1496 and 1498. In 1504 he went to Ferrara to serve as composer in the D'Este chapel. He died when the plague struck Ferrara in 1505.
Obviously well known in the Low Countries for much of his career, Obrecht also began to be famous in Italy in the 1480s, when Ercole I d'Este was deeply impressed by his music. During his lifetime Obrecht's works were printed in Venice by Ottavio Petrucci, who, in addition to including secular works and motets in a collection, printed a book of five Masses in 1503. Within decades after his death Obrecht had come to be regarded as among the "ancients" (antichi) and among those who first made music. This was the result of the important changes in musical style in the first decades of the 16th century.
Obrecht's output includes 8 French chansons, at least 16 settings of Dutch texts, and 1 or 2 settings of Italian texts. The predominance of Dutch texts is significant for a composer of this period and marks the beginning of the regular appearance of secular music in languages other than French. His approximately 25 motets are in some ways conservative in their treatment of cantus firmus and lack of pervading imitation, in some cases. His best works are probably his Masses, at least 25 in number, which employ a wide variety of cantus firmus techniques.
Although Obrecht is often linked with Johannes Ockeghem, the two composers have rather different styles. The harmonic and rhythmic structure of most of Obrecht's music is quite clear. This results in part from a frequent use of sequence, a device that in some of his weaker works is overemployed. He also has a tendency to have the outer voices move in parallel tenths for considerable stretches of a work. Although one can find relationships between his works and those of his predecessors and successors, in many ways Obrecht stands outside of the main path of development of music in the second half of the 15th century.
Further Reading on Jacob Obrecht
Obrecht's life and works are discussed at some length in Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance (1954; rev. ed. 1959). Also useful is Manfred F. Bukofzer, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music (1950). Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music (1960), has a good discussion of Obrecht and is recommended for general background.
Additional Biography Sources
Wegman, Rob C., Born for the muses: the life and Masses of Jacob Obrecht, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.