OBRECHT: Missa Caput / Salve Regina (Jeremy Summerly/ Judy Lieber/ Oxford Camerata) (Naxos: 8.553210)
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Jacob Obrecht (1457/8 - 1505)
Salve Regina a 4
Salve Regina a 6
Among the extraordinarily gifted composers who changed themusical world in late fifteenth-century Europe, Obrecht will always be seen to have aspecial position He is distinguished from his contemporaries for the serenity of hismusical vision, his unmatched ear for sonority, and not least the astonishingly affectiverange of his writing which encompasses the playful, the jubilant, and the rapturous.
Obrecht's music is more than a window into late-medieval society, it has the power tomove, inspire, and console us even today.
Jacob Obrecht was born in Ghent (in what is now Belgium) in1457/8. His father, Willem Obrecht, was a city trumpeter with a fairly active professionallife, together with five colleagues he regularly travelled away from Ghent to work in theservice of powerful magnates in the orbit of the Burgundian court. Obrecht was tocommemorate his father's death in November 1488 with the motet Mille quingentis. His mother, Lijsbette Gheeraerts,was the daughter of a northern Flemish trader; she died in July 1460 when Jacob was onlytwo years old.
Obrecht must have been extraordinarily precocious. He wasappointed to his first known musical post in the Dutch town of Bergen op Zoom at the ageof 22. This was the position of choirmaster at the church of St Gertrude, which he heldfrom 1480-84 Around the same time the influentialJohannes Tinctoris, writing in Naples, singled him out as one of ten major composers 'whose music, distributed throughout the whole world, fillsGod's churches, the palaces of kings, and the houses of private individuals, with theutmost sweetness'. Indeed there are reports from as early as 1484 thatObrecht's Mass settings were circulating in Italy. Hardly three years later, in 1487, DukeErcole d'Este of Ferrara was reported to favour Obrecht's music over that of othercomposers, and he invited him to be his guest at the Ferrarese court for six months.
Despite these and other signs of international recognition,Obrecht does not seem to have had a particularly prosperous career. Throughout the period1485-1503 he kept moving back and forth between musical positions at Antwerp, Bruges, andBergen op Zoom, cities in the south-western Low Countries comprising an area with a radiusof about forty miles. His typical musical duties normally included housing, nourishing,and educating between six and eight choirboys, and taking charge of the daily, weekly,yearly round of liturgical celebrations. Somehow, within this never-ending burden ofonerous responsibilities, Obrecht found it within himself to produce such music as we hearon this recording. Only towards the end of his life, in 1504, did internationalrecognition open the way to less burdensome and more lucrative musical positions. InSeptember of 1504 he accepted the prestigious post of maestrodi cappella at the court of Ferrara, only to lose it upon the death of hispatron, Duke Ercole, in the following January. After several months without permanentemployment, or none that we know of, Obrecht died of the plague in August 1505.
Missa Caput survives uniquelyin a manuscript copied at the court of Ferrara, but it may have been compiled in Bruges inthe late 1480s. The setting is best described as the fifteenth-century equivalent of a'remake', the formal layout of the structural voicepart (the so-called cantus firmus) was adopted wholesale from an oldermass setting, the anonymous English Missa Caput. Thiswork, probably written in the 1440s, was extraordinarily famous in continental Europe,having sparked off at least one previous 'remake', by Johannes Ockeghem in the 1450s. Theprovenance of the melody used as a cantus firmus (labelled'caput') eluded scholars for a long time,until in 1950 Manfred Bukofzer discovered that it was the final melisma of the plainchantantiphon Venit ad Petrum, sung on MaurldyThursday to commemorate the washing of the feet.
This antiphon is heard on this recording with the final 'caput'melisma highlighted. In Obrecht's MissaCaput this melody, whose rhythmicization and layout remained identical to thatin the English Missa Caput, is stated by adifferent voice-part in each movement.
Both of the Salve Regina settings are also based on a plainchantmelody, but they generally treat the pre- existent melody with much greater flexibilitythan in the Missa Caput. They are bothalternation settings, in other words the music alternates between a polyphonic'harmonization' of the plainchant and the unadorned plainchant itself. Beyond thisprinciple the musical writing is entirely rhapsodic, a freeplay of musical imagination. Inthe fifteenth century, settings such as the SalveRegina would often have been sung on a daily basis in a type of Marian serviceknown as the Salve, of which Obrecht musthave directed thousands in the course of his career. With singers often congregatingaround a statue or painting of the Virgin Mary, in apparent imitation of the angelic hostsinging her praise in heaven, worshippers were free to be absorbed in private devotion,their thoughts and prayers drifting quietly with the flow of musical images passing by inmotets such as these. This meditative singing might make one understand thefifteenth-century expression that music was capable of lifting one's soul to acontemplation of heavenly things
Rob C. Wegman
The Oxford Camerata was formed in 1984 to meet the growingdemand for choral groups specializing in music from the Renaissance era. It has sincebroadened its repertoire to include music from the medieval period to the present day, andhas a growing number of composers who have written music especially for the choir. In 1992the Camerata expanded to include instrumentalists when necessary, and in 1995 was awardeda European Cultural Prize.
Jeremy Summerly graduated from OxfordUniversity in 1982 with First Class Honours in Music. During the next seven years hetrained as a Studio Manger at the BBC, founded the Oxford Camerata, and undertookpost-graduate research at King's College, London. In 1990 he was appointed conductor ofSchola Cantorum of Oxford and in 1996 he became Head of Academic Studies at the RoyalAcademy of Music where he had lectured for seven years, He is a BBC Radio 3 presenter anda freelance writer and conductor.