Five hundred years ago the Italian town of Ferrara was ravaged by what today’s media would call a pandemic. Bubonic plague broke out in Europe in the 14th century and continued sporadically until the 17th century. The bubonic plague and that contemporary preoccupation avian flu share living creatures as their carriers - rats and birds respectively. Population growth in medieval Europe was slowed by the plague, and something we should remember in connection with avian flu, caused a widespread economic decline.
Ferrara was the seat of the house of Este, and became a cultural centre with a university. During the late 15th and early 16th century the Duke of Ferrara, Ercole 1, became one of the most important patrons of the arts in Italy after the Medici, and the city was particularly noted for its music. Josquin Des Prez was employed by Duke Ercole, and wrote his Missa Hercule dux Ferrariae for him. Antoine Brumel was principal musician in the early 15th century, and the patronage of Ercole’s son Alfonso 1’s resulted in the city becoming an important centre for the lute. The cultural and economic strength of Ferrara attracted a large Dutch and German population, and in 1605 this included the Flemish priest-composer Jacob Obrecht. However Ferrara was particularly vulnerable to the plague, probably due to the proximity of marshes. In the severe outbreak 6000 lives were lost, and among those, in August 1605, was Jacob Obrecht.
Obrecht (below) was one of the leading composers of his period. He was born in either 1457 or 1458, the son of a Ghent trumpeter. He trained for the priesthood, and became choir director at Bergen op Zoom, before taking up appointments in Cambrai, Bruges and Antwerp. He travelled to Ferrara in Italy twice; first in 1496, and then in 1504 for the visit he was not to return from. Obrecht was a prodigous composer of sacred music. He wrote twenty-four masses and twenty-two motets. His masses retain the cantus firmus, but use a wide variety of techniques to transform the traditional monody into elaborate multi-movement works. His style is a development from that of the better known Johannes Ockeghem (c 1430-1495) with more use of melodies and cadences. This is very rewarding music to listen to. No specialist knowledge or appreciation of Renaissance polyphony is needed to derive a lot of pleasure from it - these are musical riches for anyone to enjoy.
It remains something of a mystery as to why the reputation of Jacob Obrecht is overshadowed by his better known Flemish contemporaries. He is adequately represented in the CD catalogues, and if you are not familiar with his music I urge you to explore it. An excellent starting point is the Naxos issue of his Missa Caput sung by the excellent Oxford Camerata under Jeremy Summerly. This fine Mass survives in a manuscript copy from the court at Ferrara, and is a 're-engineering' of the early 15th century anonymous English Missa Caput. Also well worth exploring are the Clerk's Group recordings under Edward Wickham on Gaudeamus, particularly as there recordings are often available at a considerable discount through Amazon Marketplace sellers. (They are part of the financially challenged Sanctuary Music Group, so hurry as they may not be in the catalogue for long). The Clerk's Group's CD with the Missa Sub Tuum Praesidium is particularly recommended for his elaborate twelve minute setting of the Salve Regina.
2005 has quite rightly seen much celebration of the anniversaries of Tippett and Tallis. Hopefully this article may draw a little attention to another important musical anniversary. Jacob Obrecht deserves to be recognised as an important composer, and his works should be celebrated alongside the other great Renaissance polyphonists.
15th century church fresco 'Dance of Death' - Needham High School's (Massachusetts) excellent plague web site
Jacob Obrecht - Classical composers
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