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Jacob OBRECHT (1457/58 - 1505): Missa Maria zart

Cappella Pratensis
Dir: Stratton Bull

rec: Sept 9 - 12, 2022, Heusden (NL), Catharijnekerk
Challenge Classics - CC72933 (© 2023) (64'54")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

anon: Maria zart; Jacob OBRECHT: Missa Maria zart [1]; PFABINSCHSWANTZ (fl 1481-1499): Maria sart; Ludwig SENFL (c1490-1543): Maria, du bist Genaden voll/Maria zart

Sources: [1] Jacob Obrecht, Concentus harmonici quatuor missarum, 1507

Tim Braithwaite, Stratton Bull, Andrew Hallock, superius; Lior Leibovici, André Pérez Muíño, Korneel Van Neste, altus; Jonatan Alvarado, Peter de Laurentiis, Julian Podger, tenor; Marc Busnel, Ronald Faust, Grantley McDonald, bassus

Jacob Obrecht is one of the great names of the Renaissance period. He was one of the main representatives of the Franco-Flemish school around 1500. His oeuvre is not that large, but he was one of the most prolific composers of mass cycles: the number of extant masses of established authenticity is counted at 30, and five further masses could be well from his pen too. Many of his works have been recorded, but the discography put together by Todd McComb indicates that quite a number of recordings are of such a date that they may not be available anymore. Moreover, a substantial number of the masses are still not available on disc. The Missa Maria zart is one of the best-known parts of his oeuvre, as the discography shows. The best-known recording of this work may be the one by The Tallis Scholars.

Obrecht was born in Ghent, where his father was in the service of the town as a trumpeter. Jacob may also have been trained as such, but we know nothing about his musical education for certain. The first documentary evidence of Obrecht's occupation of a musical position dates from 1480 to 1484, when he was choirmaster in Bergen op Zoom (today in the Dutch province of North Brabant). He then moved to Cambrai to take the position of master of the choirboys at the cathedral. That was only an intermezzo, because the next year he was appointed succentor at St Donatian in Bruges. The next station was Antwerp, where in 1492 he took up the post of choirmaster at the church of Our Lady. As one can see, Obrecht often moved from one town to the other, and that continued until the end of his life. In 1497 he returned to Bergen op Zoom, then moved to Bruges again, but in 1501 he was in Antwerp for the second time. Unlike many of his colleagues, he never went to Italy. Until 1504, that is: in that year he entered the service of Duke Ercole d'Este in Ferrara. It didn't bring him any luck: his employer died in January 1505, and in June or July of that same year Obrecht himself died of the plague.

The Missa Maria zart is undated, but may be a late work. All Obrecht's masses are based on plainsong or the tenor of a polyphonic song. Maria zart is a German monophonic song, which was published after Obrecht's death. The mass may have been written during the composer's stay at Innsbruck, when he was on his way to Ferrara. At the request of Maximilian I, he composed a mass, which is likely the Missa sub tuum praesidium. Whereas the latter is rather short, the Missa Maria zart is a monumental work, probably the longest written during the Renaissance. It is also a complex work. The tune of Maria zart is mostly not quoted at full length, but broken up into segments. "By prescribing that the segments be read under different mensuration signs (Renaissance notation's equivalent of modern time-signatures), in some cases as many as five, Obrecht presents each segment first in long note values and then gradually shorter and shorter ones, giving the effect of acceleration over the course of each section", Fabrice Fitch writes in his liner-notes.

The author explains at length, and with examples, what exactly Obrecht does in this mass, and how he treats the cantus firmus. That is too detailed to quote or even too summarize here. The mensural notation is one of the features that makes this work standing out in the repertoire of Renaissance masses. "The play with musical time, implicit in the mensural system, is foregrounded in Maria zart as in few other works of its day: if this was one of Obrecht's last musical statements, then truly he went out with a bang."

It is often not easy to recognize the melody of a cantus firmus in a mass. Fitch offers several examples where Obrecht's writing allows to hear it. It helps that the recording includes the complete song in its original monophonic form. It is sung at the start and at the end of the programme. The Mass is embraced by two polyphonic settings. A composer with the name of Pfabinschswantz (who may be identical with Georg Pfawenschwantz) arranged it in four parts, with the cantus firmus in the tenor. Ludwig Senfl took the melody as the cantus firmus for Maria, du bist Genaden voll, one of his many Tenorlieder.

Many masses of the renaissance period have come down to us in manuscript. The Missa Maria zart was published in 1507 in Basel in a collection of four masses by Obrecht. No score was available, and as the Cappella Pratensis is used to sing from a choirbook, this was created for the performance. As this mass is assumed to have been written at - and possibly for - the Innsbruck court, Latin is pronounced the German way.

Listening to such a lenghty work requires a lot of concentration. I advise anyone who purchases this recording - which I strongly recommend - to listen with the liner-notes at hand to try to get to the bottom of this work. However, one should then listen to it as it comes. Even without knowing the details, this is a great work to listen to, and the superb performance by the Cappella Pratensis guarantees that you never get bored.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

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