Why is the Missa Grecorum so called? Disappointingly, nobody knows for certain. Thomas Noblitt, in his introduction to the New Obrecht Edition used for this recording, alludes to ‘the efforts of a number of scholars over a period of many years’ to determine its origin, but these were to no avail. It would seem most likely that the melody that forms the Mass’s structural cantus firmus was of secular origin, at least if the rhythmicized form in which it appears most frequently here is representative of the tune as he knew it. Another possibility, though one that has never been substantiated, is that the ‘Greek’ connection arises from the practice at the Vatican of reading the Epistle and Gospel in Greek at Eastertide; since the Mass quotes the Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes in addition to its cantus firmus, this idea may have some credibility—even if the connection is a tenuous one, Obrecht never having been active in Rome.
The ‘Grecorum’ melody is heard most obviously in the Agnus Dei, where in the central trio section the upper voice sings it complete. As Edgar Sparks notes in his book on cantus firmus works, the clarity of the tune’s statement enables Obrecht’s manipulations of it elsewhere in the Mass to be clearly understood, despite its obscure origins. And these manipulations are extensive, even by the standards of this composer who, alongside his older contemporary Johannes Ockeghem, is famous for the ingenuity and intricacy of his mathematical techniques. The most obvious of these is augmentation—the quintessential cantus firmus presentation, whereby the structural melody is given in much longer note values than the free voices that surround it. The opening section of the Gloria illustrates this procedure most clearly, with the tenor singing the final, G, followed by repeated Ds while the altus and bassus repeat a free melody around it. A more subtle transformation of the melody occurs in the ‘Et resurrexit’ section of the Credo, where it appears inverted, first in retrograde form and then forwards. Inversion and retrograde are also found in the Agnus Dei, in the first and second sections respectively. And at the beginning of the Credo (‘Patrem omnipotentem’), the order of the notes is derived from their values, with the longest sung first, followed by breves, semibreves, and so on. (All of these procedures are noted by Sparks.)
The ways in which Obrecht derives musical material from his tenor are reminiscent of those employed much later by the composers of the Second Viennese School; and it is no accident that Anton Webern wrote his doctoral dissertation on the music of Obrecht’s contemporary, Heinrich Isaac. But interesting as these formal procedures are, they form no more than the underpinning structure on which the composer weaves his counterpoint. The effect on the listener is generated far more by aspects such as variations in harmony and texture, and other purely musical techniques. In this Mass, Obrecht brings to bear what Rob Wegman describes as the composer’s mature style, in which a new level of musical development and long-term proportion is achieved.
The Kyrie is a compact movement which begins with a texture close to homophony. The tenor sings the ‘Grecorum’ melody and in the first Kyrie the outer voices construct a slightly elaborated harmonization around it. In the Christe the texture reduces to a trio, with longer note values offset by a diminished mensuration signature (so the tactus moves from the semibreve to the breve level). The second Kyrie retains the diminished mensuration but returns to the shorter note values of Kyrie I, thus generating the most rhythmically active texture heard so far. It is also more contrapuntal than the first Kyrie, though the imitation is suggested via melodic shape rather than direct repetition of motifs.
As noted above, the Gloria begins with a full statement of the cantus firmus in long notes; the surrounding texture builds up from a single voice to a full sonority over the course of three imitations of the same motif. This pattern is characteristic of the movement as a whole, with phrases such as the surging upward scale on ‘Glorificamus te’ permeating the texture. Obrecht uses homophony sparingly, articulating the structure at the two phrases beginning ‘Qui tollis’. Most notable perhaps is the final subsection, from ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’, where triplet cross-rhythms are introduced, after which the name of Jesus is passed from voice to voice at the top of the texture. As with many Gloria settings of this period, the movement finishes in a vigorous triple time from ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, with a hemiola Amen.
The Credo begins in recitational style, narrating the text up to ‘descendit de caelis’ in a remarkably compact forty-nine breves. The texture is full nearly throughout this opening section; it is followed by a customarily restrained ‘Et incarnatus’, in which the upper voice does not venture above B flat. The ‘Et resurrexit’, unsurprisingly, is far more vigorous, with a recurrence of the unison and octave imitation patterns seen in the Gloria. ‘Et ascendit’ is painted with upward scales exploring the top register of the outer voices, before the texture subsides once more at ‘et mortuos’. The section of text affirming belief in the Holy Spirit is omitted, cutting directly from ‘cuius regni non erit finis’ to ‘Confiteor unum baptisma’. Here the ‘Jesu Christe’ motif from the end of the Gloria reappears, before this movement—also like the Gloria—concludes with a brief and rumbustious triple-time section. The texture, rather unusually, reduces to three voices for the last seven breves of the piece, as the final tenor note C does not harmonize with the G tonality of the polyphony.
With its four sections plus repeated Osanna, the Sanctus constitutes the longest musical span of this Mass setting. The Pleni and Benedictus sections are both trios, thus alternating textures of four and three voices; the Benedictus in fact reduces further to an upper-voice duet for over half of its length, with the bassus returning only for the last nine breves. Obrecht again makes use of differing mensurations, beginning in a duple tempus imperfectum, with the tenor singing the ‘Grecorum’ melody in augmented note values; the Pleni and subsequent sections revert to tempus imperfectum diminutum, implying (as in the Kyrie) a somewhat more rapid tempo. In the Agnus Dei, the texture again alternates between quartet and trio between the three sections; like the Kyrie, this movement is less imitative than the longer intervening parts of the Mass. The third Agnus once again employs triplet figuration, though this time not all the voices participate, generating complex cross-rhythms. Here the cantus firmus is found in the lowest voice (though still notated in the tenor partbook of Petrucci’s print), and in inversion.
Wegman’s proposed chronology of Obrecht’s Mass output places Missa Grecorum among works composed circa 1490, though there is no firm dating of the work before its publication by Petrucci in 1503. The composer, born in Ghent in 1457 or 1458, remained in the North throughout his career until accepting a position at Ferrara in 1504 in succession to Josquin Des Prez. This was an unfortunate career move, since his patron Duke Ercole I died early in 1505, and the now unemployed Obrecht fell victim to the plague that summer. His career in the Low Countries had been a successful one, if also somewhat chequered in terms of his relationship with employers. He moved frequently between several posts: those that detained him more than briefly included choirmaster at the South Netherlandish town of Bergen op Zoom, just north of Antwerp (1480–84 and 1497–98), St Donatian’s, Bruges (1485–90 and 1498–1500), and Our Lady, Antwerp (1492–97 and 1501–3). While changing jobs and even returning to previous ones on occasion was not out of the ordinary, Obrecht does appear to have been unusually footloose. He found time to write a very substantial quantity of music, however: thirty Mass settings are firmly ascribed to him, with another five conjecturally attributed by modern scholars, and a similar number of other sacred works, principally motets, along with another thirty or so secular songs. The present recording aims to bring previously unrecorded works (including Missa Grecorum) to a modern audience, alongside one of Obrecht’s finest and best-known motets, and one Mass movement that has recently received an attribution to the composer from Rob Wegman.
O beate Basili is, among those surviving complete, the most substantial of Obrecht’s motets not to have been recorded before now. In form it is somewhat unusual, being cast in three sections of which the third is marginally longer than the first two put together: tripartite motets more often begin with the most substantial material and conclude in a less prolix vein. The middle section reduces from four voices to three—in this regard the piece is standard for the period, as also in employing triple time for the prima pars and duple thereafter. The text is complex and difficult to construe, not least because the version transmitted in the work’s main source, Petrucci’s Motetti libro quarto of 1505, omits several phrases. The motet is also polytextual: in the first section the altus and tenor parts are in canon at the upper fifth, singing a text derived from the office of St Basil, and in the third part the bassus sings the antiphon ‘Invisit sanctus sanctum Basilium’, likewise drawn from the saint’s office. The motet begins rather peacefully, with a gradual intensification of the texture towards the end of each section, as is characteristic of the period. In the middle section the top voice intones in long notes while the altus and bassus alternate shorter phrases below; the tertia parsmoves towards homophony in uttering the name of Mary, following which the discussion of subjugating tyrants and demons brings a more energetic rhythmic texture. The extended Amen is climactic in nature.
The fragmentary motet Mater Patris, like O beate Basili, is divided into three sections of which the third is the longest, though the form is more balanced than the latter’s. The mensuration is duple (tempus imperfectum diminutum) in three of the four surviving voices (and, presumably, the lost contratenor II as well), though the tenor begins in a quasi-archaic modus cum tempore indicating a very extended (and thus inaudible) triple metre. This tenor adopts a litany-like declamation of the text, repeating the same phrase (‘Sancta Dei genitrix …’) a total of seven times: twice in each section (in breves then semibreves, creating an intensification), then once more at the end of the tertia pars, following a brief triple-time section. The free voices engage in considerable duetting, coming together (with or without the tenor) for declamatory effect. This motet indeed takes a much more direct approach to its text than many pieces by Obrecht, with a relatively sparse texture (of course, this is partly determined by the density of the reconstructed voice, but even with this voice active the texture is quite frequently a trio or duet). When all five voices join, the effect is therefore a striking one, and the motet as a whole has a penitent, imploring feel.
A similar devotional work is the six-part Salve regina, Obrecht’s most expansive setting of this popular antiphon. The setting is alternatim, with five sections of plainchant framing four of polyphony. Obrecht’s texture is a higher-pitched one than that of most of his works, with three voices out of the six apparently being intended for boys’ voices (both the second and third voice down bear the inscription ‘secundus puer’ in the Munich manuscript used here). The work is a compositional tour-de-force in terms of its control of tessitura, form, and manipulation of plainchant. Notable moments include the opening of the second polyphonic section (‘Ad te suspiramus’), which weaves a high-voice texture for thirteen breves before the three lower voices enter en bloc, and the ecstatic ‘Et Jesum’ with which the following segment of polyphony begins.
The motet Cuius sacrata viscera is just twenty-five breves long, but is a beautifully shaped miniature. The text is a segment of a longer poem, used liturgically as a hymn for the feast of the Visitation (2 July). Obrecht set this text twice, the other setting being for three voices.
Finally, the single Agnus Dei found anonymously in the ‘Wrocław codex’ has been attributed to Obrecht by Rob Wegman. It features an extremely simple ostinato in the superius voice, which sings a three-note motif (originally G-F-G) on five ascending pitches, before reversing the procedure in the second half of the movement. Meanwhile the lower voices have a somewhat imitative texture, with rhythmically interesting passagework and occasional moments of stasis. This type of pattern composition is quite characteristic of Obrecht, and the movement may well be added to the canon of this intriguing composer.
Stephen Rice © 2018
Salve regina a 6
1 Salve regina misericordiae
2 Ad te clamamus
3 Eia ergo, advocata nostra
4 O clemens
Missa Grecorum Kyrie eleison
5 Kyrie eleison
6 Christe eleison
7 Kyrie eleison
8 Gloria in excelsis Deo
9 Qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe
10 Credo in unum Deum
11 Et incarnatus est
12 Et resurrexit tertia die
14 Pleni sunt caeli
15 Osanna in excelsis
16 Benedictus qui venit
17 Osanna in excelsis
18 Agnus Dei I
19 Agnus Dei II
20 Agnus Dei III
Mater Patris / Sancta Dei genitrix 1 Mater Patris, Nati nata
21 Mater Patris, Nati nata
22 Ab aeterno generatus
23 Virgo mater, mater Dei
24 Cuius sacrata viscera a 4
O beate Basili / O beate pater 5 O beate Basili / O beate pater
25 O beate Basili / O beate pater
26 O beate pater Basili
27 O virum digne colendum / Invisit sanctus sanctum
28 Agnus Dei