The advent of the mature style, in masses composed around 1490 or shortly before, represents the central turning-point in Obrecht’s career. It is at this point that he fundamentally reconceived the parameters of his style, developing what can only be described as a new artistic vision (typified in ex.1 by the first Kyrie of the Missa ‘Fortuna desperata’). The older aesthetic of the ‘wall of sound’ disappears completely: cantus-firmus based passages in full scoring tend to move at varying rates of rhythmic and harmonic activity, ranging from drawn-out homophonic passages, usually at key phrases of the mass text, to stretches of almost frenzied contrapuntal activity. The allocation of these different passages typically reflects a purposeful musical design – though one, significantly, that is seldom dictated by the shape of the predetermined cantus firmus, and indeed may encompass long stretches in which the tenor is not heard at all. Instead of a conventional alternation between sharply contrasted passages in full and reduced scoring, standing side by side as monolithic stretches of relatively undifferentiated counterpoint, Obrecht now tended to treat the beginning or ending of a tenor statement as one of several steps in a continuing musical development. To achieve a cumulative effect, for example, he might pre-empt the first phrase of the cantus firmus in a series of imitations, of which the tenor entry then constitutes the concluding statement (see, for instance, ex.1, bars 1–17). Typically, however, the tenor entry is not treated as the culmination of such a development, as it usually was in the previous generation: that point now tends to be deferred until later in the cantus-firmus statement (ex.1, bars 29–31), sometimes even over a tenor passage that may not obviously invite it. It might be too much to say that Obrecht had become wholly indifferent to the structure of the cantus firmus, but he does seem to have sought the challenge of creating musical designs which, although accommodating the structural voice-part, owed little or nothing to its predetermined shape and layout.
As if to step up that challenge (or perhaps to display his sheer resourcefulness), Obrecht now preferred to treat pre-existing melodies in the most rigidly schematic fashion – employing techniques of mensural transformation, augmentation, inversion, retrograde, sampling and segmentation, and thereby forcing himself to operate within the constraints of the utterly arbitrary end results. This new preference represents a significant break from his earlier practices. After the Missa ‘Petrus apostolus’ Obrecht had moved away from schematic procedures, prominently applying free elaboration in masses such as Beata viscera, Sicut spina rosam, De Sancto Donatiano, Salve diva parens, and (if it is early) Adieu mes amours. Now, however, the procedures returned, though with the musical stakes greatly increased. To create a ‘wall of sound’ around a predetermined cantus firmus (as in the masses Petrus apostolus or De Sancto Martino) would have posed no particular challenge to a composer of Obrecht’s skill. (In his earliest works, the principal artistic challenge for him had been to maximize the variety of consonant sonority within an unchanging polyphonic texture.) To invent a purposeful and coherent musical design, on the other hand, was a task to which few composers beside himself would have been equal. Obrecht was not to be outdone in this regard until the publication of Josquin’s Missa ‘Hercules dux Ferrarie’ in 1505. By then, he himself had all but completed the corpus of his mature masses, which included such cycles as Plurimorum carminum I and II, De tous biens playne, Fors seulement, Grecorum, Pfauenschwanz and Je ne demande, and which had culminated in such masterpieces as Fortuna desperata, Libenter gloriabor, Malheur me bat and Rose playsante.
Although there are important differences between these works, their common stylistic profile can be recognized by a number of distinguishing traits: (1) the markedly increased emphasis on cadences, often effected by restatements of the same cadence in regular succession (ex.1, bars 1–13), or, at climactic points, by stretching out a cadential progression over a longer passage (bars 15–17 and 28–31); (2) the articulation of the musical discourse in self-contained phrase units, arranged in chains and often linked through literal restatements of the same material (bars 1–17 and 31–49); (3) the use of textural changes and cadences to underscore that articulation; (4) the almost unrelentingly exuberant melodic style, in which individual lines keep outlining triadic figures with formulaic rhythmic patterns, and frequently initiate motivic sequences or repetitions; (5) the sensitivity to tonal relationships across larger formal periods.
However, the mature style is more than the sum of its distinguishing traits. The key-word is design, and the traits themselves acquire their significance only in the context of Obrecht’s new sense of formal musical design. He has decisively moved away from the mid-century aesthetic in which (to exaggerate slightly) the sonority of each moment had to speak for itself, and carried no implications beyond the inevitability of its having to give way to the next sonority. (If formal expectations played any role at all in that aesthetic, they usually had to do with one of three things: the periodic shifts between full and reduced scoring, the structure of the text, or such short-term organizational devices as imitation and sequence.) In Obrecht’s mature style, on the other hand, it is the position of each moment within an overarching musical design that determines how it will be treated, and (one assumes) how listeners were encouraged to hear it. Thus, what was important about the ending of a piece is not that it marked the moment at which the performance discontinues, but rather that it established closure in terms of the work as a whole. That is why the final cadences of individual movements tend to receive extraordinary emphasis in Obrecht’s mature masses, and in some cases get a separate coda section all to themselves. (This latter tendency can be observed already in the Gloria and Credo of the Missa ‘Ave regina celorum’.) Similar sensitivity is apparent in the opening sections, however, which Obrecht was likewise careful to treat in a fashion appropriate to the overall compositional design (as in ex.1, bars 1–17).
The historical and musical significance of all this could hardly be overestimated. Apart from anything else, Obrecht’s mature style embodied a fundamentally new conception of the nature of the musical work. To appreciate this, it may be useful to make a comparison with mid-century styles of composition in the cantus-firmus mass, as exemplified, for instance, by the influential English Caput mass. Compositions that dwell on kaleidoscopic successions of consonant sonorities do not encourage being construed as works (though modern analysis habitually attempts to do so), but rather as performative events. In performance their style might not have been distinguishable in many cases from that of polyphonic improvisations – and the latter, of course, are by definition not works. Listeners did not seek to discern ‘the composer’s voice’, but rather heard and valued the actual voices of singers – and it is these, invariably, to which they drew attention in their eyewitness reports, to the virtual exclusion of works and authors’ names. Obrecht’s mature masses, on the other hand, seek to communicate at every turn their status as works by making transparently audible the compositional logic devised by the author. Listeners were thus encouraged to discern that logic ‘beyond’ the consonant sonorities in whose particular arrangement it is expressed.
In this sense the mature masses could be said to invite ‘understanding’ on the part of their listeners – a novel concept first articulated by Tinctoris in his Complexus effectuum musices (early 1480s):
For the more one has attained perfection in [music], the more one is delighted by it, since one apprehends its nature both inwardly and outwardly: inwardly through the intellective faculty, through which one understands proper composition and performance, and outwardly through the auditive power, through which one perceives the sweetness of consonances.
As this comment implies, there was nothing to be ‘understood’ about consonant sonority per se – except (for those who had read Boethius) its basis in arithmetical proportion, though even this revealed God’s creative purpose rather than that of any human composer. Obrecht’s mature style, on the other hand, foregrounded the composer’s creative purpose by shifting the aesthetic focus onto intelligible compositional design. In this design one might discern the composer’s voice resounding, as it were, through the singers’ voices. And it was this design that would now come to be regarded as the defining dimension of the musical work qua work, and the touchstone of its intrinsic quality – reducing consonant sonority to a mere surface quality, satisfying only to the undiscriminating ears of inexperienced listeners. Once again the underlying ideology had already been articulated by Tinctoris in his Complexus effectuum musices: ‘However, music brings less joy to those who perceive in it nothing but sound, and who indeed are delighted only through the outer sense’. In Obrecht’s mature masses, too, consonant sonority is no longer its own justification: it can be too much of a good thing, and hence it must be handled with discretion, lest it might distract from the musical argument. The masses are notably leaner and thinner-textured than previous settings (in ex.1, for instance, only a third of the section is fully scored), and the individual lines tend to be differentiated more sharply – making an early work like the six-part Salve regina seem almost excessively luxurious by comparison. (It was undoubtedly a piece of the latter kind that Cortese had in mind when he expressed reservations about Obrecht’s motet style.)
The point here is not that Obrecht was somehow implementing a programme for stylistic renewal advanced by Tinctoris, but rather that both were responding in different ways to fundamental changes in aesthetic sensibility affecting European musical culture at large. The conceptualization of the musical work as object (res facta) and the increasing valuation of musical authorship, involving notions of personal style, authorial intention and creative freedom, are phenomena that can be traced back to the 1470s if not earlier. Moreover, the mature style was not without precedents in either Obrecht’s own works or those of others. Even an older figure like Ockeghem – the prime representative of the ‘wall of sound’ aesthetic in the 1460s and 1470s – experimented with leaner textures and a more purposeful sense of musical design in his late Missa ‘Au travail suis’. And the concern with musical closure had already been anticipated in the well-known phenomenon of the ‘drive to the cadence’: as illustrated, for example, by Ockeghem’s Missa ‘Ecce ancilla Domini’ (and by Obrecht’s emulation of that work, the mass De Sancto Donatiano), this was the stepping up of rhythmic and melodic energy before its release in the final cadence. Early sensitivity about musical closure is suggested also by a closely related device: the ‘sounding out’ of individual voice-parts within the final sonority (as, for example, in the Naples L’homme armé masses), as if to mitigate the harsh abruptness of the cadence. These two devices, the drive to the cadence and the sounding out of voice-parts, were typical of the Ockeghem-Busnoys generation and disappeared gradually thereafter. (Spectacular late examples can still be found in Obrecht’s masses Caput and L’homme armé, and some works by Isaac.)
However, not even these precedents can obscure the fact that Obrecht’s contribution in the years around 1490 represented a fundamentally new artistic vision, and was unparalleled in its originality. This is not to imply a negative view of the older aesthetic, which we have typified here, for the sake of comparison, in terms of the idea of the ‘wall of sound’. The point is that the very paradigms of musical composition, perception and judgement changed profoundly during the 1470s and 1480s, rendering any direct comparison across this major shift problematic. In terms of the new aesthetic sensibilities, however, Obrecht’s mature style represented a strikingly imaginative response. For that reason it must count as one of the most significant developments in the history of late-15th-century musical style.