In 1991 a portrait of the Flemish composer Jacob Obrecht was discovered and authenticated: dated 1496 it gave his age as 38, and thus established his date of birth as 1457/8. He is portrayed (by an unknown Flemish master) in clerical garb, wearing a finely embroidered surplice, his hands together in prayer, with his straight dark hair framing a serious, devout expression. Such a fine and realistic portrait of a 15th-century composer affords a rare visual appreciation of the man, and his likeness has been complemented in recent years by archival research and contextualised study of his works, in particular by the Dutch musicologist Rob Wegman.
Obrecht was the son of a trumpeter, Willem Obrecht (d. 1488), who was employed by the city of Ghent for over 30 years. Jacob may well have begun his musical training as an apprentice trumpeter, but he also studied for the priesthood. By the early 1480s he was choirmaster of a church in Bergen op Zoom and had already established a reputation as a composer since he is praised, together with Dunstaple, Dufay, Ockeghem and Busnois, by Johannes Tinctoris in a treatise completed even earlier. Certainly Obrecht's career followed an upward trajectory: in 1484 he became master of the choirboys at Cambrai Cathedral, and the following year succentor (a precentor's deputy) at the collegiate church of St Donatian in Bruges. In the summer of 1487 he was given leave of absence to visit the Ferrarese court of Duke Ercole I d'Este, where he stayed for the best part of a year before returning to Bruges.
Between 1492 and 1497 he was choirmaster at the church of Our Lady in Antwerp, before returning to Bergen op Zoom and then, from December 1498 until illness forced him to resign in 1500, to his old post in Bruges. He made a full recovery, however, and by June 1501 he was back in Antwerp, and still keeping an eye open for the main chance.
He is documented at Maximilian I's court in Innsbruck in October 1501 before finally landing the job of maestro di cappella to Duke Ercole in September 1504. The Duke, however, died in January 1505, and Obrecht sought the same position at the Mantuan court, but without success, and by late June or early July he, too, was dead, his prestigious, if constantly mobile, career brought to a halt by the plague.
His surviving works - some 30 Masses, about as many motets and almost 40 secular pieces, including Flemish songs - testify to a composer of great skill and facility: his technical mastery of the structural use of cantus firmus has long been recognised, and more recent study has drawn attention to the subtlety of his response to the texts he set.
The theorist Heinrich Glarean, writing in 1542, summarised Obrecht's achievement, saying 'all the works this man has left have a certain wondrous grandeur and an intrinsic quality of moderation'. Certainly, Glarean's further comment that Obrecht was 'one who displayed his talent, but without pretence, as if he preferred to await the judgement of the listener rather than to preen himself' would seem to reflect the modest, unpretentious man depicted in a portrait that itself mirrored his standing as a musician.
Profile (c) Tess Knighton