The Credo is a communal profession of belief in the central doctrines of the Catholic Church, sung immediately after the Gospel reading or homily (if there is one). Its text is a Latin translation from the Greek of the fourth-century Nicene Creed; this text was taken into the Mass ritual in 798 C.E., joined to a plainsong melody later inscribed as Credo I. Even in polyphonic settings of the Credo such as this one by Obrecht, the celebrant (or cantor) first intoned the opening phrase of the Credo I chant; the surprise of a rich polyphonic texture on the word “Patrem” after the long stretch of readings and plainsongs extending from the Collect through the Gospel makes a particularly splendid impression.
Obrecht adds another dimension to this Credo’s profession of faith, building his music over the eighth responsory from the office of Matins on the feast of St. Donatian, O sanctissime presul. This long chant praises the saint, now in heaven, and beseeches his intercession. The narrative trajectory of the liturgy since the Gloria has prepared the appearance of this cantus firmus with a summary of the saint’s vita begun in the Gloria’s cantus firmus (praising St. Donatian as a child) and completed in the long sequence, Dies nobis reparatur, which completes the story of his life and miracles on earth. St. Donatian can now be properly celebrated as a “most holy priest of Christ.” ready to intercede on behalf of Donaes de Moor.
In the Patrem, the first section of the responsory is used as a bass cantus firmus, a particularly challenging approach because the composer must use a conjunct melody in a voice part usually dedicated primarily to disjunct harmonic motion. Obrecht here plays with our expectations, allowing the bass cantus firmus to sneak in as a melodic voice doubled by the alto, rather than as the usual long-note cantus firmus. It is no accident that this disguised cantus firmus entrance coincides with the Creed’s phrase “et invisibilium” (“and invisible”).
Obrecht’s Patrem is sung by Cappella Pratensis from the original notation as preserved in the choirbook Jena, Universitatsbibliothek, Ms 32.
For more information, see:
Crocker, Richard L., and David Hiley. 2001 “Credo.” Grove Music Online. 22 Jul. 2018. www.grovemusiconline.com
Strohm, Reinhard. Music in Late Medieval Bruges. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1985. See in particular pp. 146-48.
Wegman, Rob C. Born for the Muses: The Life and Masses of Jacob Obrecht. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. See in particular pp. 169-74.