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Hyperion Records

CDA66943 - Gombert: Missa Tempore paschali & other sacred music
The Last Supper (1467) by Dieric Bouts (c1415-1475)
CDA66943

Recording details: December 1996
Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: May 1997
DISCID: 8A0F590A
Total duration: 64 minutes 33 seconds

'This second instalment of Gombert from Henry's Eight is cause for celebration. Gombert has found worthy champions' (Gramophone)

'A magnificent piece … beautifully poised singing' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Surely an absolute classic of the years around 1530, full of details that ravish the ear. Henry's Eight presents it with a wonderful balance and tact' (BBC Record Review)

'Gloriously rich and sensitive performances of magnificent music' (Classic CD)

'Une partition puissante éclairée avec ferveur et magnificence par les voix d'Henry's Eight' (Répertoire, France)

Missa Tempore paschali & other sacred music
Kyrie  [6'24] GreekEnglish
Gloria  [6'43] LatinEnglish
Credo  [9'03] LatinEnglish

The Flemish composer Nicolas Gombert is believed to have been a pupil of Josquin; his style of composition is equally assured and yet there are elements of significant innovation. As early as 1556 Gombert was regarded as the absolute model of harmonic and imitative writing, and his general avoidance of rests broke much new ground.

This second Gombert recording by Henry's Eight is structured around the Missa Tempore paschali. The Mass is probably an early work; its use of dissonance is at times extraordinary and all is here recorded in a new edition more faithful to the manuscripts than ever before. Although the Mass is fundamentally in six parts, Gombert varies the texture so that the Credo is in eight, and the final Agnus Dei in a glorious twelve parts.


'The lost generation’ is a fitting label by which music historians have designated those composers whose work spans the period from the death of Josquin Des Prez in 1521 to the advent of Orlandus Lassus during the later 1550s. Among the rich diversity of composers of this time—including Clemens non Papa, Adrian Willaert, Jacquet de Mantua, Costanzo Festa, Ludwig Senfl and Cristóbal de Morales—it is Nicolas Gombert who was singled out as the leading light by the theorist and composer Hermann Finck in 1556:

Nostro verò tempore novi sunt inventores, in quibus est Nicolaus Gombert, losquini piæ memoriæ discipulus, qui omnibus Musicis ostendit viam, imò semitam ad quærendas fugas ac subtilitatem, ac est author Musices plane diversæ à superiori. Is enim vitat pausas, & illius compositio est plena cùm concordantiarum tùm fugarum.
Yet in our very time there are innovators, among whom is Nicolas Gombert, pupil of Josquin of blessed memory, who shows all musicians the way, nay more, the exact path to the desired imitative manner and to refinement; and he composes music entirely different from the past. For he avoids rests, and his composition abounds in both full harmonies and imitations.

Of Gombert’s life we know little. He was born in French Flanders in a village west of Lille around 1495. In 1526 he travelled to Spain to become a singer in the court chapel of Emperor Charles V and was granted benefices in Courtrai and Béthune. In 1529 Charles V appointed him Master of the Children of the Chapel, a post that was to involve him in much travel throughout Western Europe. After 1538, however, his name disappeared permanently from the imperial court records. From the humanist Hieronymus Cardanus we learn that Gombert had been condemned to the galleys of a trireme for having violated a choirboy. While fettered he composed the ‘swan-songs’ (perhaps his later Magnificat settings) which moved the Emperor to pardon him and grant him a prebend in Tournai. A letter from Gombert to Ferrante Gonzaga, Gran Capitano to Charles V, written in Tournai in 1547, is our sole remaining biographical document. The date of his death in unknown: he was clearly understood to be alive when Finck wrote of him in 1556, but he was dead by the time Cardanus published his account in 1561.

As Gombert spent the greater part of his professional life in the ambit of Charles V’s court, the influence of politics and contemporary attitudes seems sure. The musical styles and fashions of the Low Countries were in the ascendant and frequent movement of composers to and from Italy ensured that musical influences went in both directions.

What influence then did this peripatetic courtly existence exercise over his musical style? In the absence of sure facts we may suggest that the growing concern for declamation of liturgical texts played some part in a preference for short melodic phrases. However, Gombert’s treatment of the text is not as scrupulous as that of the ensuing generation and his terminating melismas often show more of an interest in developing the melodic line rather than the meaning of the text. As political states joined to form larger entities, so too the Church moved towards Trent and greater uniformity, symmetry and consistency in liturgy and theology. Gombert was dead for ten years before the Tridentine liturgical reforms were applied to the greater part of Western Christendom; whether he would have noticed the beginnings of change is questionable. In his lifetime he probably saw the occasional textual change or a pious custom quietly retired. Essentially the Mass he knew remained shrouded in the mystery of God—the sacred ministers often speaking secretly so that the time of devotion was largely filled with polyphony and chant. This was what the people heard and it lifted them to God whilst at the same time providing the just spiritual ambience in which God could be viewed in the sacred Host.

Gombert’s extant works include eleven Masses, a separate Credo, eight Magnificat settings, over one hundred and sixty motets (more than a quarter of which are Marian), and some eighty chansons and other secular pieces. As is common during this period there are many misattributions and a number of cases of doubtful authenticity. From 1529 Gombert’s works found their way into print: major collections of his motets were published in Venice in 1539 and 1541, while it was common for miscellaneous printed collections of Masses, motets and chansons to contain at least one work by Gombert up until well beyond his death. In his Declaración of 1555, Juan Bermudo encouraged lutanists to play the music ‘del profundo Gomberto’; the large number of extant manuscript and printed intabulations for lute and for organ (among which are transcriptions of otherwise unknown pieces) suggests that this advice was heeded.

It is difficult to know how literally one is to read Finck’s description of Gombert as a ‘pupil of Josquin’. He may well have studied with the ageing composer since the region of his birth is not very distant from Condé, where Josquin spent his later years, and there is every reason to suppose that Gombert’s musical education occurred at the hands of a master. But, as Finck noted, Gombert’s style is very different from what went before him: ‘he avoids rests’. This is the most immediate contrast with the music of Josquin, who typically engages in paired imitations in alternation, the complement of voices being employed toward the conclusion of one line of words before a pair of voices takes up the next point of imitation. Gombert, on the other hand, involves all voices in his imitations, sustaining the full texture, introducing the new point (with the next line of text) while the other voices are still bringing the previous line to its conclusion. In this way he combines the continuous texture of Josquin’s teacher, Ockeghem, with the imitative technique of Josquin himself—‘both full of harmonies and imitations’.

From the early sixteenth century there is an increasing number of sources containing Magnificat settings arranged according to the eight ecclesiastical tones. We cannot be certain who was the first individual composer to create a whole cycle: it may have been Sixt Dietrich of Konstanz, who published his settings in Strasbourg in 1535. But it was the popularity of the collections by Cristóbal de Morales, first published in Venice in 1542 and 1545 and going through sixteen editions by 1619, that inspired his contemporaries and successors to follow suit.

Gombert’s cycle of Magnificat settings is preserved in a unique manuscript source now in Madrid. The date of composition is unknown, though it may be that these were indeed the ‘swan-songs’ referred to by Hieronymus Cardanus. The fluidity of the polyphony certainly suggests a date from the composer’s maturity. The Magnificat octavi toni recorded here is not the eighth of the cycle but the third, titled Magnificat tertii et octavi toni. Since the third and eighth Psalm tones have similar intonations (ut-re-fa), Gombert has composed the work in such a way that the polyphonic (even-numbered) verses can alternate with the plainchant of either tone. However, in the event that tone three is required the polyphonic verses are slightly truncated in order that the endings accord with the mode (finishing on A), while a performance according to tone eight uses all the polyphony (finishing on G). (Clemens non Papa adopted a similar practice, except that his tone eight is the truncated form, tone three requiring the full polyphonic verse.) Uniquely among Gombert’s cycle, the polyphony of Magnificat tertii et octavi toni is organized so that each verse gains an additional voice, the first polyphonic verse, ‘Et exsultavit’, being in three parts, the last, ‘Sicut erat’, in eight, including a canon four in two.

Missa Tempore paschali also survives in a unique manuscript source, this one preserved in Brussels. The six-part texture expands to eight for the Credo and twelve for the final Agnus Dei. On account of the extended use of sequence and ostinato it has been suggested that Gombert’s Mass may belong among his early works; a few contrapuntal crudities (not including those that are clearly scribal errors and usually remediable) also point to an early date. The Kyrie and Gloria are based on the plainsong of the Easter Mass Lux et origo, the Kyrie being a nine-fold alternatim setting.

The eight-part Credo of Missa Tempore paschali invites comparison with Gombert’s discrete Credo for eight voices. While the latter is more polished and more powerful, both movements demonstrate mastery in working in eight parts, fine use of antiphonal writing, ease in handling large structures, and seemingly limitless invention. Particular points of interest in the Easter Credo are the three-part points of imitation at ‘Crucifixus’, identical to that developed in two parts in the composer’s Missa Sancta Maria succurre, and the remarkable bassi ostinati at ‘secundum scripturas … ad dexteram Patris’, ‘et vivificantem’, ‘qui cum Patre et Filio’ and ‘per prophetas … ecclesiam’.

The Sanctus bears no relationship to the plainsong of the Easter Mass; rather it is melodically related to the Gloria and Agnus Dei. The opening motif, however, is more akin to the melody of L’homme armé than to any other material in the work. Typically, ‘Pleni’ and ‘Benedictus’ are set for fewer voices (five and four respectively). Not so typically, the ‘Hosanna’ is set twice, the second version being in a rousing triple metre.

Like the Credo and the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei pays no heed to a plainsong model from the Easter Mass. Nevertheless, although this plainsong is officially categorized as being in a different mode, chant performance of the second Agnus Dei fits nicely between Gombert’s two polyphonic movements. The concluding twelve-part movement includes the Easter antiphon Et ecce terrae motus as cantus firmus, suggesting homage to Antoine Brumel’s twelve-part Mass of this name.

Adonai, Domine Jesu Christe was included in Gombert’s first book of five-part motets, published in Venice in 1539. It is a fine example of his close imitative style, the triadic outlines of several of the points of imitation contributing to a particularly euphonious texture.

The six-part In illo tempore, a setting of part of the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent, was published in Venice in 1539. It is difficult to say what particular qualities of the piece caused Monteverdi to select it as the model for his six-part Mass of the same name. What is significant is that with a repertoire from Josquin to Palestrina and Lassus to choose from for a major work in the old style (‘prima prattica’) dedicated to the Pope, Monteverdi chose a piece by Gombert, including in his title the ten points of imitation selected from the motet as the basis of the work.

O rex gloriae was first published in the same volume of six-part motets as In illo tempore. The first part of the motet is a setting of the Magnificat antiphon for the Second Vespers of the Feast of the Ascension; part two is the Second Matins Responsory of the same Feast. Points of imitation closely follow the plainsong model in a work of rich texture.

John O'Donnell © 1997

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