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Jacobus Clemens non Papa

born: c1510/15
died: 1555/6
country: Flanders

Jacobus Clemens non Papa is one of the most remarkably underrated composers of the sixteenth century. From the 1540s onwards he was widely published throughout Europe, in particular by Tilman Susato of Antwerp (himself a composer). Clemens’s surviving output of motets, Mass-settings, Magnificats, Souterliedekens (Dutch metrical Psalms) and secular songs in French and Dutch approaches five hundred items in total, placing him among the most prolific of the age. Sixteenth-century writers on music who discuss the leading contemporary musicians invariably placed him in the first rank. Yet Clemens’s position in modern understanding of Renaissance polyphony can only be described as marginal. The number of recordings devoted to his work is still in single figures, and his music features in concert programmes and the music lists of ecclesiastical choirs only rarely. This is particularly surprising because his style of composition, to a greater degree than that of contemporaries such as Crecquillon and Manchicourt, is based on melody rather than being contrapuntally driven—though his contrapuntal skill is undoubted. Moreover, Clemens frequently created striking aural images, which catch the ear with a sudden change of texture or harmonic shift: in contrast to the intentionally seamless polyphony of the slightly older Gombert, for instance, which creates its effect by gradual intensification and relaxation, Clemens’s music is far more straightforwardly dramatic.

Little-known though his music may be, Clemens is at least celebrated for his nickname. The significance of the sobriquet ‘non Papa’ has been debated for a number of years, but the recent discovery by Henri Vanhulst of correspondence in 1553 between the Archduke Maximilian of Austria and Philippe du Croÿ, son of a deceased patron of Clemens, offers a possible explanation. Maximilian was seeking to build up the musical establishment of his chapel, and requested that his father’s Kapellmeister, the Netherlander Pieter Maessens, travel to the Low Countries in order to secure the services of Clemens. Du Croÿ replied that although it would be possible to achieve this, he would not recommend Clemens on account of the fact that he was a great drunkard and lived immorally (‘un grant ivrogne et tres mal vivant’—the latter probably referring to Clemens breaching his priestly vow of chastity). The position went to another Netherlander, the young Jacobus Vaet, and Clemens’s puzzling lack of any important employment, considering his fame and popularity as a composer, is explained. This story has a bearing, also, on the nickname (which appears in manuscripts in jocular alternative forms such as ‘nono Papa’ and ‘haud Papa’—‘absolutely not the Pope’). The time during Clemens’s life when there was a Pope Clement—the seventh, alias Giulio de’ Medici—was 1523 to 1534, during Clemens’s adolescence: one may speculate therefore that the composer became known as ‘non Papa’ at that time because of his distinctly un-ecclesiastical behaviour, and that the name persisted long after any distinction between musician and prelate was necessary, if it ever had been.

What about Clemens’s music caused his great popularity? Two features of his style stand out and set him somewhat apart from his contemporaries: both have to do with the constructive properties of his polyphony. Whereas musicians operating within the standard career paths of the time, such as his direct contemporary Thomas Crecquillon, were educated firstly in contrapuntal technique, and continued throughout their lives to base their compositions on a series of contrapuntal points woven together, Clemens’s textures seem often to function as melody with supporting lines—all written in an imitative style, certainly, but designed to emphasize the melodic gesture rather than to subsume it into a contrapuntal whole. An analogy could be made with the procedure of George Frideric Handel: where Handel writes fugues, their essence is the presentation of melody, and where the melody demands to be treated in a particular way, the counterpoint will accommodate it.

The second aspect of Clemens’s writing that draws the listener’s attention is the manipulation of harmony. To use the word ‘harmony’ in relation to sixteenth-century polyphony is to invite disapproval from those who believe the term anachronistic; but (partly for the reason elaborated in the last paragraph) I believe that Clemens can usefully be viewed in such terms, to a considerably greater extent than his contemporaries. Although passages in block chords had been present in sacred music for many years before his time, generally at moments of extreme solemnity such as the name of Jesus Christ in the Mass, on numerous occasions in the motets presented here Clemens blends chordal writing into the wider flow of the polyphony, in order to achieve effects that seem more to do with form or even more abstract concepts, than with illustration of the text.

from notes by Stephen Rice © 2010

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