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Nicolas Gombert

born: c1495
died: c1560
country: Flanders

'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 notes by John O'Donnell © 1997


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