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Hyperion Records

CDA67614 - Gombert: Tribulatio et angustia
Recording details: September 2006
Queen's College Chapel, Oxford, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Summerly
Engineered by Justin Lowe
Release date: September 2007
Total duration: 66 minutes 5 seconds


'It's one of very few discs of this repertoire I've been happy to play in its entirety, and then several times since. This is in part a tribute to Gombert … but also to The Brabant Ensemble and Stephen Rice … by encouraging an unusually individual and carefully balanced vocal response, he avoids the pitfalls of relentless consistency and arid elision … there is a welcome and (in this music) novel belief in the power of voices as voices … try the sopranos halfway through Hortus conclusus es for erotic Mariolatry at its most disconcertingly sensual. Arise, make haste, as they sing, and hear this music' (Gramophone)

'The Brabant Ensemble's exploration of the 'forgotten generation' of composers between Josquin and Palestrina is reviving an abundance of unwarrantedly neglected sacred polyphony. Judging by this splendid selection of motets, Gombert's neglect is particularly flagrant. In penitential pieces, such as Aspice Domine and Tribulatio et angustia, his lavish use of dissonance within a smooth-flowing yet intricately imitative style creates an atmosphere of almost unbearably intense and bitter anguish, whether contemplating a city laid waste or beseeching rescue from a foetid quagmire … these shapely and well-paced performances do full justice to Gombert's outstanding talent' (The Daily Telegraph)

'This attractive recording provised an excellent opportunity to wallow in his motets … the music is austere but beautiful, with plenty of anguished dissonances and false relations … the music is well-sung … the performers are evidently passionate about 16th-century Flemish music' (Early Music Review)

'This is impressively accomplished ensemble singing … Rice's own booklet notes provide fascinating insights into the music … it is this intelligent approach to the spirit of the text (there is a glorious moment in Hortus conclusus es when the soprano soars ethereally to the line 'arise, make haste my beloved'), coupled with outstanding tuning and balancing, which makes this such a distinguished group. The Brabant Ensemble are quickly establishing themselves as one of the more impressive English groups specializing in Renaissance music, and this, their fourth CD release, only increases their stature' (International Record Review)

'The sheer quality of his music. These 10 motets are notable for their richly glowing sonorities, their disciplined counterpoints, their intensity of expression and, most of all, their careful tailoring of music to text. There's the darkly erotic intensity of Hortus conclusus es, the angst-ridden, pentitential Tribulatio et angustia … the singing is meticulously balanced and blended, Stephen Rice shaping and pacing each work with exquisite judgement' (The Sunday Times)

'Aspice Domine, Ne reminiscaris, Domine and Tribulatio et angustia mine a rich seam of angst, and receive searing performances here … the singing is brightly supported, the texture crystalline' (Early Music)

'Virtually all of these works project an awe-inducing majesty and solemnity, unfolding over many minutes of nearly cadence-free waves of rich-textured polyphony. Pungent dissonances play an integral role in the overall structure, as do repeated-note fragments and brief melodic segments whose impact can be quite striking, especially when introduced in the treble register and then passed through the other voices. It would be impossible to name a highlight--the magnificent Tribulatio et angustia; the grand Aspice Domine; the profoundly moving Pater noster and Ave Maria--because all of these works and performances are exemplary, both as unique creations and as stylistically informed, modern realizations of some of the greatest, yet-to-be-fully-appreciated music of the 16th century. The 14-voice Brabant Ensemble, whose vibrant, perfectly-tuned sound often gives the impression of a larger group, knows the importance of phrasing, breath control, and long-lined dynamic modulation, all of which are essential to really fire up and fully illuminate these scores. The sound, from what proves to be the ideal acoustics of the chapel of The Queen's College, Oxford, is perfectly balanced to allow us to hear each vocal line clearly while enabling the ensemble to properly resonate. This is a recording that demands and rewards multiple hearings … absolutely essential listening!' (

'This music is stunning, and the performance here is clear and bright, with perfect balance across the voice parts and the sustained lines. Highly recommended' (GScene)

'Les moments à couper le souffle ne manquent pas dans la dernière réalisation du Brabant Ensemble. Les amateurs de polyphonie de la Renaissance se réjouiront de voir apparaître des joyaux tels que Hortus conclusus es, aux invraisemblables chaînes de dissonances, ou une version du Inviolata qui, pour évoquer lointainement un modèle de Josquin, ne se situe pas moins dans un registre d'élégiaque mélancolie où Gombert surpasse tous ses contemporains' (Le Monde de la Musique, France)

Tribulatio et angustia
Four- and five-part motets by Nicolas Gombert

This is The Brabant Ensemble’s third disc for Hyperion. Under their director, eminent musicologist Dr Stephen Rice, they continue to excavate jewels of the sixteenth-century choral repertoire which have until now remained under-performed and under-represented in music history. Their natural and instinctive performing style, which foregrounds the essential vocal qualities of this music, unlike the instrumental tone of other early music choirs, brings these beautiful and complex works abundantly to life.

Gombert’s motets are the heart of his writing and this selection of them allows the range of his musical accomplishments to fully emerge. Often seen as written in penance for heinous crimes committed by the composer, many of them are settings of various texts of penitence, sorrow and yearning for deliverance from punishment. Images such as the ‘hellish lake’ in Tribulatio et angustia are dramatically explored. Also on this disc are motets for the adulation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which surprisingly demonstrate an especially intensified and dissonant musical style, showing the almost erotic level of devotion suggested in some of the greatest art of this period.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
This recording is devoted entirely to works by Nicolas Gombert (c1495–c1560) from a single genre: the motet. Whereas programming of Renaissance music in the CD era has very often placed settings of the Mass Ordinary at the centre of the picture, in the case of Gombert (like many of his contemporaries) motets are both the largest part of his compositional output, and works of considerable substance in their own right. A motet such as Aspice Domine, lasting over ten minutes in performance, is longer than the great majority of Mass movements; moreover, in the first half of the sixteenth century the motet was the dominant musical genre. Nearly 180 motets have at some time been attributed to Gombert, and although over fifty of these may be discarded as differently texted duplicates, as misattributions, or simply as nonexistent misreadings of catalogues, the remaining corpus outnumbers his Mass settings by over ten to one. Similar proportions apply in the case of illustrious contemporaries such as Jacobus Clemens non Papa (c1510–1555/6) and Adrian Willaert (c1490–1562), in contrast to the output of earlier composers: both Johannes Ockeghem (c1410–97) and Pierre de La Rue (c1460–1518) composed more Mass settings than motets. Accordingly, the motet is here placed centre stage, allowing the variety of Gombert’s musical accomplishments to emerge more clearly than would be the case if motets were seen as ancillary to settings of the Mass.

Several themes are notable when considering Gombert’s motets as a group. Most obvious is that of penitential writing, for which this composer is particularly known. Several commentators have linked the high incidence of penitential motets to the best-known episode in Gombert’s life, namely his dismissal from Imperial service and exile to the high seas ‘stupro pueri principalis’ (literally, for the violation of a boy in the Emperor’s service—that the boy in question was a chorister is not documented, though the inference of modern writers that this was so is highly plausible). Indeed, it has been argued that the entirety of Gombert’s first book of four-part motets (published in Venice by the Scotto firm in 1539) took the form of an extended penance for his crime, since the volume contains not only a preponderance of sorrowful pieces but also references to deliverance from watery punishment. The motet Aspice Domine on the present recording is taken from this book: additionally, the five-part Tribulatio et angustia and Ne reminiscaris, Domine both explore similar themes. In Tribulatio et angustia, the writer asks God for deliverance ‘de lacu inferni et de luto faecis’. This phrase, which refers to Psalm 39, verse 3 (in the Vulgate numbering), is rather primly translated by Miles Coverdale in the Book of Common Prayer as ‘out of the horrible pit, out of the mire and clay’. How this image was viewed in early modern times is illustrated by the cover of this CD: the horror of souls in torment is heightened by the grotesqueness of their demonic torturer, whose extra face in its belly, like nothing created on earth, emphasizes the absence of God in the infernal kingdom.

It is clear that Gombert had good reason to be penitent: equally, the same commentator in whose writings we learn of the composer’s disgrace praised him for enduring his deserved punishment. Indeed, ‘with chained foot’ Gombert wrote music that eventually secured his release from captivity: it is not clear what is meant by these ‘swansongs’, though the impressive presentation manuscript in which Gombert’s modally ordered set of Magnificats is preserved at Madrid is a likely answer. Also unclear is the extent to which the crime has affected modern-day reception of Gombert’s music. As members of what has been described as the ‘post-Josquin generation’, or even of a ‘no-name generation’, Gombert and his contemporaries have until recently been significantly under-represented, both in the writing of music history, and on the concert platform and in the recording studio. In part this critical ambivalence arises from an understanding of Josquin Desprez as representing the generality of compositional style around 1500, whereas Josquin’s output—insofar as we can know which of the myriad pieces attributed to him are authentic—stands somewhat apart from that of his direct contemporaries in stylistic terms. (The paradox that Josquin’s music can simultaneously be unique and indistinguishable from that of imitators is explained partly by the belief that eclecticism is a feature of his style—making stylistic arguments as to attribution almost impossible to justify—and partly by our lack of detailed knowledge of the music of lesser names.) Composers such as La Rue, Jean Mouton (c1459–1522) and Jacob Obrecht (1457/8– 1505) produced music that, while it has many of the melodic and architectural features of Josquin’s, does not share the crystalline quality that the latter sometimes achieves through his extreme economy of means. Consequently, the following generation of Netherlanders, including Gombert, Willaert, and Jacquet of Mantua (1483–1559), whose achievement was to intensify the style prevailing in their youth with tighter imitation and more voices, are judged and found wanting by reference to an aesthetic goal at which they never aimed. The tide is beginning to turn a little—a process to which The Brabant Ensemble is pleased to contribute by recording more music of this generation—but it is undeniable that certain aspects of the repertory are still viewed as problematic, and as far as individual members of the generation go, none can be so problematic as the convicted child molester, Gombert. Despite this blemished history, it is to be hoped that Gombert’s music can stand, after 450 years, for the achievements of his time rather than his grievous transgressions.

Tribulatio et angustia is unusual within Gombert’s œuvre in being modelled on an earlier piece of the same name, perhaps by Philippe Verdelot (c1480–c1531), though more likely anonymous. Although relationships arise on occasion between Gombert’s music and that of other composers, it seems that for the most part the texts that he set, and his manner of doing so, were derived from a contemporary spirituality rather than having their roots in older traditions. The earlier piece is written in the loose contrapuntal style of the second decade of the century, which Gombert intensifies significantly, both by adding a fifth voice and working the melodic material in a much more thoroughgoing way. An instance of this process is found at the phrase ‘meditatio mea est’ (‘[for] my thoughts are [of your commandments]’), where the not especially sensitive word-setting by the earlier composer (emphasizing the unstressed fourth syllable of ‘meditatio’) is retained but rendered unimportant by the introduction of extra entries, so that at least one voice begins the phrase in each bar, obscuring the word-stress. The climax of the piece is found in the second part (not based on the earlier motet), where the terror of the ‘hellish lake’ is made audible by voices at the top of their range, descending a scale as if being dragged downwards into the inferno.

By contrast, the prayer for forgiveness Ne reminiscaris, Domine seems extremely restrained. Even this quiet plea for mercy is expressed in an intense way by Gombert, however. The phrase ‘Parce, Domine’ (‘Spare, Lord’), at the centre of the prayer, begins with an extremely static entry sung by sopranos and altos over a pedal note, and as the other voices enter with this melody the composer introduces large numbers of dissonant passing notes, on the beat, creating friction between the static and moving parts. The ending of the motet is resigned, as if to say that God may or may not forgive the sins in question, but that human action can no longer affect the situation.

Aspice Domine is unlike the two other penitential pieces in presenting a public rather than a private religion. It is thought to be related to one of the most infamous acts of the century, the Sack of Rome in 1527, where the troops of Gombert’s employer, the Emperor Charles V, took the city and pillaged it. In the motet the writer notes how ‘the city is made desolate’; the first half of the piece is highly dissonant, reflecting the devastation. In the second part, God is asked to surround the city with a protecting wall and defend it with the weapons of his power, and here Gombert provides much more consonant harmony, as if to indicate that the world will be put right with God’s help. If the theory concerning the motet’s political significance is correct, it was with the help of the Emperor, not God, that Rome was in future to be protected, provided of course that the Pope (the Medici Clement VII) paid considerably more attention to Charles V’s concerns in future.

Alongside the penitential element of Gombert’s writing stands an equally strong thematic link: devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Four of the motets recorded here are of this type: Hortus conclusus es; Inviolata, integra, et casta es, Maria; Ave Maria; and Ave sanctissima Maria. The extent of Gombert’s involvement in setting such texts is indicated by the fact that numerous Marian antiphons, including Ave sanctissima Maria and also Ave regina caelorum, Salve regina, and Regina caeli, each receive multiple settings. This emphasis on Marian devotion is not at all surprising in the context of early sixteenth-century spiritual preoccupations: since the high Middle Ages the cult of the Virgin had been increasingly important, and musical settings in her honour had proliferated in the fifteenth century, and continued to do so until the more austere spirituality of the Reformers began to exert its influence even on the Catholic world. (At this point, Marian motets were sometimes retexted as Christological pieces, such as Gombert’s Sancta Maria, succurre miseris, which appears in some sources as O Jesu Christe, succurre miseris.)

In terms of Gombert’s music, a slightly surprising difference between the penitential motets and the Marian ones is that the latter are on occasion significantly more dissonant, and in particular contain more suspension-type dissonance (this is aurally the most obvious kind of dissonance, as compared with passing notes, for instance). It would appear that setting texts of this nature brought an especially intensified musical style from Gombert. This is most true of Hortus conclusus es, where Marian devotion is combined with the eroticism of the Song of Songs. The majority of the motet’s text is taken directly from the Song of Songs (4: 12), but the focus is brought directly onto the Blessed Virgin by altering the first phrase (‘Hortus conclusus es, soror mea, sponsa, fons signatus’) to read ‘You are an enclosed garden, mother of God, a sealed well’. The image of virginity is obvious; less clear is the identity of the speaker when the remainder of the text reads ‘arise, make haste, my beloved, and come’ (Song of Songs 2: 10). However the text is to be read, the musical setting is extraordinary: for the phrase ‘fons signatus’ (‘a sealed well’), Gombert creates a sequential chain lasting fully ten bars, climaxing with the entry of four voices in rapid succession at the top of their range, on ‘surge, propera’ (‘arise, make haste’); the sequence is then reversed on ‘amica mea’ (‘my beloved’). In addition to the heavy incidence of dissonance, with many double and even triple suspensions, this unique piece of writing brings a particular intensity to this short motet.

The four-voice setting of Virgo sancta Katherina is scored for three treble voices and one alto; although one or two other motets by Gombert are similarly written for boys’ voices, the others are graces for use at table, one ending memorably ‘prosit vobis, Domini!’ (‘good health to you, masters!’). In the restricted vocal compass of the present piece, Gombert makes use of pairs of voices, and a technique of which he was particularly fond is in evidence: the strategic repetition of a single pitch. All four voices enter on a high d", and this pitch is the top of the piece’s range for twenty-three bars, until the phrase ‘urbe Alexandrina’ takes the upper two voices as high as f". Homophony then proclaims St Catherine’s royal birth (‘she was the daughter of King Costas’), before an extended triple-time section, a rare occurrence in music of this period, in which prayers begin to be addressed to the saint. These supplications form the basis of a second homophonic section (‘famularum suscipe vota’), as if to make sure that the request can be clearly heard. Most unusually, the final ‘vota’ ends on a D major chord, with the ‘Amen’ providing, as it were, the resolution of a perfect cadence on the tonic. Were it not for the fact that Virgo sancta Katherina was published as early as 1534, one would imagine it to have been written much later, possibly well after Gombert’s lifetime.

Another piece that makes extensive use of pitch repetition is Ave sanctissima Maria. Here the prayer to the Virgin begins by listing various of her attributes: ‘mater Dei, regina caeli, porta paradisi, domina mundi, pura singularis’ (‘mother of God, queen of heaven, gate of paradise, ruler of the world, uniquely pure’). Gombert unites these statements by creating different but related motifs, each emphasizing the same pitch, and thus creating the effect of a single thought, expressed in different ways. The final section of the piece ends the disc with the invocation ‘et ora pro peccatis meis’ (‘and pray for [forgiveness of] my sins’), which is repeated twenty-seven times (a significant number, since it is the perfect 3 of the Trinity, raised to the power of itself); after the final cadence between soprano and tenor, Gombert writes an extended coda, in which the other three voices each repeat the phrase yet again, as if the prayer to the Virgin were continuing even as the piece ends. The devotional significance of this prayer is underlined by the indulgence of 11,000 years granted by Pope Sixtus IV, the builder of the Sistine Chapel and possibly the writer of the text, to anyone who said it devoutly.

Gombert’s setting of Inviolata, integra, et casta es, Maria is one among over twenty from the sixteenth century. At the head of this complex is the famous setting by Josquin Desprez, also in five parts: Gombert’s piece alludes obliquely to Josquin’s in its opening and (more obviously) at the phrase ‘O benigna, o Maria, o regina’ (‘Merciful Mary, queen’). Other settings make even closer reference to Josquin, including two—one of which is also attributed to Gombert but is unlikely to be his—that take the two canonic voices from Josquin’s motet and write entirely new settings around them. The shared basis for most Inviolata motets is a plainchant sequence melody, though the version found in modern chant books is evidently not the same as that known to Gombert and Josquin, since their motets begin with three repeated notes, whereas the modern version begins f-g-f-g-a. The monophonic setting of Inviolata presented on this recording is therefore newly written, based on the melodic material of Gombert’s motet (insofar as his thorough variation technique permits this to be isolated), conflated with a modern version of the chant taken from a Dominican antiphoner, which preserves aspects of the older melody.

The motets Pater noster and Ave Maria, which seem to have been intended as a pair, appearing together in almost all of their sources, are both based on well-known plainchants. The tone for the Lord’s Prayer would have been sung at most celebrations of Mass, and Gombert’s setting is suffused with the chant phrases, worked as usual in his flexible style of imitative counterpoint. It was performed in the nineteenth century by the pioneering musicologist François-Joseph Fétis (1784–1871), who stated that it was the equal of anything by Palestrina (high praise indeed at a time when the latter’s contrapuntal techniques were regarded as the ideal), and produced a deep impression on his audience. The Ave Maria similarly reworks its chant material, notably adapting the famous melody as it does so, with the second entry of the alto producing a chromatically altered version.

Ergone vitae is unlike any of the other pieces on this recording in being entirely secular in nature. It is a setting of a neo-Latin poem by the brilliant but short-lived Johannes Secundus (Jan Everaerts, 1511–36), on convalescing from an illness and rejecting the life of an invalid. Everaerts’s family were staunch supporters of Charles V—the poet’s father was made President of the States of Holland and Zealand, and finally President of the Council at Mechlin, one of the most important posts in the Netherlands—and it would seem that Johannes encountered Gombert at, or at least via, the court. Although still composed in imitative counterpoint, the motet displays a difference in style from the sacred pieces, with a more fluid attitude to the text, which is generally set in a less melismatic way, enhancing its audibility. The setting of the phrase ‘Sparge puer, resonante nervo’ (‘hurl, boy, with twanging bow-string’) is, if not madrigalian in its response to text, certainly more direct than Gombert was apt to be in an ecclesiastical setting. Just as in his French chansons an imitative style was harnessed to a lighter subject matter, here the secular subject occasions a less weighty setting than Gombert’s norm.

Stephen Rice © 2007

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