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Label: Hyperion
Recording details: April 1996
Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: November 2005
Total duration: 69 minutes 25 seconds

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 recording of eight works from his prolific output (some 160 motets alone) includes the monumental eight-part Credo and the extended Salve regina which uses no fewer than seven separate texts in honour of Mary (hence the subtitle, 'different people pray different things').

Gombert is also famous for having been consigned to the galleys of a trireme after being caught violating a choirboy.


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 Desprez in 1521 to the advent of Orlande de Lassus during the later 1550s. Among the rich diversity of composers of this time – including Clemens non Papa, Adriano Willaert, Jachet di 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: ‘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 1500. 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 is 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.

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’.

The eight-part Credo comes down to us in a publication of 1564. It is a powerful work, masterly in technique, monumental in structure, rich in texture, containing much antiphonal writing between opposing groups of four voices. Gombert’s word-setting, primarily syllabic, avoids the pictorial but ensures appropriate declamation and mood. Noteworthy are the handling of ‘et sepultus est’ and the avoidance of any regular cadence at ‘non erit finis’. Since independent settings of the Credo are not uncommon we need not search for lost movements of a complete Mass. The first motif, however, is related to the opening of the motet Lugebat David Absalon, preserved in the same print.

Haec dies quam fecit Dominus is the gradual of the Easter Mass. Gombert’s setting, included in the first book of his five-part motets published in Venice in 1539, derives its imitative points from the plainsong melody. Scored for low voices, it is a solemn rather than exuberant setting of the text. The six-voice Qui colis Ausoniam is an occasional work composed for the treaty signed in Bologna in 1533 by Charles V, Pope Clement VII and a number of other Italian rulers. Subsequently published in Venice in 1539, it is an appropriately festive setting of a text by Nicolaus Grudius.

The Salve regina, labelled ‘Diversi diversa orant’ (‘Different people pray different things’), is included in the second book of four-part motets, published in Venice in 1541. This is an exceptional work employing seven Marian texts and paraphrases of their plainsong melodies. The cantus paraphrases ‘Salve regina’, one of the four great antiphons of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The altus begins with another of these antiphons, ‘Ave regina caelorum’, which is followed by the shorter antiphon ‘Beata mater’. The tenor commences with the sequence for the Purification, ‘Inviolata, integra et casta es, Maria’, and proceeds to the antiphon ‘Hortus conclusus es’, formerly associated in some traditions with the Assumption. The bassus first paraphrases yet another of the great Marian antiphons, ‘Alma redemptoris mater’, and finally the prayer ‘Ave Maria’. The resulting quodlibet is something of a tour de force in which Gombert forsakes his usual imitative technique in order that, at any one time, four different melodies – each re-shaped by rhythmic alteration and various melodic elaborations and accretions – are sung simultaneously.

Another of Gombert’s Marian motets, the five-voice O beata Maria, was published in the first collection of 1539. The opening provides some of Gombert’s most original imitative technique, the response to the motif mi-ut-fa-mi being sol-mi-la-sol. (Although it is possible, through application of musica ficta and in the name of identical solmization, to eradicate this conflict, there seems to be no authority for doing so, the whole principle of identical solmization being founded on very shaky evidence.)

Vae, vae Babylon is from the second volume of four-part motets. Its text is adapted from a number of verses in the eighteenth chapter of Revelation. The setting is for low voices and the style is declamatory, befitting the prophecies of doom. The eleventh-century Media vita in morte sumus has disappeared from all but the Dominican breviary, where it is the antiphon to the Nunc dimittis on the third Sunday in Lent. Gombert’s setting, published in the first volume of six-part motets in Venice in 1539, adheres closely to the plainsong melody for its polyphonic material. It is a particularly fine example of Gombert’s style as described by Finck: its textures are rich, its imitations generally overlap one another, and the six voices have little rest. Gombert was sufficiently attracted to the melody (and his motet derived from it) to re-shape the material in his outstanding five-voice Missa de Media vita.

The eight-voice motet Lugebat David Absalon is attributed to Josquin in the 1564 print, but its style points to his pupil. The work is a contrafactum, each of whose two sections originated as a chanson, the first of these attributed to Gombert in its unique source (though the same music with less comfortable text also circulated under other names), the second apparently no longer extant in its original form, though the use of an existing melody makes possible the identification of the original text. Who may have been responsible for the present form of Lugebat is not known, but the marriage of music and text is a most felicitous one, resulting in an impassioned portrayal of David’s lament.

In 1626 Francisco Correa de Arauxo published his Facultad organica, in whose preface he included a brief chapter on the ‘punto intenso contra remisso’, or what we would call the simultaneous false relation. Gombert, he claimed, made the most and best use of the device. Research of the past few years confirms that this trait, generally recognized as English, was an integral part of the musical language of Josquin, Gombert and their contemporaries; and indeed, nowhere do we find its use more prolific, more varied or more compelling than in the music of Gombert.

John O'Donnell © 1996

«La Génération Perdue»: telle est l’expression appropriée par laquelle les historiens de la musique ont désigné les compositeurs dont les œuvres s’étendent de la mort de Josquin Desprez (1521) à l’avènement d’Orlande de Lassus (fin des années 1550). Parmi la riche diversité des compositeurs de cette époque – qui compta Clemens non Papa, Adriano Willaert, Jachet di Mantua, Costanzo Festa, Ludwig Senfl et Cristóbal de Morales – figure Nicolas Gombert, que le théoricien et compositeur Hermann Finck désigna comme personnage de marque, en 1556: «Pourtant, notre époque même compte des novateurs, dont Nicolas Gombert, élève de Josquin au souvenir béni, qui montre à tous les musiciens la voie, ou plus encore le sentier de la manière imitative et de la subtilité recherchées; et il compose une musique totalement différente de celle du passé. En effet, il évite les silences et sa composition abonde en harmonies et en imitations.»

Nous savons peu de choses sur la vie de Gombert, sinon qu’il naquit dans un village des Flandres françaises, à l’ouest de Lille, aux alentours de 1500. En 1526, il se rendit en Espagne pour devenir chanteur à la chapelle de la cour de l’empereur Charles Quint; il se vit accorder des bénéfices à Courtrai et à Béthune. En 1529, Charles Quint le nomma Maître des enfants de la chapelle, poste qui allait l’amener à beaucoup voyager en Europe occidentale jusqu’en 1538, date à laquelle son nom disparut définitivement des annales de la cour impériale. L’humaniste Hieronymus Cardanus nous apprend à ce propos que Gombert fut condamné aux galères sur une trirème pour avoir violenté un jeune choriste. Aux fers, il composa les «chants du cygne» (peut-être ses mises en musique du Magnificat) qui incitèrent l’empereur à lui accorder son pardon et une prébende à Tournai. L’unique document biographique à notre disposition est une lettre que Gombert rédigea à Tournai, en 1547, à l’attention de Ferrante Gonzaga, Gran Capitano de Charles Quint. La date de sa mort nous demeure inconnue: apparemment vivant lorsque Finck écrivit sur lui en 1556, il était mort au moment où Cardanus publia son récit, en 1561.

Onze messes, un Credo indépendant, huit Magnificat, plus de cent soixante motets (dont plus d’un quart sont marials) constituent, avec quelque quatre-vingts chansons et d’autres pièces profanes, les œuvres encore existantes de Gombert. Comme souvent pour cette période, de multiples attributions erronées côtoient un certain nombre de cas d’authenticité douteuse. La publication des œuvres de Gombert parvint à débuter en 1529 et des recueils majeurs de ses motets virent le jour à Venise en 1539 et en 1541. En outre, divers recueils imprimés de messes, de motets et de chansons continrent couramment au moins une œuvre de Gombert, et ce bien après sa mort. Dans sa Declaración de 1555, Juan Bermudo encouragea les luthistes à interpréter la musique «del profundo Gomberto»; le grand nombre de manuscrits et d’intavolatura imprimées pour luth et orgue (dont des transcriptions d’œuvres par ailleurs inconnues) survivants suggère que ce conseil fut entendu.

Il est difficile de déterminer quel degré de littéralité attribuer aux propos de Finck décrivant Gombert comme un «élève de Josquin». Certes, Gombert – dont la région natale n’est pas très éloignée de Condé, où Josquin passa ses dernières années – a fort bien pu étudier auprès du compositeur vieillissant, et tout laisse à supposer que son éducation musicale revint au maître. Mais, comme le remarqua Finck, le style de Gombert diffère énormément de celui de ses prédécesseurs: «il évite les silences». Ce trait constitue d’ailleurs le contraste le plus immédiat avec la musique de Josquin, qui s’engage typiquement dans une alternance d’imitations appariées, avec emploi du complément vocal vers la conclusion d’une ligne de mots, avant que deux voix reprennent le point d’irritation suivant. A contrario, Gombert implique toutes les voix dans ses imitations: il soutient l’ensemble de la trame et introduit le point suivant (avec la ligne ultérieure du texte) pendant que les autres voix conduisent encore la ligne précédente à sa conclusion. Ainsi combine-t-il l’écriture continue du maître de Josquin, Ockeghem, à la technique imitative de Josquin lui-même – «abondant en harmonies et en imitations».

John O'Donnell © 1996
Français: Hyperion Records Ltd

„Die verlorene Generation” ist eine treffende Bezeichnung, die die Musikhistoriker für jene Komponisten benutzen, die ihre Werke zwischen 1521 und den 1550ern, also dem Tod Josquin Desprez’ und der Ära des Orlando de Lassus, schrieben. Unter der großen Vielfalt von Komponisten jener Zeit – einschließlich Clemens non Papa, Adriano Willaert, Jachet di Mantua, Costanzo Festa, Ludwig Senfl und Cristóbal de Morales – wählte der Theoretiker und Komponist Hermann Finck 1556 allein Nicolas Gombert als große Erscheinung heraus: „Und doch gibt es in unserer Zeit Wegbereiter, zu denen auch Nicolas Gombert zählt, Schüler von Josquin seligen Angedenkens, der allen Musikern den Weg, nein, vielmehr den genauen Weg zum erstrebenswerten Imitationsstil und der Verfeinerung zeigt. Er komponiert Musik so vollkommen anders als es die Vergangenheit erlebte. Denn er meidet Pausen, und seine Komposition ist nur so angefüllt von vollen Harmonien und Imitationen.“

Über das Leben Gomberts wissen wir nur wenig. Er war um 1500 in einem kleinen Dorf westlich von Lille im französischen Flandern geboren worden. 1526 reiste er nach Spanien, um eine Stellung als Sänger in der Hofkapelle des Kaisers Karl V anzutreten, und er erhielt zudem eine gute Pfründe in Courtrai und Béthune. Karl V ernannte ihn 1529 zum Magister puerorum des Knabenchores der Kapelle, ein Posten, der mit vielen Reisen durch das westliche Europa verbunden war. Nach 1538 verschwindet sein Name jedoch endgültig aus den kaiserlichen Büchem. Vom Humanisten Hieronymus Cardanus erfahren wir, daß Gombert wegen der Vergewaltigung eines Chorknaben zu den Triere-Galeeren verdammt wurde. In Fesseln liegend hatte er die „Schwanenlieder“ (vielleicht seine Magnificat-Vertonungen) komponiert, die den Kaiser dazu bewegten, ihn zu begnadigen und als Pfründner von Tournai einzusetzen. Ein Brief Gomberts aus dem Jahre 1547 an Ferrante Gonzaga, dem Gran Capitano von Karl V, ist das einzige autobiographische Dokument, das uns erhalten geblieben ist. Sein Todesdatum ist ungewiß: Es wird angenommen, daß er, als Finck ihn 1556 erwähnte, noch am Leben war, zur Zeit der Veröffentlichung von Cardanus’ Schriften 1561 jedoch bereits verstorben war.

Gomberts umfangreiches Schaffen schließt elf Messen, ein separates Credo, acht Magnificats, über hundertundsechzig Motetten (von denen über ein Viertel marianisch ist), sowie über achtzig Chansons und andere säkulare Werke ein. Die Fehlbezeichnung von Werken und in vielen Fällen auch das Anzweifeln ihrer Echtheit waren für viele Kompositionen aus dieser Periode bezeichnend. Von 1529 an fanden Gomberts Werke ihren Weg in die Öffentlichkeit: Größere Sammlungen seiner Motetten wurden 1539 und 1541 in Venedig veröffentlicht, während verschiedene Drucksammlungen von Messen, Motetten und Chansons bis weit nach dem Tode Gomberts im großen und ganzen mindestens ein Werk aus seiner Feder enthielten. In seiner Declaración aus dem Jahre 1555 forderte Juan Bermudo Lautenspieler auf, Musik „del profundo Gomberto“ zu spielen; die große Anzahl umfangreicher Manuskripte und gedruckter Tabulaturen für Laute und Orgel (unter denen sich auch Transkriptionen ansonsten unbekannter Stücke befinden), deutet darauf hin, daß seiner Aufforderung Beachtung geschenkt wurde.

Es ist schwer, abzuwägen, wie buchstäblich man Fincks Beschreibung Gomberts als einen „Schüler von Josquin“ auffassen soll. Er mag sehr wohl bei diesem alternden Komponisten gelernt haben, denn die Gegend, in der er geboren war, liegt nicht sehr weit vom Condé entfernt, wo Josquin seine späten Jahre verbrachte. Es gibt zudem allen Grund zur Annahme, daß die musikalische Bildung Gomberts der Obhut eines Meisters zu verdanken sei. Wie Finck jedoch bemerkte, ist der Stil Gomberts von allem Vorhergehenden recht verschieden: „Er meidet Pausen.“ Dies bildet einen direkten Kontrast zur Musik Josquins, die sich in der Alteration typisch in gepaarten Imitationen bewegte, mit den ergänzenden Stimmen, die zum Ende der ersten Wortzeile vor einem Stimmenpaar einsetzten, das wiederum den nächsten Punkt der Imitation aufnahm. Gombert baut dagegen alle Stimmen in seine Imitationen ein, erhält die vollständige Struktur, fährt mit der nächsten Textzeile das neue Thema ein, während die vorherige Zeile bis zu ihrem Abschluß von den anderen Stimmen gehalten wird. Auf diese Art und Weise verbindet er die kontinuierliche Struktur von Josquins Lehrmeister, Ockeghem, mit der Imitationstechnik Joquins – „nur so angefüllt von Harmonien und Imitationen“.

John O'Donnell © 1996
Deutsch: Ute Mansfeldt

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