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Nicolas Gombert (c.1495–c.1560) was a Franco-Flemish composer of the Renaissance. He was one of the most famous and influential composers between Josquin Desprez and Palestrina, and best represents the fully-developed, complex polyphonic style of this transitional period in music history.
Details of his early life are sketchy, but he was likely born around 1490 in southern Flanders, probably between Lille and St. Omer. He is said to have studied with Josquin during the renowned composer's retirement in Condé sur l'Escaut , which probably would have been between 1515 and 1521.
Gombert was employed by the emperor Charles V as a singer in his court chapel in 1526, and possibly as a composer as well. Most likely he was taken on while Charles was passing through Flanders, for the emperor traveled often, bringing his retinue with him, and picking up new members as he went. In 1529 Gombert is mentioned as magister puerorum ("master of the boys") for the royal chapel. He and the singers certainly traveled with the emperor, since there are records of their appearances in various cities of the empire throughout the period. At some point in the 1530s Gombert became a cleric and probably a priest; he received benefices at several cathedrals, including Courtrai, Lens, Metz, and Béthune. In or before 1534 he was appointed chorus master at Tournai, and probably he spent much of his life there.
According to the evidence of the contemporary physician and mathematician Girolamo Cardano, Gombert was convicted of molesting a boy in his care and he was sentenced to hard labor in the galleys; at any rate he vanished from the cathedral records in 1540. Most likely he was pardoned sometime in or before 1552, the date of publication of his Magnificat settings; he probably returned to Tournai, but it is unclear how long he lived after his pardon or what positions, if any, he held. In 1561 Cardano wrote that he was dead.
Music and style
Gombert is perhaps the most most representative composer of the generation between Josquin and Palestrina, especially in the area of sacred music. He brought the polyphonic style to its highest state of perfection; if imitation is a common device in Josquin, it is pervasive in Gombert. Extended homophonic passages are rare in his sacred works, and he is particularly fond of imitation at very close time intervals, a technically very difficult feat. There is an unusual amount of dissonance in his music, especially compared to the other Franco-Flemish composers working at the same time; in this way he is more closely related to the contemporary English composers such as John Taverner. Dissonance he uses for expressive effect, for example as an expression of grief in his six-voice motet on the death of Josquin, Musae Jovis, with its clashing semitones, and occasional root-position triads a tritone apart.
One of his most popular compositions is his cycle of eight Magnificat settings, which Cardano called his "swansongs" — according to Cardano, he composed these pieces for Charles V as an offering and a request for pardon, and Charles was so moved by them that he pardoned Gombert, releasing him from forced labor in the galleys.
In his secular music—mostly chansons—he writes music of great simplicity, shunning the contrapuntal complexities of his motets and masses. Many of these appeared in lute and guitar arrangements with a wide geographical distribution, showing their immense popularity.
Gombert was one of the most renowned composers in Europe after the death of Josquin Desprez, as can be seen by the wide distribution of his music, the use of his music as source material for compositions by others, and the singular attention that printers paid to him (issuing, for example, editions of his works—most print editions at the time were anthologies of music by several composers). However, in spite of his fame and the availability of his music, the next generation of Franco-Flemish composers mostly wrote in a more simplified style. Part of this was an inevitable stylistic reaction to a contrapuntal idiom which had reached an extreme, and part of this was due to the specific dictates of the Council of Trent, which required that text be clearly understandable in sacred, especially liturgical, music—something which is next to impossible for a composer to achieve in a dense imitative texture.
While vocal music of the next generation did not continue Gombert's method of pervasive imitation in a dense texture, the instrumental music did. Forms such as the canzona and ricercar are directly descended from the vocal style of Gombert, and eventually they transformed into the fugue by the time of the Baroque era. Gombert's music represents one of the extremes of contrapuntal complexity ever attained in purely vocal music.
Sources and Further Reading
- The Concise Edition of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 8th ed. Revised by Nicolas Slonimsky. New York, Schirmer Books, 1993. (ISBN 002872416X)
- Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1954. (ISBN 0393095304)
- Peter Phillips, notes to recording of Gombert's Magnificats 5-8 as sung by Tallis Scholars, CD Gimell CDGIM 038
- Article "Nicolas Gombert", in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1561591742
- Nicolas Gombert, Magnificats 5-8 as sung by Tallis Scholars, CD Gimell CDGIM 038
- Heavenly Spheres, CBC Records, MVCD 1121, sung by Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal. Contains two motets by Gombert, including his elegy for Josquin, Musae Jovis.
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