Gombert Nicolaas

1495
1560

Biography

Life

Information about his youth and formative years is scarce. He was presumably born around 1495 in the south of the County of FLanders, likely in the area between Rijsel and Sint-Omaars, perhaps in La Gorgue. Somewhere between 1555 and 1521 he possibly started his education under Josquin. That he was appointed by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the most glorious court of Europe, certainly speaks to the high level of his education. In 1592 Gombert is mentioned as the magister puerorum of the court chapel. 

Around 1530 Gombert became a clergyman and likely also a priest. He received prebends from several cathedrals. He remained the maistre des enffans de la chapelle for the imperial court chapel until somewhere between 1537 and 1540. 

As cannon of the Notre-Dame in Doornik he likely spent his final years in this city. 

Composer

He may well have been a student of Josquin, his style does not betray this. Where Josquin is known for his transparent structures and understandable lyrics, Gomert increasingly had different musical phrases overlap and declamation remained in the background. All this combined with a preference for lower voices is reminiscent of the style of Ockeghem. 

What Gombert shared with his contemporaries was an enormous attention for imitation. All these characteristics give his music a somewhat closed, if fascinating character. 

Gombert was a man of the motet, he wrote more than 160 four, five and six-part pieces, most based on biblical (albeit non liturgical) texts. In addition to this we know of ten masses by his hand and eight Magnificat arrangements which are seen as the highlight of his oeuvre. Gombert also wrote profane music: we know of more than seventy of his chansons. 

His portfolio was widely distributed (inter alia in Italy), this was especially thanks to the motet publications by Scotto and Gardano in Venice in the years between 1539 and 1552.

Rigorous imitation technique

His seventy chansons also carry his signature: long lasting and intense imitation. In his writing Pratica musica in 1445 the German theoreticus Herman Finck (1527-1558) describes Gombert’s style as being ‘rich in full harmonies and imitative counterpoint, where pauses are avoided. Gombert’s work is indeed the best example of what is understood as doorimitatie: a text is segmented into short phrases and each phrase has its own theme which is imitatively and variedly repeated by all the parts. 

This imitation continues during the transition between fragments so that all the phrases are in a constant state of overlap: the result is an uninterrupted musical stream which doesn’t rest until the final cadenza. Key is the counterpoint weaving of independent, linear parts, where strong contrasts are avoided. 

The melodies are often asymmetrically constructed, while there is no regularity in the consecutive vocal starting points. ‘It is as though, in this respect at least, the mantle of Ockeghem had fallen upon his shoulders’ writes renaissance specialist Gustave Reese. His music differs from that of Josquin, who searches for symmetry. The transparency of the counterpoint is also missing. Everything is written compactly, with a full emphasis on continuous imitative counterpoint. 

Vocal works (selection)

  • In te domine speravi, for six voices, listen to it here.
  • Je prens congie, for eight voices. Have a look at the score here.
  • Triste départ, for five voices, listen to it here
  • Musae Iovis, for six voices, listen to it here.
Je prens congie by Huelgas Ensemble conducted by Paul Van Nevel
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