Recorded May 2002 at Propstei St. Gerold
The Hilliard Ensemble's interpretation of motets by Guillaume de Machaut released on ECM New Series in 2004 was hailed by the international press as an outstanding artistic achievement: "This is a landmark recording and a courageous venture", wrote David Fallows in Gramophone. The disc won several awards and in 2005 it was nominated for a Grammy. By highlighting Nicolas Gombert the ensemble - which for this repertoire is augmented by Andreas Hirtreiter and Robert Macdonald - continues its explorations of medieval and renaissance polyphony which have lead to unanimously acclaimed ECM-recordings of major works by Perotin, Tallis, Orlando di Lasso, Gesualdo and a selection of pieces by Palestrina and Victoria.
Biographical details on Nicolas Gombert are scant. Born shortly before 1500, probably in southern Flanders, there is some evidence that he was a pupil of Josquin Desprez. Starting in 1526, as a member of the chapel choir of Charles V of Spain, he travelled the Empire extensively. Scholars believe he served as an unofficial court composer since his works were printed by major publishing houses around Europe and were widely known. However the only record of his death is to be found in the 1567 treatise on the "Paesi bassi" by the Italian diplomat Ludovico Guicciardini who argued that Gombert was one of "the true masters of music, the ones that have restored it and given it back its perfection." The high esteem in which Gombert was held during his lifetime is evident from the number of contemporary masses based on material from his works. Orlando di Lasso was influenced by him, and the young Claudio Monteverdi was one of his ardent admirers. As Uwe Schweikert reasons in his liner notes, the elaboration and density of Gombert's contrapuntal writing "bears all the traits of a music, which in 1562/63 motivated Catholic radical reformers to their infamous attack on polyphonic music in liturgy altogether at the Trent council." In fact the comprehensibility of the sacred texts is almost obliterated by the sophisticated imitative writing. As a result, the five- and six-part textures, in their uninterrupted flow, tend to attain the status of autonomous musical works of art.
The CD's programme is opened by the six-part motet Media Vita, one of Gombert's undisputed masterpieces. The composer's predilection for dark colours is demonstrated by the setting for five male voices and only one "superius" part. Equally characteristic is his restraint in the use of outward expressivity like melodic word painting, ornamentation or clear caesura that could disturb the inward meditative flow. The motet Media Vita provides the musical basis for the Missa Media Vita. Extensive references are clearly audible particularly in the first bars of the respective movements, where the opening of the motet is quoted. However, in the progress of the piece the material is used in a much freer way. Another six-part masterwork closes the carefully constructed programme: the motet Musae Jovis, a musical homage to Josquin Desprez.
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The Exact Path to Refinement
One of the unfortunate effects of the traditional Josquin-centered historiography has been the comparative neglect of not only Josquin Desprez's contemporaries but also of the next generation of composers. One such composer whose genius has only recently been fully acknowledged is Nicolas Gombert (c.1495-c.1560), who can now be seen as one of the leading figures of the generation between Josquin and Palestrina.
Gombert was probably born in French speaking southern Flanders near Lille and was, according to Hermann Finck's Pratica musica (1556), taught by Josquin (if this is true, it would probably have been during Josquin's last years in Conde). In 1526 Gombert joined the chapel choir of Emperor Charles V in Spain, and by 1529 was its maitre des enfants. His position at the most prestigious court in Europe allowed him to travel throughout the continent with the Imperial entourage and, as a result, his reputation spread. It seems that Gombert served unofficially as a court composer and his compositions were printed by all the major European publishers; his fame was such that the Venetian firms of Scotto and Gardane issued collected editions of his motets. However, in about 1540, his career was halted when he was sentenced to the galleys for gross indecency with a choirboy. He earned his release and finished his career as canon at the Cathedral of Tournai.
Gombert's compositions are all vocal, some for ensembles of up to twelve parts. His contrapuntal language is based on that of Josquin, but taken to the next level of complexity. Imitation is used even more consistently than did Josquin, and Gombert's vocal textures are often densely packed and the individual lines are characterised by an avoidance of rests. A substantial number of Gombert's compositions survive, including 10 masses, over 160 motets, 60 secular chansons, and a set of eight Magnificats (one in each mode). This recording presents a number of the motets (4-6 voices) interspersed between the movements of a five-voice mass.
All but two of Gombert's known masses are parody masses (that is, are based on existing motets or chansons). The five-voice Missa Media Vita, published in Sex missae cum quinque vocibus (1542), is based, on Gombert's own six-voice motet. Typically of Gombert's parody style, the "borrowed" material is treated with great freedom, although each mass movement begins with the initial material of the pre-existent motet and employs the close of the model together with numerous-passing references to the motet along the way. In the middle sections of each movement, the composer takes individual phrases and motives, or sometimes specific rhythms, chords or chordal progressions, and subjects them to free variations; often the audible relationship to the model is entirely Tost in what is, in effect, newly composed material. The final Agnus Dei follows the long-established tradition of adding an extra voice (an extra bass in this instance) and this gave Gombert the opportunity to include some internal canonic passages.
Media vita in morte sumus, the six-voice motet that provided the material for Gombert's mass, was first published in the motet anthology Primus liber cum sex vocibus. Mottetti del frutto a sei voci (Antoine Gardane, Venice, 1539), and is a setting of a respond sung on Sundays between Epiphany and Lent. The individual voices of the motet adhere closely to the plainsong melody and the motet, with its thick textures and pervading imitation in overlapping points that give the voices relatively little rest, is a fine example of Gombert's style as described by Hermann Finckin 1556:"Nicolas Gombert, pupil of Josquin of blessed memory, shows all musicians the way - nay more, the exact path to refinement and the desired imitative manner. He composes music altogether differently to the past: he avoids rests, and his compositions are rich with full harmonies and imitations." Gombert particularly favoured the lower voice ranges and combinations of five or six voices. This is also apparent in the two-section motets Anima mea liquefacta est/Filiae lerusalem for five voices, from Gombert's Musica... (vulgo motecta quinque vocum nuncupa-ta)... liber primus (1539), and O Crux splendidior / O Crux gloriosa for six voices, in the Gardane anthology Primus liber cum sex voci-bus (1539).
The Marian motets, Quampulchra es and Salve Regina/Eia ergo, from the first (1539) and second (1541) books of four-voice motets respectively, are included as a contrast. Salve Regina uses the pre-existent plainsong melody throughout but it is not limited to one voice as a cantus firmus, rather it provides melodic material for imitation points in all parts.The move from cantus firmus to 'paraphrase' technique may be seen as one of the progressive features of the post-Josquin generation.
Gombert tended not to use the ostinato, canon, cantus firmus and double-text techniques of his immediate predecessors, but the six-voice Musae lovis is an exception - probably because it was intended asatributeto Josquin.The motet was printed in an anthology of 1545 alongside similar homages to Josquin by Appenzeller and Vinders.
The text is a Latin poem by Gerard Avidius and the motet includes a tenor cantus firmus," Circumdederunt me", a chant used by Josquin in his Nymphes, nappes, which is repeated four times in progressively reduced note values and in a different mode each time. In the 1545 printed source, the tenor cantus firmus is written down in the form of a puzzle-an archaic procedure no doubt used in deferential remembrance to his mentor Josquin.