About this Recording
8.557732 - GOMBERT: Magnificat I / Salve Regina / Credo / Tulerunt Dominum
English  German 

Nicolas Gombert (c.1495-c.1560)
Magnificat I • Salve Regina • Credo • Tulerunt Dominum

If you view musical history as a sequence of styles, each one a consequence of its predecessor, then Gombert’s music takes the transparent consonances of Josquin’s generation and muddies the harmonic waters in preparation for the rich late-sixteenth-century polyphonic style of Palestrina’s generation. Gombert and his contemporaries thus become an important if rather unglamorous link between the Low and the High Renaissance. There is nothing wrong with this view unless, however, you venture to believe that the achievements of Gombert’s generation are technically the most accomplished, and musically the most exciting, of the Renaissance. Gombert was not a minor character on the musical time-line between Josquin and Palestrina; on the contrary, he was a musical genius whose emotional complexity and inherent selfcontradictions allowed him to write music unlike that of any other Renaissance composer.

While it is relatively easy to love Gombert’s music, one certainly cannot love Gombert the man since he was a pederast. Gombert violated a young boy while serving in the chapel of the Emperor Charles V as a result of which he was banished to the galleys. After some time in exile on the high seas, however, Gombert’s compositional accomplishments led to an Emperor’s pardon. The music that led directly to Gombert’s rescue from oblivion was a series of eight Magnificats, the first of which is presented here. Self-confident and robust, this Dorian-mode canticle leaves no doubt as to the power of Gombert’s persuasive personality. As each polyphonic section alternates with the Magnificat plainchant, the vocal disposition changes. The fourvoice writing of the first two polyphonic verses is reduced to three voices at ‘Fecit potentiam’. Thereafter a voice is added at ‘Esurientes’, another at ‘Sicut locutus est’, and finally, after a magnificently handled florid cadence, another one at ‘Sicut locutus est’. With six voices in play Gombert is unstoppable, and he knows it. This musically unrepentant style is in marked contrast to the sensitively experimental style of the motets which pre-date Gombert’s conviction. Works like the resonant six-voiced Media vita and the Epitaphium to his mentor Josquin show a deeply self-conscious exploration of dark texts by a composer with a unique ear for vocal texture. To a certain extent both of these works are autobiographical. In the Epitaph Gombert shows off his low-textured Flemish heritage and his ability to enhance those low textures with painful harmonic twists, most notably to paint the harshness of death at the words ‘severa morte’. In the final section of this Epitaph, the pupil’s pastiche of his teacher’s outmoded style is breathtakingly adept and poignant: at the words ‘Josquinus inquit’ (Josquin speaks) Gombert suddenly turns the musical clock back four decades, and in an instant the musical complexity of the mid-century dilemma is replaced by the rose-tinted simplicity of Gombert’s youth, where clear imitation, rocking haemiolas, and modal harmony offer much-needed security. Self-pity and harsh self-analysis are even more evident in Media vita where Gombert finds himself emotionally dead, or dormant, at least, while yet in the midst of life. Media vita is a Renaissance masterpiece whose emotional darkness is handed down directly through the Ockeghem-Josquin line.

The best-known compositions in this collection are the eight-voiced Credo and Tulerunt Dominum; indeed these two pieces share much of the same music. Tulerunt Dominum was evidently a well-loved piece in Gombert’s day since it survives in no fewer than four other versions (as a secular song to the French words Je prens congié, as the Latin motets Sustinuimus pacem and Lugebat David Absalon, and in its earliest version J’ay mis mon cueur). Tulerunt might these days be described as minimalist because of its insistence on the repetition of small fragments of music, most notably in its setting of the word ‘Alleluia’ whenever it appears. Indeed, the closing bars of this motet are some of the most insistently memorable of the period. The setting of the Credo takes the musical gem that is Tulerunt and uses it to construct a fully-formed Renaissance crown. The Credo is a treatise in how to write for eight voices: Gombert takes a few fragments of musical material and scatters them around his choir with breathtaking virtuosity. No combination of voices is ever the same twice, and Gombert’s kaleidoscopic textural display only ends because the text itself runs out. This isolated Mass movement shows a composer who is able to control sounds and colours in a way which one normally only associates with innovative orchestrators such as Berlioz and Debussy. In particular, the emotionally charged ‘Et incarnatus est’ section is a model of textural pacing which dwarfs the accomplishments of most composers of any era. At the other end of the spectrum are the four-voiced motets Super flumina Babylonis and Salve Regina which show the introspective side of Gombert’s character. In the former, Psalm 136 tells of the Babylonian Exile (‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept’) and was an obvious narrative choice for Gombert the nostalgic. Gombert revisits the haunting harmonies of his childhood (‘dum recordaremur’) while antique musical instruments sway precariously in the late-medieval breeze (‘suspendimus organa’). But later on, the acid jeers of the captors (‘Sing us one of your songs’) and the sardonic repost of the prisoners (‘How can we sing in a strange land?’) were to have horrific personal resonances for Gombert during his own exile; the sudden major mode ending of Super flumina Babylonis is quite exceptionally bitter, even by Gombert’s standards. The Salve Regina is a more redemptive work and represents one of the finest contrapuntal achievements of any age. Gombert weaves seven plainchant melodies (‘diversi diversa orant’) of the Blessed Virgin Mary into a highly compact piece of polyphony whose simple beauty betrays nothing of the technical facility that underpins it. The effect is of snatches of Marian melodies floating effortlessly into (and out of) one’s consciousness. This ability to conceal the intricate workings of his mind was at one and the same time Gombert’s musical strength and his personal weakness.

Jeremy Summerly

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