Nicolas Gombert (c. 1495 – c. 1560) was a Franco-Flemish composer of the Renaissance who was one of the most famous and influential composers between Josquin des Prez and Palestrina, and best represents the fully developed, complex polyphonic style of this period in music history. Details of his early life are sketchy, but Gombert was likely born around 1495 in southern Flanders, probably between Lille and Saint-Omer, possibly in the town of La Gorgue. German writer and music theorist Hermann Finck wrote that Gombert studied with Josquin; this would have been during the renowned composer’s retirement in Condé-sur-l’Escaut, sometime 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. A document dated 1529 mentions Gombert as magister puerorum (“master of the boys”) for the royal chapel. He and the singers went with the emperor on his travels throughout his holdings, leaving records of their appearances in various cities of the empire. These visits were musically influential, in part because of Gombert’s stature as a musician; thus the travels of Charles and his chapel, as did those of his predecessor Philip I of Castile with composer Pierre de La Rue, continued the transplantation of the Franco-Flemish polyphonic tradition onto the Iberian Peninsula.
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. He remained in the Imperial chapel as maître des enfants (“master of the children”) until some time between 1537 and 1540, being succeeded by Thomas Crecquillon and later Cornelius Canis. Even though he held this very position at the Imperial chapel, he never officially received the title of maître de chapelle – music director – which was a title given to both Adrien Thibaut and Thomas Crecquillon. While serving in this position, he likewise unofficially held the position of court composer, arranging numerous works commemorating the key happenings during Charles V’s life.
In 1540 during the height of his career, he vanished from chapel records and was sentenced to hard labor in the galleys for a crime. The exact duration of his service in the galleys is not known, but he was able to continue composing for at least part of the time. Most likely he was pardoned sometime in or before 1547, the date he sent a letter along with a motet from Tournai to Charles’ gran capitano Ferrante I Gonzaga. The Magnificat settings preserved uniquely in manuscript in Madrid are often held to have been the “swansongs” that according to Cardan won his pardon; according to this story, Charles was so moved by these Magnificat settings that he let Gombert go early. It is not known how long Gombert lived after his pardon or what positions, if any, he held; his career faded into relative obscurity after he was freed. He may have retired to Tournai, spending the final years of his life as canon there. Bracketing dates for his probable death are 1556 and 1561; in the former year Finck mentioned that he was still living, and in 1561 Cardan wrote that he was dead, without giving details.
Nicolas Gombert is generally recognized as an exemplars of the late Franco-Flemish school, before the center of Renaissance art-music moved to Italy. Gombert brought the polyphonic style to its highest state of perfection; if imitation is a common device in Josquin, it is integral in Gombert. Gombert’s style is characterized by dense, inextricable polyphony. Harmonically, Gombert’s compositions stressed the traditional modal framework as a baseline, but especially in dense textures of six or more voices, he wrote polymodal sections wherein a subset of voices would sing the lowered pitches of F or Bb while another subset would sing the raised pitches of F# or B: a D major and D minor chord or a G major and a G minor chord might be simultaneously sounded.
Exemplary among Gombert’s formally perfect pieces that employ cross-relations are his six-voice motet on the death of Josquin, Musae Jovis, with its clashing semitones, and occasional root-position triads a tritone apart, and his six-voice chanson Tous les Regretz. Out of the ten masses that Gombert composed, nine survive complete. The chronology of the masses is not known, but an approximate order can be deduced from stylistic characteristics. Two musical characteristics, sequence and ostinato, that were rare in Gombert’s later works, are present in his earlier masses Quam pulchra es and Tempore paschali. The motet was Gombert’s preferred form, and his compositions in this genre not only were the most influential part of his output, but they show the greatest diversity of compositional technique. Gombert’s eight settings of the Magnificat, which may have won him his pardon, are among his most famous works. Each is written in one of the church modes, and consists of a cycle of short motets, with the individual motets based on successive verses of the Magnificat text.
Some of Gombert’s works are for unusually large vocal ensembles, including 8, 10, and 12 voices. These works are not polychoral in the usual sense, or in the manner of the Venetian School in which the voices were spatially separated; rather, the voice sub-groupings change during the pieces. These large ensemble compositions include an eight-voice Credo, the 12-voice Agnus from the Missa Tempore paschali, and 10- and 12- voice settings of the Regina caeli. His secular compositions – mostly chansons – are less contrapuntally complex than his motets and masses, but nonetheless more so than the majority of contemporary secular pieces, especially the ‘Parisian’ chanson. He turned to older verse, often of a folkish type, with typical subject matter including unhappy love, farewells, separations, infidelities and the like. Many of these chansons appeared in lute and vihuela arrangements, with their wide geographical distribution showing their immense popularity. His surviving works include 10 masses, about 140 motets, about 70 chansons, a canción (probably written when he was in Spain), a madrigal, and a handful of instrumental pieces.
Gombert was one of the most renowned composers in Europe after the death of Josquin des Prez, as can be seen by the wide distribution of his music, the use of his music as source material for compositions by others, including Roland de Lassus and Claudio Monteverdi. While most composers of the next generation did not continue to write vocal music using Gombert’s method of pervasive imitation, they continued to use this contrapuntal texture in instrumental works. Forms such as the canzona and ricercar are directly descended from the vocal style of Gombert; Baroque forms and processes such as the fugue are later descendants. Gombert’s music represents one of the extremes of contrapuntal complexity ever attained in purely vocal music.
The following work by Nicolas Gombert is contained in my collection: