GOMBERT: Chansons and Motets (Capella Alamire/ Noel Bisson/ Peter Urquhart/ Peter Urquhart/ Woodman Consort of Viols) (Naxos: 8.570180)
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Nicolas Gombert (c.1495–c.1560)
Motets, Chansons and a Magnificat
Salve regina (alternatim) (1541, Liber II à 4, Venice: Scotto)
A quoy tient il à4 (1531, Paris: Attaingnant)
Je suis trop jonette à3 (1560, Nürnberg: Berg & Neuber)
O gloriosa Dei genitrix à4 (1534, Paris: Attaingnant)
Ave Maria à5 (1539, Liber I à 5, Venice: Gardano)
Mort et fortune à4 (1538, Lyon: Moderne)
Triste depart à5 (1544, Antwerp: Susato)
O malheureuse journée à5 (1550, Antwerp: Susato)
Tous les regretz à6 (1544, Antwerp: Susato)
Pleust a Dieu à3 (1560, Louvain: Phalèse)
Or suis je prins à4 (1544, Antwerp: Susato)
Aspice Domine à4 (1532, Lyon: Moderne)
Ave regina caelorum à5 (1541, Liber II à 5, Venice: Scotto)
Par un regard à3 (1569, Louvain: Phalèse)
En attendant à6 (1545, Antwerp: Susato)
Magnificat quarti toni manuscript Madrid M 2455 (1552)
Of all the musical resources invented by the Franco-Flemish school of composers during the Renaissance, imitative counterpoint was perhaps the most important. Imitation as a strict procedure, canon, goes back to the medieval period, as does the occasional use of imitation as a special texture to highlight certain passages, but imitation as the primary structural element, systematic or "pervading" imitation, the art of motivic self-reference that allows large-scale works to be constructed without the use of pre-existing material such as a cantus firmus, had to wait until the late fifteenth century for its development by the Franco-Flemish composers Antoine Busnoys and Josquin Des Prez. Nicolas Gombert inherited his style of imitation from these direct predecessors, and brought it to such a highly developed and flexible level, that it would pervade music for the next two hundred years. Through the Baroque form of the fugue, and academic exercises based upon it, one might claim that Gombert's influence reaches us today.
Nicolas Gombert was a singer and later master of the choirboys under the Hapsburg Emperor, Charles V. The imperial court travelled widely to maintain the Emperor's domains, especially to Spain, Austria, and southern Germany. Gombert, originally from south Flanders, was thus exposed to international musical currents; nevertheless, his style remained arguably the purest expression of northern polyphony after Josquin Des Prez. This style is often described in terms of what the composer did not do: Gombert liked to avoid strong cadences and clear-cut phrases; he was less interested in the cantus firmus or tenor-orientated style so favoured by the previous generation; he avoided canon entirely; and his text setting shows a lack of concern for declamation or text painting. As with his great predecessor Johannes Ockeghem, we almost lack words to describe Gombert's style: the predominant characteristic is a seamless web of imitative polyphony which evokes a mystical intensity and sense of self-absorption.
On this recording the Capella is performing three different kinds of works by Gombert: sacred works in Latin with a clear liturgical purpose and musical foundation, sacred works without a clear liturgical connection, and secular works with French text. Despite the evident differences in purpose and compositional models, Gombert's style maintains a remarkable consistency throughout. The motet Salve regina and the Magnificat quarti toni are both chant-based works; in these "alternatim" works, the polyphonic setting by Gombert alternates with verses of the plainchant upon which it is based. In the Salve regina, one voice of the four tends to carry the original chant melody, which is also heard unadorned in between the polyphonic sections created by the composer. Most often that voice is the tenor or the superius, a continuation of the old cantus firmus tradition that was Gombert's heritage. In most of the composer's music, however, the imitation is so all-pervading that this structural voice is completely obscured. All four voices partake of the original melody, which, although not presented clearly in any one voice, appears to be present in all of them. Chant-based works were probably liturgical in purpose, and represent an elaboration of the liturgical text and melody for important events performed at a royal or imperial chapel.
The line between chant-based motets and the freer non-liturgical motets is not as obvious as might be supposed. The biblical text of the motet Ave Maria had a clearly liturgical function. The chant melody is also very much in evidence at the beginning of the motet, but through Gombert's technique of imitation it is shared by all voices of the texture; it is not possible to point to any one line as the primary cantus-firmus voice, and as the motet unfolds, its reference to the chant becomes more and more difficult to perceive. It is as though Gombert's concentration on the imitation of motives drawn from the chant takes over any concern for quoting the entirety of the chant, as his musical purpose begins to rely more fully on the play of the imitation itself.
The para-liturgical motets Aspice Domine and O gloriosa Dei genitrix share in this intensely imitative approach. They partake in the imitative technique worked out in the chant-based motets, but present it without adhering to quoted melodies. Although chant references are present, the motets are freer to express the text, or explore particular melodic motives, imitations, or harmonic ideas of interest to the composer. To the modern ear, largely unaware of the chant melodies that might or might not underlie the counterpoint, the difference is slight; only in highly charged settings like Aspice Domine is it clear that the composer is not restrained from his expressive purpose by the presence of a liturgical melody.
Gombert also composed some 75 chansons for three to eight voices. These secular works resemble the sacred works in style, and were probably sung by the same highly trained chapel singers, but within the context of the court. Our performance of some chansons with viols and one voice was suggested by their publication in prints by Tylman Susato. Although all parts were published with text, performance with instruments may have been the norm, as the title-pages announce: "convenables et proprie a jouer de tous instruments". Instrumental participation serves to lighten the dense motet-like texture of an all-vocal performance. Only occasionally does Gombert's style approach that of the popular Parisian chanson, a style glimpsed in