The Renaissance period, generally thought of as covering the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, was an era of rebirth and renewal, invention and innovation after the more oppressive and insular years of the Middle Ages, characterised by wars and the ravages of the Black Death. What was being renewed was an interest in the learning of the Ancient Greeks, which had been gradually neglected by the West, and the rise of a humanist view of the world, in which mankind and his individual achievements come to the fore, rather than a scholastic view, in which man’s endeavours were merely a reflection of God’s genius. Humanism led to a general expansion in education and learning, and to many more artists being identified by name. While not diminishing the role of religion, the rise of secular patronage from princes and other wealthy families grew alongside the Church in urging on a flowering in all forms of the Arts.
Who was Nicolas Gombert?
The most famous composers of the sixteenth century, known to most people today, are perhaps Josquin Despres (c. 1452–1521) and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/26–1594). Between the two stands Nicolas Gombert (c. 1495–c. 1560), now hardly known, although his reputation is gradually being revived. That he was one of the most famous composers in Europe is evidenced by the wide use of his compositions as the basis for compositions by other composers (this use of existing melodies is known as parody technique), the distribution and copying of his works across Europe, and the number of printed volumes that contain his work.
With Gombert, the contrapuntal and imitative techniques of the Franco-Flemish composers that came after Josquin reached their zenith, with the generation that followed adopting a slightly more syllabic setting of texts, in accord with the strictures of the Catholic Church’s Council of Trent (1545–63) that required composers to set words so that they would be more clearly understandable at all times.
Gombert’s Life and Works
We do not know exactly either when Gombert was born or when he died, but his birth occurred around 1495 in southern Flanders. According to the German writer Hermann Finck (1527–1558), Gombert undertook early music studied with Josquin (we know that after Josquin’s death Gombert composed a déploration, although it was not printed until 1545), but the first solid evidence of his career comes from 1526 when he was employed as a singer in the chapel of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–1558), with whom he would have travelled across Europe extensively. In 1529, he is listed in Court documents as magister puerorum, that is, master of the [choir] boys at the Royal Chapel, a position he held until at least 1537. He continued to compose, but he never held the position of director of music (maestro di cappella) or court composer. During the 1530s it appears that Gombert took holy orders.
As chiefly a church composer, Gombert is know to have written ten settings of the mass, and nine of these survive in complete sources. There are also eight settings of the Magnificat, one in each of the eight church modes (similar to what we would now call keys). His over 140 motets cover all parts of the liturgical year, and a number call for an unusually large number of parts, the most famous being two twelve-voice works, the ‘Agnus Dei’ from his Missa Tempore paschali (Mass for Eastertide) and his ‘Regina caeli’. Several motets can be linked directly to his employment in the court of Charles V: Dicite in magni, written in 1527 in celebration of the birth of Charles’s son Philip (who reigned as Philip II, 1544–98); a piece for the 1531 coronation of Ferdinand I as King of the Romans titled Felix Austriae domus; and Qui colis Ausoniam, commemorating a treaty signed by Charles and the Pope in 1533. He also wrote over 70 secular compositions, mostly chansons, for solo voices in three or four polyphonic parts, that were, presumably, used in Court entertainments.
In 1540, according to the physician Jerome Cardan’s 1560 publication Theonoston, Gombert was sentenced to hard labor in the galleys after being convicted of sexual impropriety. It appears that he was pardoned around 1547, and was at that time living in Tournai in Flanders (Belgium), where he had been appointed a canon at the cathedral around 1534), but no further information has been uncovered about his life. He was reported by Finck to have been alive in 1556, and by Cardan to have been dead in 1561.
Click here to see a list of the known sacred works written by Gombert.