Beauty Farm and Gombert, continued

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Program: #21-17   Air Date: Apr 19, 2021

In the latest release from the unusual Fra Bernardo label, Beauty Farm continues their Nicolas Gombert series with four masses, including two world-premiere recordings.

NOTE: All of the music on this program comes from the recording Nicolas Gombert Masses on the Fra Bernardo label featuring the ensemble Beauty Farm. It is CD FB 2005329. For more information:

Nicholas Gombert: Masses Product Image

Masses by the mysterious Nicolas Gombert are among the rarities in the record catalogue. This is astonishing, since his polyphonic voice fabrics are among the best that the 16th century has to offer. Legendary in his lifetime, Nicolas' music is often undiscovered today. Thus, Beauty Farm is able to present two premiere recordings on this new CD: motet "Beati omnes" and Missa Philomena praevia in addition to the well-known Missa Media Vita. A student of Josquin des Prez, Gombert (c. 1495-1560) wrote in a style that represents the height of polyphonic complexity. Although he was extremely prolific, much of his music remains unexplored. Beauty Farm interprets the music, which has been re-edited especially for Fra Bernardo, with the usual fresh sound, which melts together from the free, individual design of the individual voices to an impressive whole. Described by the Washington Post as 'One of the newest and most exciting [early music ensembles] is Beauty Farm', they are a sextet of male singers from Germany and Belgium based in the cultural centre at the former Carthusian monastery of Mauerbach, Austria. The group, formed in 2014 by members of leading early-music vocal ensembles, is devoted to the rarefied repertory of Franco-Flemish polyphony of the Renaissance.

Radical changes can be observed again and again in the history of music: styles, genres, techniques change fundamentally or are completely displaced by something new. As much as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach says he learned from his father Johann Sebastian,
his musical language hardly resembles that of the Thomaskantor. As much as Beethoven owes Mozart's sonata form and Haydn's motivic-thematic work, his tone and syntax are unmistakably new. And so on: evolution and revolution, commitment to inheritance and the departure to new shores are often closely linked, changes in mentalities and social upheavals are reflected in aesthetic generation conflicts.

The inherently diverse innovations of the great generation of composers around 1500 - associated with names such as Jakob Obrecht, Josquin Desprez, Pierre de la Rue, Heinrich Isaac, Antoine Brumel, Jean Mouton - were both continued and negated by their successors. Although composers such as Adrian Willaert, Jean Richafort, Jacquet von Mantua, Cristóbal de Morales, Nicolas Gombert or the a little younger Clemens non Papa, Cipriano de Rore or Thomas Crecquillon were certainly familiar with the achievements of their predecessors and in some cases clearly in their early works tied in with this, they quickly developed a different aesthetic.

Often quoted, but here too, indispensable are the sentences of a competent observer of this development, the composer and music theorist Hermann Finck. In his textbook Practica Musica, published in 1556, Finck wrote: “At that time [that is, from 1480] Josquin Desprez, who can truly be called the father of musicians, to whom much can be ascribed: He was in fact to many in subtlety and loveliness superior, but his way of composing is more naked, that is, although he is extremely astute in inventing imitations, he still uses many pauses. ... But in our time there are new inventors, among whom is Nicolas Gombert, student of Josquin blessed memory, who shows all musicians the direction, even the right way to invent imitations and subtleties, and he is the inventor of one of Music that was very different from the earlier ones. This namely avoids the pauses, and his way of composing is full of harmonies as well as imitations. "[1]

This characteristic is brief, but sharp and apt, as we shall see later. Two things seem remarkable at first: On the one hand Finck Gombert names Josquin's pupil, on the other hand he names the profound stylistic differences between the two composers in the same sentence. In this context, “pupil” (discipulus) is not meant as a metaphor for a stylistic succession, but must be understood literally, biographically:

Nicolas Gombert was probably born in the small settlement of La Gorgue, where the name Gombert is still widespread today. La Gorgue (now in the French department of Nord in the Hauts-de-France region) is only about 65 kilometers as the crow flies from Condé-sur-l’Escaut, where Josquin lived from 1504 until his death in 1521. The fact that the young Gombert as a choirboy at the Collegiate Church of Condé, who was headed by Josquin as provost, learned to sing, improvise and perhaps also to compose from the older master is an attractive, if no longer documentable scenario. In any case, Finck sees both as the most important composers of their time.

Otherwise we are not informed about Gombert's early years; the assumption of a date of birth around 1495 is based on speculation. He did not appear on the scene until 1526: as a singer in one of the most important court orchestras of the time, in the service of Emperor Charles V. Since Karl stayed in Spain throughout that year, Gombert must have been recruited by a musical agent in France or Italy his, which means that he already had a certain reputation.

In fact, it seems reasonable to assume that his compositional qualities recommended him for the work in the imperial chapel, because even if he never became conductor, he soon became the unofficial court composer. In 1526 he could have composed the motet Veni electa mea for the wedding of Charles and Isabella of Portugal on March 10 in Seville; however, the piece has come down to us elsewhere under the name of Jacquets of Mantua. [2]  In 1527 he composed Dicite in magni for the birth of Karl's son Philip (later Philip II). In 1531 he created Felix Austriae domus for the coronation of Karl's brother Ferdinand I as Roman king (Ferdinand took over the administration of the empire in Central Europe), and in 1533 Qui colis Ausoniam for an alliance between the emperor, Pope Clement VII and other Italian rulers in Bologna. In view of these important dates, it would be hard to imagine if Gombert had made no musical contribution to the central political event of these years, the official election and coronation of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope (1530).

In fact, there is one of his masses, which the publisher Girolamo Scotto described in 1542 as the Missa de la Incoronation, hence the coronation mass. But the actually apt title of the work is Missa Sur tous regretz. Like almost all of Gombert's masses, the piece is a so-called parody mass. It takes a pre-existing composition, in this case the chanson sur tous regretz by his somewhat older generation colleague Jean Richafort, as the musical material basis. [3] 

On closer inspection, however, this chanson turns out to be a very peculiar choice for a coronation mass. It belongs to the melancholic fashion of the "Regretz" chansons, popular around 1500, and Richafort has certainly written one of the most melancholic: the upper part often seems to lose its motif independently of the deeper ones in its own thoughts and fioritures, and at the end it returns to tenor and Bass the beginning again, as if the considerations had led to nothing (Gombert was supposed to adopt this formal recourse to his Gloria). In fact, the text of this chanson seems to be a parody: "Car j'ai perdu l'amiable liqueur / que tant je plains et plaindrai en ample heure." .) Even if “liqueur” generally meant “liquid” in French in the 16th century, it is probably clear what kind of drink it was here ... Would Charles V really have wanted such a chanson as the solemn basis for his coronation?

If the mass was actually written in 1530, it would be one of the earliest surviving works by Gombert (it was not printed until 1542; the masses Quam pulchra es and Da pacem were the first to be published in 1532). In fact, it shows some peculiarities that are no longer found in the more mature Gombert, including a tendency towards ostinati, i.e. musical phrases repeated at short intervals. At the beginning of the last Kyrie, for example, one can clearly hear how often the motif intoned by the soprano at the beginning recurs in this and the other voices (it also pervades other movements, such as the “Deum de deo” of the Credo). In the Credo, the soprano motif repeated three times on "Jesum Christum", "filium Dei", "filium Dei unigenite" stands out, and the lower voices also repeat their motifs. The section in the triple meter from “Confiteor unum baptisma” is also unusually sharp for Gombert. Such clear structures are still an inheritance of the Josquin generation, as are the low-voiced and strongly imitative passages of the three-part Crucifixus and Pleni and the two-part Benedictus; and in the final agnus, expanded to six parts, Gombert completely quotes the upper part of the original in the soprano, a traditional method that he later no longer used. The other three masses and their templates are (even) more committed to the ideal that Finck outlined in Gombert's remarks about the missing pauses, the resulting richer sound and the close imitations. 

Gombert's style is thus well characterized: it is full of tightly interwoven, almost non-stop imitations or imitations of one voice by the others in a relatively regular flowing rhythm, whereby Gombert rarely writes very exact imitations, but deliberately varies the motifs in the individual voices. As homogeneous as his works, which are often kept in low pitches and often characterized by sharp dissonances, appear to the listener, inside they resemble a labyrinthine mosaic of similar, but almost never the same members. Because Gombert loves the asymmetrical, the imprecise, the unpredictable. And he loves the uninterrupted flow: cadences, otherwise the occasion to pause, are covered over and overlaid with the use of a new imitation motif, even after the final cadence the piece seems to fade away rather than end. The text representation also subordinates itself to this flow; There are hardly any emphatically emphasized or even tonally expressively charged text passages with him.

One could describe the overall impression with the music theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi as “richezza d'harmonia” or, to use an expression from the history of pop music of the 20th century, as a “wall of sound” - a wall of dense sound, which admittedly fluctuates continuously. [4] With this, and this is probably the most important difference to the generation around 1500, a consistent style has been created that makes all works of the mature Gombert immediately recognizable. No one of Josquin's masses is quite the same in its layout as another; but all of Gombert's masses are consistently shaped by the stylistic processes described.

The six-part motet “Media in vita” with its meditation on the omnipresence of death also has a dark, heavy sound due to the density of the deep voices, which is typical of Gombert's aesthetics; the motet is based on the antiphon of the same name,
so that the motifs are based on the typical, often step-by-step Gregorian phrases. In the mass about this work, this “anonymous” motif is freely developed; soon the listeners lose their bearings as to whether there is still a reference to the original model or just a similar-sounding education. This blurring effect, consciously calculated by Gombert, is underlined by the almost completely prevailing even rhythm, which in the Credo already turns the leap into the three meter measure at “Et unam sanctam catholicam ecclesiam” into an event. The last agnus is extended to the six-part motet and thus becomes the sonically impressive conclusion. Gombert's mannerism occurs remarkably frequently in this mass: in cadence formations, the raised leading tone, which leads back to the fundamental tone (e.g. c sharp), sounds at the same time as its natural level in another voice (e.g. c), a cutting effect " linear “counterpoint.

It is temptingly obvious to associate the dark tone of this mass, which can also be felt in other works by Gombert, such as chansons, with what is probably the most disturbing event in the composer's biography. From 1529 Gombert was maître des enfants, i.e. educator of the choirboys in Karl's chapel, but around 1540 his name suddenly disappears from the files. For a long time, research was puzzled, until the report was discovered in the writings of the physician and scholar Girolamo Cardano (1501–1576) that Gombert had raped a choirboy and had been banished to the galleys for this, but only in anklets, so probably without rowing. Cardano also notes that another composer, Dominique Phinot, was beheaded and burned for similar offenses. On the other hand, according to Cardano's report, Gombert was able to regain the favor of the emperor through "swan songs" (cygneas ... cantiones) and to withdraw to a benefice (presumably a canonical in Tournai), where he spent the rest of his life quietly. [5] The later Magnificat compositions had long been regarded as this swan song; According to a more recent thesis, however, this is Gombert's first printed book of motets for four parts (Venice 1539). [6]

The motet “Beati omnes” and the four-part mass based on it strike a happier note. This is probably related to the text of the psalm, which describes the joys of marriage ("Your wife will be like a fruitful vine inside your house, your children like young olive trees around your table", Luther translated). This psalm was often composed - by Ludwig Senfl, for example - for wedding celebrations, and such an occasion would be obvious here too. The mode of the motet - Mixolydian - is at least related to our major, [7] and the fanfare-like motifs, which are characterized by triads and upbeats in fourths, evoke a festive mood that is expanded to five-part in the final agnus. As is often the case in parody masses, it is noticeable that Gombert is gradually moving away from a comparatively close reference to the original at the beginning and that in Sanctus and Agnus the opening motif is provided with new counterpoints in the manner of a fantasy. With the last work we return to an (apparently) secular model, also written by Jean Richafort: the motet Philomena praevia. When in 1549 the archpriest of the Santa Casa of Loreto, Bernardino Cirillo, got upset about the custom of using models such as L'homme armé, Hercules Dux Ferrarie or Philomena praevia for masses, he did so from the perspective of the Counter Reformation: “What for The devil has mass to do with the armed man, or with Philomena, or with the Duke of Ferrara? […] By the love of God, tell me what pious feelings the Duke of Ferrara can arouse? ”[8]

Cirillo had become alien to the deep intertwining of spiritual and secular motifs in European culture, and from this perspective he not only criticized Works by Josquin and others, but also by his direct contemporaries. With “Philomena” he apparently alludes to the parody masses of Richafort's Philomena praevia, besides that of Gombert there are also such masses by Claudin de Sermisy and Philippe Verdelot (as well as a fourth, perhaps erroneously also attributed to Verdelot.

Missa A la Incoronation a 5
Media vita a 6
Missa Media vita a 5

Missa Philomena praevia a 5
Beati omnes a 5
Missa Beati omnes a 4

Composer Info

Nicolas Gombert(c. 1495-1560

CD Info

CD FB 2005329