Jacob Clemens non Papa (c.1510-c.1555)

             [Uncertain portrait]

             [Uncertain portrait]

Not much is known about Clemens’ early life. He may have been born in around 1510 in Zeeland, the southern tip of the Netherlands, or else in Belgium, and he spent most of his life in Flanders. He worked in Bruges, s’-Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch), probably in Leiden and Ypres, and possibly in Dordrecht. One of his best-known motets, Ego flos campi, was written for the Marian brotherhood of Den Bosch, its seven voices symbolising the mystical number associated with Mary and her seven joys and seven sorrows. Clemens formed a business relationship in about 1545 with the Antwerp composer and publisher Tielman Susato. The latter may have been responsible for the epithet ‘non Papa’, ‘not the Pope’, distinguishing Clemens from Pope Clement VII (perhaps as a joke) in some publications – though the Pope had died in 1534. Whatever its origin, the epithet stuck.

Clemens’ death has been dated in 1555 from a motet of that date described as his ‘ultimum opus’, his last work; also from the dedication by the printer of his first book of Masses in 1556. A ‘déploration’ on his death by Jacobus Vaet was published in 1558.

While we know little of his life, a lot of his music survives: 15 Masses and 15 Magnificats, over 230 motets, more than 100 secular pieces, and – a first – polyphonic settings of all 150 of the psalms, in Dutch: the Souterliedekens, published by Susato in 1556-57, and probably Clemens’ best-known work in his lifetime. Gombert succeeded Clemens in one of his posts, and his music was known to Lassus – it was distributed widely in France, Germany, Spain and even England. Unlike several of his compatriot composers (Willaert, de Rore, Lassus) Clemens did not travel to Italy and was seemingly untouched by foreign influences, representing very much a purely Flemish style of composition. He is credited by Leeman Perkins for his contribution to motet composition, effectively marrying different compositional techniques. ‘The motet, which clearly had come to dominate the sacred music of the period, became the genre in which these compositional techniques were first nurtured and then made to serve so effectively the exposition of the text.’

What to listen for: Clemens is most celebrated for his polyphonic church music. The key elements of his style include pervasive imitation (where each voice closely imitates the same melodic melody), thick textures (where the imitating voices are bunched together), and use of homophony (where all voices sing the same text, to the same rhythm, at the same time) for rhetorical affect. All of these features can be heard in the video above, where as each motif is introduced, it is passed through the voice parts, in an overlapping style. At the words 'sicut lilium inter spinas' the singers abruptly stop imitating one another, and sing these words together. That is because this motet was written for a Marian brotherhood who had these words as their motto. The words are sung once by the higher voices, once by the lower voices, and then together by all seven parts - the number seven being deeply symbolic of the Virgin Mary.

Further reading

Perkins, L.L. (1999) Music in the Age of the Renaissance, London/New York: Norton