Nicolas Gombert (c.1495-c.1560) 


The little that is known about Gombert suggests that he had one of the more colourful lives of the Renaissance composers. He was born around 1495 in southern Flanders, and may have studied with Josquin: ‘In our very time there are innovators, among whom is Nicolas Gombert, pupil of Josquin of blessed memory…’  wrote Hermann Finck in his Practica Musica of 1556. It is not known how literally Finck’s description of Gombert as a ‘pupil of Josquin’ should be taken. But he may well have studied with the ageing composer since the region of his birth is not very distant from Condé, where Josquin spent his later years between 1515 and 1521. Gombert also wrote a motet on Josquin’s death, Musae Jovis (illustrated above). 

 In 1526 Gombert was a singer in the royal chapel of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and was Magister puerorum, Master of the [choir]boys, in the royal chapel in 1529 until some time between 1537-40. By then he had become a cleric, and received benefices at a number of cathedrals. He disappeared from chapel records in 1540, said by a contemporary author, Jerome Cardan, to have interfered with a choirboy and been sentenced to the galleys. Some time before 1547 he was pardoned, having written a letter to one of Charles’ captains and enclosed a music manuscript. Cardan says it was Gombert’s music that secured his pardon; it may have been some of his Magnficat settings or his penitential first book of four-part motets. After his release Gombert lived in obscurity as a canon at Tournai. He was said by Finck to be alive in 1556 and – by Cardan – to be dead in 1561.  

Gombert’s works include about 160 motets, some 60 chansons, 10 Masses, and 8 Magnificats. Finck noted that Gombert’s style was very different from what went before him: ‘he avoids rests’. He developed the polyphonic style to a degree of great complexity, and is regarded as one of the most significant composers between Josquin and Palestrina. This is suggested by the wide distribution of his music manuscripts across Europe, and by the frequency with which his music was sourced by other composers.

What to listen for: 

The style of Nicolas Gombert's music is recognisable for the way each section of text is set. Every new phrase will have its own musical motif, which is imitated by all the voice parts at close proximity to one another. The result is a complex, crowded texture that can be very satisfying to listen to. You may also notice some strong dissonances in Gombert's music. These are mostly false relations, which occur when two voices sing alternative versions of the same note (for example F sharp and F natural) either simultaneously or very close to one another. The cause of these is generally the application of musica ficta, a performance practice where particular notes are raised or lowered by a semitone in order to fit the hexachord system (a forerunner of modern tonic solfa).

Further reading:

Brown, H.M. (1976) Music in the Renaissance, Englewood Cliffs N.J.: Prentice Hall

Reese, G. (1959) Music in the Renaissance, New York: Norton