Nicolas Gombert

The Franco-Flemish composer Nicolas Gombert (ca. 1500-1556) introduced fully imitative treatment in the motet, and his method of composing the parody Mass remained the most important one throughout the Renaissance.

Almost nothing is known of the origin and early training of Nicolas Gombert. One edition of his four-voice motets with the ascription Nicolai Gomberti Flandri Brugensis… identifies his birthplace as Bruges, but other indirect evidence suggests the town of La Gorgue in Flanders. If the German music theorist Hermann Finck (Practica musica, 1556) is correct when he names Gombert a student of Josquin des Prez, such training probably occurred at Condé, where Josquin ended his illustrious career.

Gombert spent a large part of his creative life in the imperial chapel of Charles V. Gombert's name first appears on a rolle des benefices of Oct. 2, 1526, written in Granada, Spain, where Charles was temporarily sojourning. By 1529 Gombert was charged with training the royal choristers and composing music for court and chapel functions. He performed these duties until shortly before Dec. 28, 1540, when he is no longer mentioned in the chapel archives.

During these years Gombert and the choir accompanied the Emperor on many trips to Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany, and Flanders. The Hapsburgs rewarded the composer with income from several large churches, including those at Courtrai and Tournai. Since Finck speaks of him as alive in 1556, but he is no longer listed the following year in the records of Tournai Cathedral, it can be assumed that he died sometime in 1556 or 1557.

Gombert's extant works comprise 41 French chansons, 8 Magnificats, 159 motets for four to six voices, and 10 Masses. Most of these compositions support Finck's opinion that Gombert "has shown to all composers the method of writing imitation…. He avoids rests and his composition is both full of harmony and imitation." Imitation was not new with Gombert, for Josquin had made it an important part of musical architecture. But while the older man merely added it to a battery of other structural devices, Gombert restricted himself more completely to imitation. Unlike Josquin, whose music has an airy quality resulting from numerous rests given to all parts, Gombert avoids them by keeping all voices singing almost continuously. As a result, his pieces sound "fuller" and more "harmonic" than those of the previous generation.

Gombert avoids constructive techniques such as phrase repetition, canon, and cantus firmus. In the motets where long passages are often little more than an ongoing imitation of the same motive, he alters each repetition. Following Josquin, he favors the large two-part motet structure (AB:CB) in which the close of each part employs identical music and text.

Of Gombert's 10 Masses, 8 can be classified as "parodies" of preexisting models. For these parody Masses, in part a creation of Gombert, he replaced the older cantus firmus tenor with polyphonic chansons and motets, some of which were from his own hand. Motives from the model were joined succesively in one voice or simultaneously in several, and strategically alternated with freely composed material.


Further Reading on Nicolas Gombert

A discussion of Gombert's style is in Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance (1954; rev. ed. 1959). For background see Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music (1960).