Jacob Clemens (called Clemens non Papa ) was one of the later representatives of the school of Flemish composers, who collectively so dominated European music in the Renaissance period. In the hierarchy of that school he was of the fourth generation - if Dufay be taken as the first, Ockeghem as the second, and Josquin as the third - with Lassus and de Monte yet to come as the fifth and last. Unlike many of his colleagues who were open to all the innovations of their time, Clemens remained a conservative figure, preferring to continue with the introverted, reflective style of composition which so well suited his predecessors, resisting the increasingly humanistic style of the Italians.
Although it was the fashion amongst Flemish musicians to study and work in Italy, there is no evidence that Clemens ever did. This disinterestedness for outside inspiration makes Clemens an unusually valuable contributor to the Netherlands school, preserving his old-fashioned view while compatriots like Willaert (in Venice), de Rore and de Wert (itinerant in northern Italy), and later Lassus (in Munich) were moving slowly out of the Renaissance altogether. It could be argued that this move was the death of the Netherlands school, since in the end the Italians were much better at Baroque thought and Monteverdi's revolution was an entirely Italian affair. All the pieces on this recording show essentially Flemish thought at its most typical.
Clemens' posthumous reputation has been coloured by some strange circumstances - his enigmatic nick-name, his lack of precise dates and therefore of anniversary years; and the fact that much of his finest work is to Dutch texts (the Souterliedekens) - again not a detail which is true of his leading compatriots. The nick-name seems to have been nothing more than an affectionate joke. There is no obvious reason why it should have been necessary to distinguish him from Pope Clement VII (who anyway died in 1534), nor why he should have been confused with the poet Jacobus Papa in Ieper (Ypres), who happened to have the same first name as him. Clemens spent most of his life in the Dutch-speaking part of modern Belgium, especially in Bruges, Antwerp and Ypres; but he also regularly visited the southernmost parts of present-day Holland, appearing for instance in Leiden, Dordrecht and 's-Hertogenbosch. It was for the Marian Brotherhood in 's-Hertogenbosch in 1550 that he wrote Ego flos campi.
The old-fashioned element in Clemens' technique is his consistent use of imitative counterpoint. He used chordal movement even less than Josquin. Not only that, he also tended to work the counterpoint at greater length than most composers, restating the melodies several times in a prolonged scheme of imitation. This is especially true of his liturgical music, and may be heard clearly in the Mass Pastores quidnam vidistis recorded here. This method heightens the elusive, abstract nature of his thought, while reducing the precise meaning of the words to a position of relative unimportance. This, of course, was the very opposite of the Italian Baroque approach, though it should be emphasised that the general meaning of the words is essential to the mystical atmosphere which Clemens so perfectly evokes. It can also be heard that the Mass Pastores quidnam vidistis is closely based on its parody motet, which itself is worked out on a spacious scale. Both pieces are in an unusual mode, posing difficult problems of musica ficta to the editor, who in this case was Sally Dunkley. They are scored for SSATB except the Agnus Dei which adds another bass part to the existing choir, and provides a sonorous conclusion to this very substantial mass-setting.
The motets recorded here continue the same mood of composition. Since Clemens was quite unusually prolific - probably writing his 233 motets, 15 masses and 159 vernacular psalms in little more than ten years - it is hard to be completely certain that they are typical of all his work, though this seems very likely. Ego flos campi is more homophonic than most, partly to emphasise the words 'sicut lilium inter spinas' which formed the motto of the 's-Hertogenbosch Brotherhood. The seven voices SSATTBB (unique in Clemens' output) symbolise the mystical Marian number. Pater peccavi is an eight-part (not double choir) motet in two sections, telling the story of the return of the Prodigal Son. All Clemens' talent for transparent counterpoint may be heard in this work; while in Tribulationes civitatum sonority is achieved in a different way, by low scoring for ATTB. Although the music in this motet is continuous, two halves are suggested by the repeat of the haunting phrase 'Domine miserere', half-way through and at the end.
© 1987 Peter Phillips
Since this recording was issued it has been established that Pater peccavi was composed by Thomas Crecquillon (c1505/10-1557).