Of all the many masters of the Flemish Renaissance who are held to be of minor interest, Nicolas Gombert (c.1495-c.1560) least deserves it. Although his star has risen appreciably in the last ten years, there is a long way to go before his uniquely expressive style is properly recognized for what it was; and this will never be achieved without reference to his ‘swansong' and most substantial masterpiece, the set of eight Magnificats, one on each of the eight Tones.
They form an anthology of everything he was capable of. Throughout his career he had developed an interest in dense textures. Very rarely resorting to chordal writing and preferring bass- and tenor-heavy sounds, he had specialized in the kind of polyphony which makes a virtue of detail; and to pack in yet more of it he tended to use five or six voices where, in Josquin, four would have sufficed, sometimes fitting in lines where the outside observer would have sworn that to add anything further was impossible. With such a starting-point, it is a miracle of his art that he always managed to avoid a featureless muddiness. Indeed, the way the imitation works between the voices is as clear as it is resourceful and intensely argued, as tight as a bud which occasionally is allowed to blossom into fully fledged sequences and brief melodies.
What will surely strike the listener's ear is the number of dissonances which Gombert wrote. In part these are the inevitable result of his habit of filling up the sonority. The polyphonic strands, more motivic than straightforwardly melodic, can seem deliberately to bump into each other, the range of expressive possibilities increased by his cavalier interpretation of the rules of normal part-writing. Particular examples of this are his delight in leaping from dissonant notes and not preparing suspensions properly; and yet he always moves his lines within narrow tessituras, in a restricted overall range, the top notes never very high, the low notes not low. One unexpected aspect of this technique is that the actual voice ranges are constantly shifting about: what is meant by ‘tenor', for instance, is never stable. Another is the constant opportunity to deploy false relations, sometimes known as ‘English clashes', by inflecting notes at cadences. There is a flourishing debate about how much the modern performer is entitled to do this, especially in Flemish music, but, being English, we have long had the chance to admire the expressive effects of these dissonances, and use them freely here.
There is some historical evidence (and a story worth retelling) to suggest that this set of Magnificats was indeed the summation of all that Gombert had striven for in his music. The source of it is a contemporary physician and polymath named Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576) who recounted that Gombert was at one point imprisoned in a galley on the orders of Charles V after having been convicted of molesting a choirboy in his care, and secured his release by composing his ‘swansongs' which so pleased the Emperor that he was pardoned and allowed to retire to a benefice. It is known that Gombert did retire to a benefice in Tournai, and the Magnificats (his last major works, and in a genre in which he had previously shown no interest) fit the designation ‘swansong' very well, for all that it is a little hard to imagine why he should have turned his mind to such things when bobbing around on the ocean chained in a cabin. Previous to this imprisonment he had, in 1526, joined the chapel of Charles V as a singer, and by 1529 was the master of the choirboys of the Imperial Chapel. He is present in documents from 1526 to 1537 but is not present in a chapel list of 1540. In 1547 he describes himself as a canon of the Cathedral of Tournai, and he appears to have died before 1560.
All the Magnificats follow the same basic pattern: setting the even-numbered verses to polyphony and leaving the odd-numbered ones in chant. The early verses tend to be scored for four voices, increasing to five or more by the last one. Much of Gombert's material is derived from the chant itself, as can be clearly heard in the points of imitation at the beginning of each setting. Furthermore, he faithfully retained the pitches of the cadences within the chant tones, using them in the polyphony both at the halfway point and at the end of each verse. (In his settings of Tones 3 and 6 he gives the performer two options, made possible by the fact that the contours of Tones 3 and 8 are similar, as are those of 6 and 1. In both cases he provides a setting of Tones 3 and 6, complete with final cadence in each verse and a sign to show that those Tones end there. However, he then extends each setting to accommodate Tone 8 and 1 endings respectively, presumably for practical reasons for performance within the liturgy. In order to sing all of his polyphony we chose to record the extensions, and list the Magnificats accordingly.)
However, each of the Magnificats has its own characteristics:
The chant of Tone 5 is transparently rooted in what the modern ear would call F major, beginning with the three notes of the triad F-A-C. Gombert equally transparently takes this as his starting point in each polyphonic verse, either using the triad in imitation (‘Fecit potentiam' and ‘Sicut locutus est') or filling it in to make a scale in imitation (‘Quia fecit' and ‘Sicut erat'). This is the only Magnificat of the set to add a voice on top of the previously established texture in the last verse, necessitating the introduction of sopranos.
Although Gombert's setting of Tone 3 is the most elaborate of his Magnificats in terms of numbers of voice-parts, Tone 6 is the most substantial in polyphonic terms, as beautiful in its detail as it is exquisitely crafted. All the basic material is consistently worked at greater length than elsewhere, which gives Gombert scope for such things as memorable sequences (especially at ‘et nunc, et semper' in the last verse), double points and even, at the very opening, augmentation. Added to this is the effectiveness of the scoring, the last three polyphonic verses (TTB, TTBB, ATTBB) proceeding as if in a broad sweep to the final few bars. These bars are among the most highly dissonant, thickly scored and intense Gombert ever wrote.
By contrast Tone 7 is the least orthodox of the set. Gombert's writing here has a harmonic uneasiness, often to be found in music based on this Tone, which is inherent in the chant melodies themselves. In modern terminology, although the notes of these melodies seem loosely to move around the triad of A minor, at the same time they convey a feeling of F major. And there is the further complication of the tritone between F and B natural, also characteristic of this Tone, though the angularity of it can be eased in the polyphony by applying musica ficta. It was part of Gombert's musical personality to explore and if possible emphasize problematic issues like these, which he does here by regularly writing phrases which include the tritone, and by beginning four of the six polyphonic verses in F, but ending them all in A. The result, in its own way, is a tour-de-force.
Tone 8 makes a fitting climax to the set, both in the subtlety of its motivic elaboration and, unusually, in the beauty of its melodies. In addition Gombert's scoring is at its most flexible here, the fifth polyphonic verse adding an extra alto part to the established SATB choir, which gives the only incidence of doubled altos in the set (he never did double the sopranos). This part then disappears again in the last verse which resumes Gombert's favourite technique of adding new parts below the prevailing texture, conjuring a low bass out of nowhere. The result is the five lower voices presenting and representing musical motifs in a narrow vocal range while the sopranos sing unforgettable arabesques above them (‘et in saecula'). To conceive such involving detail within a deliberately restricted idiom is a characteristic of chamber music of any period at its very best.
In order to establish the modality of the different chant tones, we have provided a set of Magnificat antiphons. In the liturgy these would traditionally have been sung before the Magnificat and repeated after it. We have preserved that sequence here.
©2002 Peter Phillips