Not a lot is known
about Nicholas Gombert apart from the fact that he was evidently charged
with committing gross indecency with a choir boy and banished to the galleys.
He was born near Lille in what was then Flanders but is now part of France.
His brush with the law occurred whilst he was serving in the chapel of the
Emperor Charles V. He had entered the chapel as a singer in around 1526 and
in some sources is reported as becoming master of the boys. Being in the
chapel gave him many opportunities for travel, to Spain and elsewhere, in
the Imperial entourage. His period in the galleys was around 1540, but he
composed a sequence of eight Magnificats which led to the Emperor granting
him a pardon. No-one seems to explain how he managed to write them whilst
serving in the galleys. He spent the last few years of his life in Tournai.
The first of these
Magnificats is included on this new disc. The Magnificat is a wonderfully
robust and self confident piece, with polyphony alternating with plainchant.
Gombert can often
be seen simply as a link between the low and high Renaissance, between the
music of Josquin and Palestrina. But on the basis of this disc his music
is much more, with a vigour and richness all his own. Contemporaries suggested
that Gombert had studied with Josquin, though we have no evidence for this.
Gombertís music was consistently polyphonic in style and eschewed the more
modern styles of his Italian contemporaries.
There are sixteen
singers in the group and they sing the music to the manner born, with a suppleness
of phrasing which suits the music. The women make a fine warm and surprisingly
big sound that retains an element of boyishness. These are most definitely
choral performances rather than vocal consort ones. This may not be to everyoneís
taste in music of this period, but with musicianship as good as this it is
hard to complain.
The disc opens
with the motet Tulerun Dominum, a piece which was seemingly very popular
in Gombertís day as it survives in four versions. The motet forms the basis
for Gombertís astounding eight-part Credo, a wonderfully rich confection
and the Oxford Camerata do more than justice to the virtuosity of the writing.
Gombert keeps the texture of the Credo varied, constantly changing the number
of voices singing. Interestingly there were moments when I thought I detected
hints of the poly-choral techniques of Gabrieli.
motets, Super flumina Babylonis and Salve Regina are more introspective.
In the Salve Regina Gombert manages to weave together seven plainchant
melodies into a satisfying whole. The programme concludes with the Epitaphium to
Gombertís mentor Josquin in which he mixes his own style with the simpler
style of Josquin.
This is a fine
programme, beautifully performed and I hope that it enables us to hear much
more of the music of this underrated composer.