Nicolas Gombert

Nicolas Gombert


• ca1495 ca1560

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The German music theorist Hermann Finck wrote in 1556 that Nicolas Gombert had shown all musicians "the exact way to refinement." Finck claimed that Gombert had personally studied with the great Josquin Desprez, presumably in Josquin's final years at Condé-sur-l'Escaut; unfortunately, no independent confirmation of this master-pupil relationship exists, but Gombert's musical style of rich, pervasive imitation certainly builds upon the style of Josquin. His long service to the court chapel of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V allowed Gombert to travel widely and transmit this musical style across the bounds of Europe. With his contemporaries, Adrian Willaert and Jacob Clemens non Papa, Gombert brought the style of the musical Renaissance to fruition; even as late as 1610, no less a musician as Claudio Monteverdi selected a motet of Gombert upon which to base a mass setting in his bid to become Maestro di capella at Venice's San Marco.

Gombert was born somewhere in Southern Flanders; the village of La Gorgue has been suggested based upon the presence of other families named Gombert there. From roughly 1526 until around 1540, Nicolas served the court chapel of Emperor Charles V, travelling throughout Charles' vast realms in Flanders, Italy, Austria, Germany, and, of course, Spain. As of 1529, he fulfilled the position of maître des enfants in the Chapel. Charles, a fervent Catholic (and later one of the initiators of the Council of Trent), apparently encouraged the composition of masses and motets among his personal musicians, though Gombert also produced a large number of courtly French chansons. Gombert also honored his imperial patron with several commemorative motets celebrating events in Charles' life: the birth of a son, the coronation of his brother as King of Hungary, and an important international treaty. Gombert's service was partially remunerated by a series of ecclesiastical benefice incomes from churches at Courtrai, Béthune, Lens, and Metz.

Gombert's name abruptly vanishes from the imperial paylists in 1540; the mathematician Jerome Cardan records the reason as Gombert's sexual violation of one of the boys in his charge; he was sentenced to penal servitude in the galley of a warship. Apparently, he continued to compose, however, and is said to have written certain "swan songs" which helped avert the Emperor's ire, and earned his pardon. By 1547 -- when he sent a letter and a motet to one of Charles' officers -- he was residing in Tounai, where he eventually received a canonicate. He lived out his last years in peace at Tournai, dying some time between 1556 and 1561.