Nicolas Gombert (c. 1495 – c. 1560) was a Franco-Flemish composer of the Renaissance. He was one of the most famous and influential composers between Josquin des Prez and Palestrina, and best represents the fully developed, complex polyphonic style of this period in music history.
Details of his early life are sketchy, but he was probably born around 1495 in southern Flanders, probably between Lille and Saint-Omer, possibly in the town of La Gorgue. German writer and music theorist Hermann Finck wrote that Gombert studied with Josquin; this would have been during the renowned composer's retirement in Condé-sur-l'Escaut, sometime between 1515 and 1521.
Gombert was employed by the emperor Charles V as a singer in his court chapel in 1526 and possibly as a composer as well. Most likely he was taken on while Charles was passing through Flanders, for the emperor traveled often, bringing his retinue with him, and picking up new members as he went. A document dated 1529 mentions Gombert as magister puerorum ("master of the boys") for the royal chapel. He and the singers went with the emperor on his travels throughout his holdings, leaving records of their appearances in various cities of the empire. These visits were musically influential, in part because of Gombert's stature as a musician; thus the travels of Charles and his chapel, as did those of his predecessor Philip I of Castile with composer Pierre de la Rue, continued the transplantation of the Franco-Flemish polyphonic tradition onto the Iberian Peninsula. At some point in the 1530s Gombert became a cleric and probably a priest; he received benefices at several cathedrals, including Courtrai, Lens, Metz, and Béthune. He remained in the Imperial chapel as maître des enfants ("master of the children") until some time between 1537 and 1540, being succeeded by Thomas Crecquillon and later Cornelius Canis. Even though he held this very position at the Imperial chapel, he never officially received the title of maître de chapelle – music director – which was a title given to both Adrien Thibaut and Thomas Crecquillon. While serving in this position, he likewise unofficially held the position of court composer, arranging numerous works commemorating the key happenings during Charles V's life.
In 1540 during the height of his career, he vanished from chapel records. According to contemporary physician and mathematician Jerome Cardan, writing in Theonoston (1560), in 1540 Gombert was convicted of sexual contact with a boy in his care and was sentenced to hard labor in the galleys. The exact duration of his service in the galleys is not known, but he was able to continue composing for at least part of the time. Most likely he was pardoned sometime in or before 1547, the date he sent a letter along with a motet from Tournai to Charles' gran capitano Ferrante I Gonzaga. The Magnificat settings preserved uniquely in manuscript in Madrid are often held to have been the "swansongs" that according to Cardan won his pardon; according to this story, Charles was so moved by these Magnificat settings that he let Gombert go early. An alternative hypothesis (Lewis 1994) is that Cardan was referring to the highly penitential First Book of four-part motets; however, in neither case is it clear how Gombert was able to compose while rowing in the galleys as a prisoner.
It is not known how long Gombert lived after his pardon or what positions, if any, he held; his career faded into relative obscurity after he was freed. He may have retired to Tournai, spending the final years of his life as canon there. Bracketing dates for his probable death are 1556 and 1561; in the former year Finck mentioned that he was still living, and in 1561 Cardan wrote that he was dead, without giving details.
Music and style
Adrian Willaert and Nicolas Gombert are generally recognized as the exemplars of the late Franco-Flemish school, before the center of Renaissance art-music moved to Italy. A Fleming, Willaert relocated to Italy and along with the originally Flemish composer Orlando di Lasso brought the Franco-Flemish style of simultaneously dense and lyrical counterpoint to Italy. Like Willaert, Gombert brought the polyphonic style to its highest state of perfection; if imitation is a common device in Josquin, it is integral in Gombert.
Gombert's style is characterized by dense, inextricable polyphony. Extended homophonic passages are rare in his sacred works, and he is particularly fond of imitation at very close time intervals, a technically very difficult feat (although he only rarely wrote strict canon). He preferred the lower voice ranges instead of the four voices (SATB) which were the most common voicings for pieces at the time, such as five and six parts in mostly male registers. Gombert, unlike his predecessor and mentor, Josquin des Prez, used irregular numbers of voice entries and avoided precise divisions of phrases, resulting a less-punctuated, more continuous sonic landscape. Syncopations and cross-accents are characteristic of his rhythmic idiom, giving ictus to his otherwise seamless, enduring lines.
Harmonically, Gombert's compositions stressed the traditional modal framework as a baseline, but especially in dense textures of six or more voices, he wrote polymodal sections wherein a subset of voices would sing the lowered pitches of F or B♭ while another subset would sing the raised pitches of F♯ or B: a D major and D minor chord or a G major and a G minor chord might be simultaneously sounded. Melodic motion in one voice that, to retain melodic and harmonic coherence with the other voices, employed musica ficta, or an extended set of pitches from the basic modal framework, was very prominent in his musical stylings. The false relations, usually between a F and an F♯ or a B♭ and B, create a dissonance that Gombert employed for emotional effect while adhering to traditional rules of counterpoint.
In western music, a motet is a mainly vocal musical composition, of highly diverse form and style, from the late medieval era to the present. The motet was one of the pre-eminent polyphonic forms of Renaissance music. According to Margaret Bent, "a piece of music in several parts with words" is as precise a definition of the motet as will serve from the 13th to the late 16th century and beyond. The late 13th-century theorist Johannes de Grocheo believed that the motet was "not to be celebrated in the presence of common people, because they do not notice its subtlety, nor are they delighted in hearing it, but in the presence of the educated and of those who are seeking out subtleties in the arts".