We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 15 A Perfected Art
Richard Taruskin

The “post-Josquin” style at its most seamless and luxuriant can be sampled in the work of the Fleming Nicolas Gombert (ca. 1495–ca. 1560). Gombert, too, was reputed to have been Josquin’s pupil, but the information comes from a late, remote observer—a German theorist named Hermann Finck, writing in 1556—and is very likely just another use of “Josquin” as a brand name.10 Finck probably drew an erroneous conclusion from Gombert’s humanistic elegy for Josquin (Musae Jovis, “O Muses of Jove!”) that had been commissioned in 1545 by the Antwerp publisher Tylman Susato to adorn a book of Josquin’s chansons.

In fact, Gombert was a member of the élite chapel choir of Charles V, the greatest of the latter-day Holy Roman Emperors, and from 1529 the master of the choirboys. In 1540 he was dismissed from his post for sexually abusing one of the boys in his charge and spent some time thereafter in penal servitude as a galley slave on the high seas. He seems to have retired afterward to the Belgian cathedral town of Tournai as a canon of the same church of Notre Dame where the famous composite Mass Ordinary now known as the “Mass of Tournai” had been sung a couple of centuries earlier (see chapter 9). During this final period of relative calm and modest material security he was something like a freelance composer specializing in motets. More than 160 survive from his pen, of which more than half evidently date from after 1540.

One such is In illo tempore loquente Jesu ad turbas (“While Jesus was speaking to the crowd”), a six-voice gospel motet that was first published in Antwerp in 1556. Example 15-2 contains its opening point of imitation, and the beginning of the next. To speak of pervading imitation here would be an understatement. The texture is woven out of motives (fantazies) of the composer’s invention, but there is no longer any correspondence (as there had been in Busnoys or Josquin) between the number of voices and the number of imitative entries. The music proceeds deliberately, in great wavelike sections. Each is woven out of countless entries large and small, and all entries begin recognizably (though not literally) alike. Zarlino’s term for this kind of highly redundant approximate imitation with free continuation was fuga sciolta, which might be translated as “free imitation,” as opposed to what he called fuga legata (what we would call canon).


ex. 15-2 Nicolas Gombert, In illo tempore, mm. 1-23

The musical phrase associated with “in illo tempore” enters sixteen times, as shown. The next phrase, on “loquente Jesu ad turbas,” will have fourteen entries in all, more closely spaced in time. The number of statements of a given motif and their rate of entry are Gombert’s primary means of both formal articulation and rhetorical emphasis. Varying them, often quite markedly and asymmetrically, allows the composer to monitor and control the shape of the composition without resorting to stark contrasts of texture. Rhetoric remains as a shaping force, but within new limits defined by a proud emphasis on craftsmanship. Expression is sublimated into “finish.”

The texture might be compared with a finely wrought tapestry: a weave of melodic strands that are given a high profile at their beginnings, receding from there into the harmonic warp and woof. What brings the river metaphor to mind, with its suggestion of placid, time-forgetful flow, are the harmonic and rhythmic dimensions. The harmonic or tonal plan is extremely stable. Its stability is achieved by a strong emphasis on what might be called the “structural pitches,” so defined on the basis of their function within the built-instructure of the mode, in this case what Glareanus had dubbed “Ionian,” with Cas final.

Every entry of the first phrase (“in illo tempore”) is either on the final or on the tuba or reciting tone (to recall some Frankish terminology from long ago), namely G. Entries on the final proceed by a rising fifth to the tuba, describing the modal pentachord. Entries on the tuba proceed not in literal but in reciprocal fashion, by a rising fourth to the final, describing the modal tetrachord. The second phrase (beginning “loquente”) seems to vary the scheme a bit: entries are on G or its fifth, D; but the finishing or cadential notes are again in every case either G (the tuba) or C (the final).

This modal regularity is reinforced by range-deployment (tessitura): the old structural pair, cantus and tenor (plus the “quintus” or fifth voice, which coincides with the tenor’s range) are the first to enter, moving from tuba up to final. That suggests a plagal ambitus (to recall the old chant-theorists’ term), and the suggestion is confirmed by the overall range of those parts, with the initial G functioning as a lower limit and the final located in midrange. The remaining parts—the old nonessential pair of high and low contratenors, plus the “sextus,” or sixth voice that doubles the range of the bass—are pretty strictly confined to the “authentic” octave. For them the final is the lower limit.

The other factor suggesting an endless stream is uniformity of texture and, above all, of rhythm. Once all six voices have entered, they remain constantly in play until the end. The nearly three-tempus rest in the bass between its last “in illo tempore” and its first “loquente” is about the longest rest in the entire motet; there are no radical contrasts in texture, whether for structural delineation or for rhetorical effect. Even more tellingly, once the six voices are in play, there is steady motion on every minim (quarter notes in transcription) until the very end.

That is to say, some voice moves on every minim pulse, so that the “resultant,” were the moving parts to be summarized on a separate staff for analytical purposes, would be a steady stream of quarter notes, occasionally decorated by eighths. As the motet proceeds, moreover, the regularity of the minim pulse is progressively emphasized by the increasingly syllabic text-setting. Harmonic smoothness is assured by the pervading use of consonance on every minim, cadential suspensions alone excepted. Otherwise, once the six voices are all in play, the only dissonances are on the “weak” eighths, and are all of them fully classifiable according to our modern harmonic terminology: mainly passing notes and incomplete neighbors (échappées).

One can readily see the sort of stylistic perfection at which Gombert was aiming. We have little information about the way in which such music struck listeners, but we do know that it enjoyed great prestige among composers, who found Gombert’s technical control impressive enough to go on vying with it for several generations. Indeed, as late as 1610, more than fifty years after Gombert’s motet first saw the light of day, Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), who will get lots of attention later in this book but who was not yet born at the time of Gombert’s death, published a parody Mass that rewove and recast In illo tempore on a truly heroic scale. Gombert was first and last a composer’s composer.


(10) Hermann Finck, Practica musica … exempla variorum signorum, proportionum et canonum, iudicium de tonis, ac quaedam de arte suaviter et artificiose cantandi continens (Wittenberg, 1556), quoted in George Nugent with Eric Jas, “Gombert,” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd ed., New York: Grove, 2001), Vol. X, p. 119.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 15 A Perfected Art." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2019. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 15 A Perfected Art. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 26 Mar. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 15 A Perfected Art." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 26 Mar. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015005.xml