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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 15 A Perfected Art
Richard Taruskin

Willaert’s other important contemporary was the fantastically prolific Jacobus Clemens (or Jacob Clement, ca. 1510–56), jestingly dubbed “Clemens non papa” by his Antwerp publisher, Tylman Susato, as if anyone would confuse a Dutch composer with the Roman pope. The silly nickname, however, has stuck. His sacred music falls into two very different groups. The larger portion consists of the traditional Latin Masses, of which he wrote 15, and motets, of which he wrote a staggering 233—a proportion that gives an extreme but not inaccurate idea of the relative weight of the two genres in the output of most “post-Josquin” church composers: the opposite of what it had been pre-Josquin. It is a fair measure of their “rhetorical,” which is to say humanist, orientation. In these works Clemens uses the same integrative techniques that we have observed in Gombert, if with a somewhat less determined rigor and a bit more caprice.

One of Clemens’s best known motets is Qui consolabatur me recessit a me (“He who once consoled me has abandoned me”), first published in 1554, of which the beginning and end are given in Ex. 15-3. The text is what is known as a Biblical cento, a patchwork of Bible quotations put together for votive, possibly even nonliturgical, expressive purposes. Such centos, very common at the time, are enigmatic to us since we do not really know their purpose. They may have served for votive services in church, or they may signal the advent of a new genre, made available by music-printing, of “pious chamber music” (as Joseph Kerman has christened a somewhat later English repertory) meant for performance at home.11


ex. 15-3a Jacobus Clemens, Qui consolabatur me recessit a me, mm. 1-24

Many if not most motet texts in this great age of motet writing were nonstandard and nonliturgical. Even Gombert’s In illo tempore is an example: described above as a gospel motet, it is really just a “gospel-style” motet, in which a narrative formula much used in the gospels (In illo tempore, literally “At the time when”) is appropriated to introduce a fairly torrid paean to the Virgin Mary disguised as praise of her son: “Blessed is the womb that bore Thee, and the breasts that gave Thee suck.” We might hazard a guess, therefore, that Gombert’s motet was intended for use at a typical pre-Reformation “Lady Mass.” But it is no more than a guess.


ex. 15-3b Jacobus Clemens, Qui consolabatur me recessit a me, mm. 78 - end

By the same token, the Qui consolabatur me patchwork was presumably designed to beautify or symbolize a mournful occasion; the textual fragments assembled in it speak of tears, bitterness, and loss. So spectacularly affect-laden are its words that the motet was once a mainstay in an elaborate hypothesis according to which the mid-century composers of Catholic Holland and Flanders often expressed a covert leaning toward Lutheranism, with its emphasis on personal religious feeling, by engineering secret chromatic modulations to color their music through the wholesale infusion of unwritten musica ficta accidentals.12 That theory has been, if not disproved, at least shelved for lack of supporting evidence. But even without secret chromaticism Clemens’s motet is a strikingly affective work, in which expressivity is heightened and buttressed by what we may—at least in direct contrast with Gombertian rigor—fairly term poetic license.

On the face of it, Clemens’s procedures seem just as rigorous as Gombert’s, even more so. There is the same redundancy of overlapping interwoven entries in the opening point of imitation. Clemens, in fact, brings each voice in exactly twice, producing a precisely calculated, symmetrical “double point,” the second part in rhetorically effective stretto. But the rhythm does not settle when expected into Gombert’s regular minim pulse. Indeed, that second statement in stretto is a moment of unexpectedly arrested rhythmic motion: a rhetorical pause, so to speak, that serves (as pauses do) to focus attention. On what?

On some unusual pitch relationships, to begin with. The reader may already have noticed that the piece carries an unusually flat-full key signature. That in itself is no indication of chromaticism: quite the contrary, in fact. What key signatures do is transpose diatonic modes intact. That is what they do nowadays with modern major and minor scales, and that is what they did in the sixteenth century, too, when major and minor scales, under the rubrics Ionian and Aeolian, were incipient. Looking at Clemens’s first point of imitation in terms of its cadence, it is evident that the two flats in the superius, contratenor, and bassus have simply transposed the Ionian mode down a whole step—most likely to “darken” it in keeping with the prevailing affect. That first point, just like Gombert’s in Ex. 15-2, establishes the regularity of the mode by alternating entries on the tuba and the final. (Where Gombert had paired his entries at the octave, Clemens pairs the first two at the descending fifth, making a direct, rhythmically regular and highly affirmative progression from full-tempus tuba to full-tempus final.)

But in the second point, the one in stretto, the entries are highly irregular. The tenor, exactly repeating its first phrase with another entry on the final, is the only voice to reiterate one of the structural pitches, as we have been calling them. The contratenor does not imitate it but actually enriches it harmonically by doubling it at the third, beginning on D, so that its intervallic structure departs from precedent. The next voice to enter is the “quinta vox” or “fifth voice,” imitating not the tenor but the contratenor at the fifth below. It is forced by the curious extra flat in its signature to imitate the nonstandard intervallic configuration as well.

And that, of course, is why that extra flat is there: the normal rules of musica ficta would not have demanded it. It has to be explicitly signed because it is a departure from modal regularity. Thus it is a true “chromaticism,” if a mild one. Finally, the outer voices both enter on E-flat, in their respective octaves. Here the normal rules of musica ficta do demand the A-flat that had to be specifically supplied by signature in the quinta (and, as we now notice, in the tenor as well). The A-flat is no part of the Ionian scale. It is a “Mixolydian” infusion. The mode of the motet has been “commixed” and rendered unstable.

That instability is confirmed (to put things a bit paradoxically) at the other end of the motet. The final cadence is made, unexpectedly, on G, retrospectively coloring the motet Dorian, possibly because the last word of the text—amaritudine, “bitterness”—called for a dark harmonization, or possibly because the composer, for all his harmonic daring, remained a bit squeamish about ending the motet somewhere other than on one of the four traditional finals. He was not squeamish, however, about ending on a full triad. By the middle of the century, as Zarlino would report, such endings were standard; indeed, the presence of the third in the final chord was routinely dramatized, as it is here, by suspensions and lower neighbors.

The other branch of Clemens’s sacred output is at the opposite stylistic extreme from the loftily expressive motet just sampled. His four volumes of Souterliedekens (“Little psalter songs”), published in 1556–1557, contain three-voice polyphonic settings of all 150 Psalms in what was then a recent translation (or rather, a paraphrase) into Dutch verse. The translation and publication of “metrical psalms,” as they are generally called, in vernacular languages became a virtual craze in the wake of the Reformation, even in countries that did not immediately participate in the rise of Protestantism. They were meant both for public worship in the form of congregational singing and for home use, and were a bonanza for publishers.

The psalm translations Clemens set (on commission from his publisher, the enterprising Susato) had first been issued in 1540 by an Antwerp printer named Simon Cock. It was the first complete set of metrical psalms to appear anywhere in Europe. To make it even more useful and marketable, Cock’s book provided popular or folk tunes—love songs, ballads, drinking songs, and familiar hymns—to which each of the metrical paraphrases could be sung. One of these tunes was printed above each psalm. They were in fact the first music ever printed in the Low Countries from movable type. But the whole purpose of their inclusion was that they were widely known by heart.

This kind of appropriation from oral tradition is known in the scholarly literature as “contrafactum” (literally, a “makeover” or counterfeit). Latin terminology makes anything sound arcane, but this is one practice everybody knows. It is what we informally call “parody,” and it is familiar to anyone who has attended a revival meeting, learned a school or camp song (which rarely have their own tunes), or participated in a convivial “roast.” The practice obliquely acknowledges the fact that verbal literacy is far more widespread than musical literacy in most societies, including our own. The idea is to get everyone singing together as quickly as possible, without wasting any time on frills. Familiar tunes, whatever their origin, can be sung by everyone immediately, without any special instructions.

Accordingly, Clemens did not just set the texts published by Cock. Presumably on orders from Susato, he incorporated the familiar tunes as well, either in the tenor, following tradition, or in the superius where it would be all the more conspicuous. As published by Susato, then, the psalms became musically semiliterate, so to speak: still available for unison singing as contrafacta but also available in an elegant harmonization for the literate. The one selected for inclusion here (Ex. 15-4) is a setting of Psalm 71, “In Thee, O Lord, have I placed my hope” (or In te, Domine, speravi, as it was traditionally sung in church). Clemens’s superius voice incorporates an old Dutch love song, O Venus bant, which begins “O shackles of Venus, O burning fire! How that lovely gracious girl has overwhelmed my heart!” Again, there was no question of incongruity between the nature of the original text and the utilitarian purpose to which its tune was being adapted. Togetherness in prayer was the objective—indeed it was the vision that motivated the whole religious reform—and anything that facilitated togetherness in prayer was meet and righteous.


ex. 15-4 Jacobus Clemens, Souterliedekens, Psalm 71 (In te, Domine, speravi)

Needless to say, this homely domestic psalm is not an example of ars perfecta but a contrast or alternative to it. It can serve here as a preliminary reminder that the ars perfecta, despite Zarlino’s claims and the undeniable quality of the music he espoused, was never truly a universal style. And more, it shows that even as the ars perfecta was being perfected, there were forces at work that would compromise and eventually supplant it. The popularization of religious art in the name of reform was only one of these forces.


(11) Joseph Kerman, “On William Byrd’s Emendemus in melius,” Musical Quarterly XLIX (1963): 435.

(12) Edward Lowinsky, Secret Chromatic Art in the Netherlands Motet (New York: Columbia University Press, 1946).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 15 A Perfected Art." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015006.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 22 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015006.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 22 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015006.xml