As I’ve explored more music from the Franco-Flemish school, I’ve gotten to like some of the slightly less well-known composers—though usually famous in their day—such as Jacobus Clemens non Papa, who lived in Flanders from roughly 1510 to 1555. I enjoy his clear, well-balanced counterpoint. It’s peppy, well-structured, but unromantic: no grand gestures or strong emotions, just lucid clarity. That’s quite appealing to me these days.
On a website about Flemish music I read that:
The style of his work stayed “northern”, without any Italian influences. As far as is known Clemens never ventured out of the Low Countries to pursue a career at a foreign court or institution, unlike many of his contemporaries. This is reflected in most of his religious pieces, where the style is generally reliant on counterpoint arrangements where every voice is independently formed.
Not much is known of his life. The name ‘Clemens non Papa’ may be a bit of a joke, since his last name was Clemens, but there was also a pope of that name, so it may have meant ‘Clemens — not the Pope’.
That makes it all the more funny that if you look for a picture of Clemens non Papa, you’ll quickly be led to Classical connect.com, which has a nice article about him—with this picture:
Yes, this is Pope Clement VII.
Clemens non Papa was one of the best musicians of the fourth generation of the Franco-Flemish school, along with Nicolas Gombert, Thomas Crequillon and my personal favorite, Pierre de Manchicourt. He was extremely prolific! He wrote 233 motets, 15 masses, 15 Magnificats, 159 settings of the Psalms in Dutch, and a bit over 100 secular pieces, including 89 chansons.
But unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to have inspired the tireless devotion among modern choral groups that more famous Franco-Flemish composers have. I’m talking about projects like The Clerks’ complete recordings of the sacred music of Ockeghem in five CDs, The Sixteen’s eight CDs of Palestrina, or the Tallis Scholars’ nine CDs of masses by Josquin. There’s something about early music that incites such massive projects! I think I know what it is: it’s beautiful, and a lot has been lost or forgotten, so you when you fall in love with it you start wanting to preserve and share it.
Maybe someday we’ll see complete recordings of the works of Clemens non Papa! But right now all we have are small bits—and let me list some.
Another important album is Behold How Joyful – Clemens non Papa: Mass and Motets by the Brabant Ensemble. It too is is available as a playlist on YouTube:
The Brabant Ensemble have another album of Clemens non Papa’s music, Clemens non Papa: Missa pro defunctis, Penitential Motets. I haven’t heard it.
Next, the Egidius Kwartet has a wonderful set of twelve CDs called De Leidse Koorboeken—yet another of the massive projects I mentioned—in which they sing everything in the Leiden Choirbooks. These were six volumes of polyphonic Renaissance music of the Franco-Flemish school copied for a church in Leiden sometime in the 15th or 16th century, which somehow survived an incident in 1566 when a mob burst into that church and ransacked it.
You can currently listen to the Egidius Kwartet’s performances of the complete Leiden Choirbooks on YouTube playlists:
Volume 2 contains these pieces by Clemens non Papa—click to listen to them:
Volume 3 contains these:
Volume 4 contains these:
Volume 5 contains this:
• Ave Maria.
Here are those pieces—click to hear them:
Here also is a live performance of Ego flos campi by the Choir of St James, in Winchester Cathedral:
Happy listening! And if you know a big trove of recordings of music by Clemens non Papa, let me know. I just know what’s on Discogs.