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Exploring Music: He Deserves Better--Jacobus Clemens non Papa

The MHS Review 393 Vol. 11 No. 15, 1987

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David M. Greene


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There has, apparently, never been any mystery about the true identity of the com­poser known to history as "Clemens non Papa": he was a Netherlander (Dutch or Belgian) named Jacob Clement, who was born in the second decade of the 16th cen­tury and lived for some 40 years. Details of his career are spotty, but we are pretty sure that he worked as a church musician in Bruges, 's Hertogenbosch, Ypres, and Leyden. Without reference to the brevity of his life, we can say too that he compos­ed horseloads of music: 15 Masses, as many Magnificats, and innumerable motets, ver­nacular psalms ("Souterliedekens"), and secular songs.

But how Jacob acquired his cognomen remains a matter for conjecture. It clearly did not result from his winning a paterni­ty suit, since it means "Clement not Pope." The first known appearance of the sobri­quet was in 1545, after which it occurs with some frequency. Tradition has it that Clemens Papa would have been the famous Medici pope, Clement VII, the bastard nephew of Lorenzo the Magnificent. This notion is, however, dismissed on the grounds that Pope Clement died in 1534, more than a decade before Jake started call­ing himself "non Papa." This reasoning ig­nores the possibility that he was so called from much earlier in his life; but the fact is that from 1526 to 1605 the popes (two in succession) were called Clement. Anyhow, it is assumed that the nickname originated as a sort of joke (people referr­ing to "Clement--you know, not the Pope!").

Clemens non Papa has been largely, up to now, ignored by the record producers. My three-year-old Bielefeld catalog lists a butcher's dozen short works scattered through various collections, and the most recent Schwann offers a single motet. He deserves better. The annotator of this record points out that if he somewhat slavishly follows the French chanson-style of the day in his songs, Clemens was the first to set the Psalms in his native tongue, and he is quite individual in his sacred music in combining the French songfulness with the older Netherlandish polyphony. And the Grove man (Willem Enders) points out his influence on such important later composers as Lassus. Both writers com­ment on his lack of what we would now construe as drama, and the annotator adds that instead his is "a brilliantly decorative art, where textures shimmer with endlessly changing details of voicing, melodic shape, and harmonic color.'' (The analogy will not stand forcing, but my immediate thought while listening was of "minimalism.")

On the one hand, Clemens' music is "popular," in that he frequently adapts the songs current in his time to his own ends. But-also typical of his times--it is cerebrally conceived. (Music was then taught as a branch of mathematics.) There are those who would have it more cerebral than it is. They argue that Clemens was a prime practitioner of musica ficta or "fic­titious music." This was a means of escap­ing from the rather rigid laws of "true" music (musica recta) by sharping or flat­ting certain tones, thus producing a more chromatic texture. Conceding that this works with one or two of Clemens' com­positions, the annotator tells us that it is unsatisfactory with most and so has been avoided here, the pieces being performed as written.

The Mass, published a year or so after Clemens' demise, is a so-called "parody," built upon material from his own like­-named motet, which precedes it on the record. The other numbers include five chansons, a Flemish lied, three of the Psalms, and a Christmas responsory with cries of "Noel! Noel!" The second French song is set to the same text as the first (which may not be by Clemens), but with the lines in reverse order. The third is a sort of WCTU drinking song, the fifth one of those suggestive comedic marital com­plaints. The perfortning forces, by now well-known to MHS members, include 32 singers and a consort of viols, lutes, and recorders, all used in various combinations.

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