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Where is Clemens non Papa? A composer hidden behind a large oeuvre

Pieter Mannaerts

Oeuvre and style

Jacobus Clemens non Papa, or Jacques Clement, was one of the most important and one of the most productive composers of his generation. His more than five hundred works were disseminated, copied and performed throughout Europe, from Poland to Portugal. His oeuvre comprises all of the important genres of the period: fifteen masses, sixteen Magnificat settings, more than one hundred secular works (French chansons and eight Dutch songs), 150 Souterliedekens (three-part Dutch psalm settings), and more than 230 motets.

Clemens's style remained 'northern', without Italian influences. As far as we know, Clemens did not leave the Low Countries and - in contrast to many of his contemporaries - did not embark on an international career at foreign courts or institutions. This is most clear from his religious music (masses and motets), the style of which is largely contrapuntal with voices that are to a certain degree independent. Strict canon (the most 'radical' version of counterpoint), however, is rare in Clemens. The resulting musical texture is often rather dense and compact, with only few breaks. This does not mean that Clemens had no consideration for the listener: a clear text setting and frequent textual repetitions ensure that the meaning of the text is not lost. The style of his French chansons is more transparent and is closer to the Parisian composers who gave new impulses to the genre, such as Claudin de Sermisy. Clemens's three- and four-part Dutch songs and his Souterliedekens are generally simpler in texture and were clearly intended for private use.

Paradoxically, we can only catch a glimpse of the man behind the composer: even though hundreds of his works remain, Clemens's life largely remains a mystery: very few facts are known with certainty, and those that are known mainly relate to the last decade of his life. Often, only hypotheses connect these scarce facts to Clemens's music.


Jacobus Clemens non Papa was presumably born between 1510 and 1515, possibly in the Northern Low Countries. His name first appears in the late 1530s, when the Parisian publisher Attaingnant prints a number of his chansons. Only in 1544 can we catch a new glimpse of Clemens. It is certain that he was a succentor at the Bruges collegiate church of St Donatian from March 1544 until June 1545, because he was given this position 'per modum probae' on March 26, 1544. This may mean that Clemens had not yet built himself a great reputation as a composer. Therefore, it seems likely that he composed his mass Gaude lux Donatiane for the church of St Donatian, perhaps even as a part of the probe. The mass title suggests that an existing melody or composition formed the basis of Clemens's mass. Gaude lux Donatiane may have been a polyphonic motet or a chant melody. To date, only a prayer text beginning with these words is known, but it has no music.

It is certain that Clemens was not the only composer to write music in honour of Donatian commissioned from the church of St Donatian. Clemens's predecessors in Bruges did exactly the same: the famous late-fifteenth-century composer Jacob Obrecht composed a Missa de sancto Donatiano (1487). Similarly, Lupus Hellinck, who was Clemens's immediate predecessor as a choir master (from 1523 to 1541), composed the motet Cursu festa dies for the same saint. The suggestion that Hellinck might have composed a second Donatian motet - now lost - to the text Gaude lux Donatiane, which subsequently formed the starting point for Clemens's polyphonic mass, is a mere hypothesis, however.

Even though Clemens might have been relatively unknown when arriving in Bruges, his fame began to grow quickly. From 1545 onwards, his music appeared regularly in collections published by Tielman Susato (Antwerp) and Petrus Phalesius (Leuven).

Clemens possibly spent some time in Beaumont as the choirmaster of duke Philippe II de Croÿ. Philippe II was one of Charles V's most important generals. It is most likely that several of Clemens's non-religious motets (state or ceremonial motets) refer to Philippe's relationship with the emperor, as illustrated by titles such as Carolus magne eras, Caesar habet naves validas and Quis te victorem dicat. The motet O quam moesta dies was composed at this time as well, probably at the occasion of Philippe's death in 1549. His employer's decease implied that Clemens had to look out for a new employment.

Between October 1 and December 24, 1550, Clemens visited the Confraternity of Our Lady (Illustere Onze-Lieve-Vrouwebroederschap) at 's-Hertogenbosch as sanger ende componist (singer and composer). For this confraternity, Clemens composed his only seven-part motet, his famous Ego flos campi, to a text from the Song of Songs. Clemens emphasized the words 'Sicut lilium inter spinas' by setting them as homophonic chords, which is not surprising, because this phrase figured on the confraternity's coat of arms.

Little is known about Clemens's later whereabouts. A recently discovered letter, dated May 13, 1553, has uncovered that Philippe III of Croÿ, Philippe II's son, did not want to employ Clemens, because he considered him to be a drunk ('grant yvrogne'). The letter also suggests that Clemens led an improper life ('mal vivant'), which probably means that despite his priesthood he lived with a woman. The letter sheds a new light on Clemens's works as well. It lends his drinking songs, such as the popular Lalalala... Maistre Pierre for example (with phrases such as 'à ce flacon fis la guerre'), a much more autobiographical tone than they had before.

Several cities have been named as locations where Clemens might have lived after his stay as 's-Hertogenbosch, but it is often difficult to demonstrate that he actually lived there.

Various elements connect Clemens non Papa to the Northern Netherlands. Clemens's chanson Congié je prens de vous ends with the words 'adieu Dordrecht, jusque au revoir', which has been read by some scholars as an indication for a stay in Dordrecht; further evidence is not available, however. Similarly, the so-called Leiden choirbooks contain many works by Clemens. These six codices contain two masses, eight Magnificat settings and as many as 34 motets. One of the motets and all of the Magnificats are unica and have survived in these choirbooks only. Does this imply a stay in Leiden? Not necessarily, even though the books demonstrate that Clemens's music was collected, copied, and performed in Leiden with great care.

According to Johannes Baptista Grammaye's book Ipretum (published in 1611) Clemens lived in Ypres as well. This is not impossible, given that Clemens composed no less than four motets in honour of St Martin of Tours, the city's patron saint.

Many uncertainties are found in Clemens's biography. They even concern the composer's name. Whether it was designed to distinguish the composer ('not the pope') from the Ypres poet Jacques Papa, as is often claimed, is highly uncertain. In all probability, the addition 'non Papa' was conceived as a joke. It cannot be related to the pope, because Clemens VII had already died in 1534, at a time when Clemens's name did not have any currency yet. Confusion with the poet Jacques Papa is unlikely to have occurred, because the original name of our composer was probably Jacques Clément. The form 'Clemens non papa' is first used in the Zeghere van Male partbooks of 1542. Other variants are found, such as 'Clemens nono Papa' (probably a slip of the pen) in the choirbook at the Brussels Conservatory (Ms. 27087) and 'Clemens haud papa' in a bass partbook from Antwerp (now Leuven, University Library, Ms. 1050).

Death and nachleben

Jacobus Clemens non Papa probably died in 1555 or 1556. The bass partbook preserved in the Leuven University Library (Ms. 1050) mentions that the motet Hec est vere martyr was Clemens's last composition: 'Ultimum opus Clementis non Papae anno 1555 21 aprilis'. Furthermore, the text of Continuo lacrimas, the motet in which Jacobus Vaet laments Clemens's death, seems to suggest that he suffered a violent death ('inclemens vis et violentia fati'). Similarly, Clemens's music published in and after 1556 suggests that he had died: ten of the Souterliedekens were written by their publisher, Tielman Susato, and published in 1556-1557. Similarly, the dedication letter of the book of Clemens's masses published by Peter Phalesius in 1556 was written by Phalesius.

The Ypres historian Antonius Sanderus mentions in his famous Flandria Illustrata (1644) that Clemens, 'choirmaster and the most famous musician of his time', was buried in the church of St Nicholas at Diksmuide (Dixmude in French): 'Sepultus est in Ecclesia Dixmudana Clemens non Papa inibi phonascus, & clarissimus sui temporis musicus'. As in the case of Ypres, Clemens's work suggests that it is not impossible that he spent his last years in Diksmuide. Clemens wrote one motet in honour of St Nicholas, based on a chant prosula Sospitati dedit aegros. In his four-part setting, the original chant melody can be clearly heard in the top voice.

There has not been much recearch into Clemens's influence or reception, but it seems clear that his works enjoyed great popularity until the end of the sixteenth century, especially - but not exclusively - in the Low Countries and German-speaking Europe. In some respects, Clemens is considered one of the composers who paved the was for Orlando di Lasso and - according to earlier literature - Giovanni da Palestrina. It is not known whether Clemens had any direct disciples, but Jacobus Vaet (who composed a lamentation on the dead of Clemens, which was later parodied by Lassus), Gerard Mes (who published his own Souterliedekens in 1561 and declared himself a 'disciple of Clemens non Papa' on its title page), and Gallus Dressler (author of a treatise that contains numerous references to Clemens's music) are potential candidates. Recent studies of Dressler's writings have shed a new light on Clemens: they demonstrate that Clemens did take the contents and rhetoric of the motet texts into account, subtly, but to a larger extent than was previously assumed, and that he strived for the strongest possible interrelationship between text and music, both structurally and as regards their contents.

Clemens today

This feature is only one of the many aspects of Clemens's works that await further exploration. It makes clear, however, that his music deserves more appreciation from researchers, performers, and music lovers. The festival Clemens500 strived to contribute to this reappraisal through concerts and lectures. Furthermore, new music has been commissionned and performed, three-part settings of the Souterliedekens texts by composers of today. These new settings frequently refer to Clemens's, give new, creative attention to his music, and thus add a new dimension to the composer's legacy.