Who We Are
Ensemble Gombert is Melbourne’s outstanding chamber choir, noted for its pure intonation and historic approach to choral sound and style. Named after Nicolas Gombert (c. 1495 – 1560), who has been largely ignored in the twentieth century despite an exemplary reputation amongst his contemporaries, the Ensemble specialises in a cappella performance of Franco-Flemish music of the High Renaissance.
The Ensemble’s subscription concerts are broadcast regularly on ABC Classic FM, and it has recorded several albums. It appears frequently at festivals across Australia, and has toured to North America (2009) and three times to Europe (2004, 2006 & 2015).
Founded by John O’Donnell in 1990, the Ensemble quickly established a reputation for its purity of tone, and gave a ‘stunning rendition’ of two works by Czech composer Petr Eben in 1991, in the presence of the composer. In 1992 it was invited to open the ‘Rubens and the Italian Renaissance’ exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, and later that year won first prize at the inaugural Australian National Open Choral Championships in Wagga Wagga, NSW. The Ensemble launched its first subscription series in 1995, and has presented a series each year since that time.
In 2004, it returned to the National Gallery to sing Monteverdi's Vespers, presented by the Italian Institute of Culture in conjunction with the ‘Darkness and Light: Caravaggio and his World’ exhibition. Other performances of note include the first Australian performances of Edmund Rubbra's Mass in Honour of St Teresa of Avila and Arvo Pärt's Canon of Repentance, and premieres of works by Australian composers Calvin Bowman, Andrew Robbie, Vaughan McAlley and Peter Campbell.
Complementing the annual concert series have been numerous return appearances at the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival and the Woodend Winter Arts Festival, culminating in an invitation to perform for the 2015 European Capital of Culture festival in Plzen, Czech Republic. Beginning in 2016, the Ensemble has performed twice per year in the Melbourne Recital Centre 'Local Heroes' series.
DIRECTOR / FOUNDER
John O’Donnell – University Organist, Monash University – is an internationally renowned keyboard artist, choral conductor and musicologist. He was educated at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and later held senior appointment at the Victorian College of the Arts and the University of Melbourne.
As a keyboard performer he tours Europe regularly, and wa the first person ever to perform Bach’s complete keyboard works in public. His recording of organ works of Bach was nominated for “Recording of the Year” in 2000 by International Record Review.
John is currently Monash University Organist and keyboard player for Capella Corelli. As a church musician was director of the Choir of the “Canterbury Fellowship” in Melbourne for more than thirty years. He is currently Director of Music at All Saint’s Anglican Church, East St Kilda.
Current Choir Members
Yi Wen Chin
Tim van Nooten
The most famous composers of the sixteenth century, known to most people today, are perhaps Josquin Despres (c. 1452–1521) and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/26–1594). Between the two stands Nicolas Gombert (c. 1495–c. 1560), now hardly known, although his reputation is gradually being revived. That he was one of the most famous composers in Europe is evidenced by the wide use of his compositions as the basis for compositions by other composers (this use of existing melodies is known as parody technique), the distribution and copying of his works across Europe, and the number of printed volumes that contain his work.
With Gombert, the contrapuntal and imitative techniques of the Franco-Flemish composers that came after Josquin reached their zenith, with the generation that followed adopting a slightly more syllabic setting of texts, in accord with the strictures of the Catholic Church’s Council of Trent (1545–63) that required composers to set words so that they would be more clearly understandable at all times.
We do not know exactly either when Gombert was born or when he died, but his birth occurred around 1495 in southern Flanders. According to the German writer Hermann Finck (1527–1558), Gombert undertook early music studied with Josquin (we know that after Josquin’s death Gombert composed a déploration, although it was not printed until 1545), but the first solid evidence of his career comes from 1526 when he was employed as a singer in the chapel of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–1558), with whom he would have travelled across Europe extensively. In 1529, he is listed in Court documents as magister puerorum, that is, master of the [choir] boys at the Royal Chapel, a position he held until at least 1537. He continued to compose, but he never held the position of director of music (maestro di cappella) or court composer. During the 1530s it appears that Gombert took holy orders.
As chiefly a church composer, Gombert is know to have written ten settings of the mass, and nine of these survive in complete sources. There are also eight settings of the Magnificat, one in each of the eight church modes (similar to what we would now call keys). His over 140 motets cover all parts of the liturgical year, and a number call for an unusually large number of parts, the most famous being two twelve-voice works, the ‘Agnus Dei’ from his Missa Tempore paschali (Mass for Eastertide) and his ‘Regina caeli’. Several motets can be linked directly to his employment in the court of Charles V: Dicite in magni, written in 1527 in celebration of the birth of Charles’s son Philip (who reigned as Philip II, 1544–98); a piece for the 1531 coronation of Ferdinand I as King of the Romans titled Felix Austriae domus; and Qui colis Ausoniam, commemorating a treaty signed by Charles and the Pope in 1533. He also wrote over 70 secular compositions, mostly chansons, for solo voices in three or four polyphonic parts, that were, presumably, used in Court entertainments.
In 1540, according to the physician Jerome Cardan’s 1560 publication Theonoston, Gombert was sentenced to hard labor in the galleys after being convicted of sexual impropriety. It appears that he was pardoned around 1547, and was at that time living in Tournai in Flanders (Belgium), where he had been appointed a canon at the cathedral around 1534), but no further information has been uncovered about his life. He was reported by Finck to have been alive in 1556, and by Cardan to have been dead in 1561.
THE MANNER OF OUR PERFORMANCE
It is from Hermann Finck in 1566 that we learn much about sixteenth century choral sound and choral practices: “The treble should be sung with a delicate and sonorous tone, the bass, however, with a harder and heavier tone: the middle voices should move with uniformity and try to match themselves to the outer parts sweetly and harmoniously.”
A constant dynamic level should be maintained throughout a composition “so that there is no discrepancy in sound between the beginning and the end: the tone should not be too soft or too loud, but rather, like a properly built organ, the ensemble should remain unaltered and constant … The higher a voice rises, the quieter and more gentle should be the tone; the lower it goes, the richer should be the sound, just as in an organ … When there is a tasteful point of imitation at the beginning of a work this is to be rendered with a more definite and distinct tone than is employed elsewhere, and the following parts, if they start with the same point as the first, should perform it in the same way. This should be observed by all the parts whenever a new point occurs.”
All these observations are supported by other sixteenth-century writers, from whom we also learn further details, all of which have contributed to the approach we take to our performances of music of this time. It is only in the late sixteenth century, and through the influences of the madrigal, that dynamic chiaroscuro becomes a component of choral performance.
Secondly, our approach to tuning is based on the ideals of pure intonation. Pure major thirds are considerably smaller than equal-tempered major thirds, which are really quite discordant. Pure minor thirds, on the other hand, are wider than the equal-tempered approximation. Semitones are major (diatonic) or minor (chromatic), the former almost twice the size of the latter.
There is a further element of our performance of music of the High Renaissance that differs from what listeners may encounter elsewhere. This is our approach to musica ficta, based on the research of director, John O’Donnell, which deviates considerably from what has in our century been considered appropriate for music of this era. It is clear that composers of the period were no more bound by so-called rules of composition than composers of any other period, and the music is full of forbidden false fifths and false unisons and octaves. The latter are what we should generally call simultaneous false relations, traditionally regarded as an English phenomenon of the period of Tallis and Byrd. But according to early writers it was Gombert who was master of the false relation, and its use by him and his contemporaries exhibits much greater variety than is encountered in the typical English cadence.
ENSEMBLE GOMBERT IS AN INCORPORATED, NOT-FOR-PROFIT ORGANISATION AND OPERATES A PUBLIC, TAX-DEDUCTIBLE GIFT FUND TO SUPPORT ITS ARTISTIC ACTIVITIES. THE ENSEMBLE IS MANAGED BY AN ELECTED COMMITTEE. THE CURRENT OFFICE BEARERS AND COMMITTEE MEMBERS ARE:
President: Ms Katherine Lieschke
Vice President: Ms Victoria Brown
Secretary (Public Officer): Mr Vaughan McAlley
Treasurer: Dr Peter Campbell
Committee Member (Archivist): Ms Niki Ebacioni
Committee Member: Ms Claerwen Jones
Committee Member: Mr Andrew Murray
Committee Member: Mr Tom Bell
Music Director (ex officio): Mr John O’Donnell
Trustees of the Public Fund: Professor Jenny George, Dr Peter Campbell