Jacobus Clemens non Papa – absolutely not the Pope

Jacobus Clemens' bawdy yet brilliant compositions provide an insight into the irreverent underbelly of the Renaissance.

Psalm 87 by Clemens non Papa. Credit: Wikipedia Commons: Tielman Susato in Antwerp.
Psalm 87 by Clemens non Papa. Credit: Wikipedia Commons: Tielman Susato in Antwerp.

When we think of the Renaissance, we think of the beauty of its paintings and sculptures, the splendour of its cathedrals and palaces, the serenity of its music. But scratch just one layer below and so often one discovers, deftly disguised within the formal artistic practices of the day, that this art was made by people that were as irreverent, ill-mannered and immoral as any age. Jacobus Clemens ‘non Papa’, a hugely underrated composer from the first half of the sixteenth century, exemplifies this to a tee. A prolific creator of more than five hundred works that were widely published around Europe, his was a mind that dwelt in the profane, and took every opportunity to celebrate it in his music.

Details of Clemens’ life are hazy. He was born somewhere in present-day Belgium or the Netherlands between 1510 and 1515. He trained to be priest, and worked in Bruges at St Donation’s Cathedral, in Aarschot, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Ypres and Leiden, and had publishers in Paris and Antwerp. While his contemporaries travelled widely, gravitating towards Italy, Clemens seems to have stayed in the Low Countries and with the Netherlandish musical tradition, evidenced by his large output of 159 Souterliedekens, short settings of the Psalms in Dutch. He died in either 1555 or 1556, perhaps coming to a violent end as is suggested by Jacobus Vaet’s elegy on his death. Pushing the limits of tasteful wordplay for a eulogy, and set to rather buoyant music, it’s perhaps indicative of Clemens’ own lack of solemnity:

Pour out in a constant flow your tears, ye singers
for the praise and glory of your choir has departed.
All too inclement is the violence of Fate
which refuses to spare so clement a one harsh blows.
But all-powerful God Himself will help Clement
to conquer death, whom death has laid low.

The precise origin of his nickname, ‘non Papa’, is unknown, aiding the composer an air of mystery that has proved enticing to music historians. One theory is that it was to tell him apart from poet Jacobus Papa from Ypres; pretty unlikely given the totally different second names. Another is that it was to distinguish him from Pope Clement VII, but given this Pope died in 1534, before any of Clemens’ music was published, again this seems spurious. There is perhaps a more general kernel of veracity here though: the name seems to have been attached to the composer to reflect his notably un-pious behaviour. Indeed, it appears elsewhere as ‘nono Papa’ or ‘haud Papa’ — ‘absolutely not the Pope’ — probably as a joke on the part of his publisher.

Given Clemens’ creative proclivities, and the evidence we have of his character, this seems the likely reason for his sobriquet. In 1553 Archduke Maximilian of Austria was seeking new musicians for his court, and having heard of Clemens’ talents wrote to Philippe du Croÿ (the son of a former employer), asking to be put in touch with the composer. The response stated that while the request could be performed, Maximilian would be wise not to offer Clemens a job due to the fact he was ‘a great drunkard and lived immorally’, probably indicating that he’d broken his priestly vow of chastity. The position went instead to the aforementioned friend and admirer, Jacobus Vaet.

Does his music support this image of Clemens as a wayward and a drunk? Absolutely. His chansons are full of bawdy texts, many of which he seems to have penned himself. Take, for example, Si par trop boire:

If, after drink, you stagger out of bed
Troubled by trembling foot or hand or head,
That groggy feeling need not long endure:
Let the hair of the dog that bit you be your cure.

The chanson, a secular song, began as the fare of 12th-century troubadours and was largely concerned with courtly love and tales of chivalry. By the time of Clemens, however, the genre had expanded to embrace the low-minded, as we see in Frisque et gaillard:

Feeling lusty and rash one marvellous day,
A bold proposition I extended
To a charming girl in her hideaway

That we two do as nature intended.

The girl said to me, “I’m intrigued by your request,
But, my friend, I fear being unimpressed.”
Then she cried aloud as things began to balloon,
“Oh quick, hurry up, I’m going to swoon!”

But perhaps the most outrageous of Clemens’ chansons is Entre vous filles de quinze ans, its lyrics highly sexual and overtly misogynistic:

You tender girls of fifteen years of age,
Come not to the fountain anymore,
Your eyes are too radiant, 

Your breasts perky, mouths laughing, cunts warm,
Your hearts merrier than those of the hags.

It was this chanson that was pinched by fellow Netherlandish composer Orlando Lassus for the musical basis of a mass setting — Missa Entre vous filles de quinze ans. Flagrantly in contravention of the Council of Trent’s decree to ‘keep away from the churches compositions in which there is an intermingling of the lascivious or impure’, Lassus made no attempts to hide his inspiration, with the title clearly stated in the 1581 publication of the work.

This practice of taking the tune of a secular song as the basis for a sacred mass was very common (indeed it received its own categorisation — the ‘parody mass’), and is something that Clemens himself did. While he never used anything quite as lewd as Lassus, neither did he approach it with much gravity, using Pierre Manchicourt’s chanson for his Missa Jay veu de cerf as the starting point for one of his 15 masses:

I have seen the deer come out of the woods
and drink at the fountain.
Here’s to you, my dear friend
and to you sovereign lady.
If you don’t join me in this toast,
the beer will be on you!

When these chansons were smuggled into the mass, the words were left behind. While the original message was sublimated, it’s likely that the tunes were known by congregations. They would certainly have been known by the choristers, who must have been left sniggering behind their songbooks, like the mischievous monks that doodled obscene marginalia in copies of the Gospels.

But it wasn’t just his roguish lifestyle and jocular music that won Clemens fame and admiration during his life. Put alongside Josquin, Palestrina and Lassus, titans that took polyphonic music to its zenith, Clemens stands out for his mellifluous melody and surprising harmony, two things which were secondary (or perhaps even in opposition) to the principles of polyphony, which favoured strict imitation between voice parts. Make no mistake, Clemens was as skilled a polyphonist as any of his contemporaries, but his music is more straightforwardly dramatic and less concerned with compositional rules.

Ego flos campi is an exquisite example of this approach, setting a portion of the Song of Songs, distinct among Biblical texts as depicting sexual love rather than divine love:

I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.
As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.
A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon.

Clemens’ penchant for those fruity chansons now shows its worth, as he draws on the full range of his expressive palette to craft a work that embodies these sensuous words. There’s a great sense of longing in the music, which Clemens achieves by prioritising beautiful, stretching melodies and aching harmony over strict formal construction.

Clemens flexible approach to the rules allows for a heightened degree of emotion, which comes to the fore in the most human of sacred texts he set, like Job tonso capite: ‘Job, his head shaven, fell upon the ground, and worshipped, and said/Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return.’ It’s full of the evocative word-painting and sudden changes in texture that are characteristic of Clemens’ writing. At the climatic close of Fremuit spiritu Jesus, Christ’s cries of ‘Lazarus, come out’ crash like waves with ever-greater urgency. And he could do pathos too: his chanson Je prens en grey is an agonisingly doleful and melancholic farewell to life. ‘You’ve wounded me with great disdain/And therefore soon I’ll end my days.’ At times disarmingly spare, he switches frequently between homophony and polyphony, indulging in a very occasional moment of vinegary harmony as two parts transgress.

For a composer with so little biography, Jacobus Clemens non Papa’s music offers a remarkably fulsome picture of a life. He didn’t travel to collect the latest styles, nor did he secure the most prestigious positions. Nevertheless, the fragments and echoes of him that have reached us today give a vivid insight into the life of a Renaissance composer. A composer who seized what was in front of him and turned it back on the listener, offering us a glimpse of a Renaissance that doesn’t always tally with the polished and pristine world of our imagination.


James Hardie