IVI: The French Chanson

In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries it is difficult to speak of a French musical idiom distinct from that of Burgundy or the Netherlands. The culture of Burgundy, as well as that of most of the Netherlands provinces, was French. Pierre de La Rue and Josquin des Prez, though of Flemish descent, were culturally French, and their very names are probably French translations of Flemish names.

French was always the language of the chanson as Latin was of the Mass. But although French composers of Masses and motets in the early sixteenth century continued to write in a slightly modified version of the international style of the Netherlands, chanson composers in this period and during the long reign of François I (1515-47) developed a type of chanson that was more distinctively national in both poetry and music.

Social and political conditions in France in the early 16th century were particularly favorable to the growth of secular music. The 15th century had witnessed the rise of a new and wealthy bourgeoisie. This group, partly from inherent natural curiosity and vigor, partly, too, from a very human desire to ape courtly tastes, had taken advantage of the cultural opportunities offered it. Other and more specialized influences also contributed to the development of the chanson—foremost, that of the Italian Renaissance, whose propagation in France was furthered by royal inclinations; these brought not only French military expeditions into Italy but Italian art into France. Of great importance, as well, was the growing influence of popular art on cultivated art, ca. 1500, an influence that aided in the creation of increasingly free verse forms.

While some of the texts employed by the Josquin generation had still adhered to strict formalism, the poetry of the first decades of the 16th century sought greater liberty. The change was due largely to Clément Marot, son of Jean Marot. The father was one of the rhétoriciens— poets who, under the influence of the Italian humanists, had attempted to revive classical ideas in poetry; while giving up the cut-and-dried rules of the formes fixes, they had nevertheless retained a certain rigidity, inimical to the kind of musical composition that was coming into favor. Adopting traits that sometimes approximated those of folk texts, Clément used a more direct and colloquial language and favored short stanzas, without, however, adopting any stereotyped scheme. The alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes became firmly established at this time as an enduring characteristic of French poetry. Ronsard later was to emphasize this feature as of first importance in the composition of song texts.

The new chansons enjoyed wide dissemination, greatly aided by the activities of several famous French printers. Such works appeared in the publications of the first French music printer, Pierre Attaignant, who between 1528 and 1552 brought out in Paris more than fifty collections of chansons, about 1,500 pieces altogether. Other publishers soon followed Attaingnant's lead. The popularity of the chanson is attested by hundreds of transcriptions for the lute and arrangements for solo voice with lute accompaniment which were published during the sixteenth century in both France and Italy.

The typical chansons of the earliest Attaingnant collections resembled in many respects the Italian frottola and the canti carnascialeschi. They were light, fast, strongly rhythmic songs for four voices, syllabic, with many repeated notes, predominantly in duple meter with occasional passages in triple meter, and predominantly homophonic with the principal melody in the highest voice, but not excluding short points of imitation. They had distinct short sections which as a rule were repeated so as to form an easily grasped pattern, such as aabc or abca. The texts covered a considerable range of verse forms and subjects, a favorite topic being some amatory situation that might allow the poet occasion for all sorts of pleasant comments and equivocal allusions. Not all the texts, however, were frivolous.

The two principal composers of chansons in the first Attaingnant collections were Claudin de Sermisy and Clément Janequin. Janequin was particularly celebrated for his descriptive chansons in free form, songs not unlike the Italian fourteenth-century caccia, introducing imitations of bird calls, street cries, and the like. The most famous of Janequin's descriptive chansons was one entitled La Guerre, traditionally supposed to have been written about the Battle of Marignan (1515); it is the ancestor of innumerable "battle" pieces in the sixteenth century and afterward. The leading composer of chansons at Paris after Sermisy and Janequin was Pierre Certon whose works ably continue the style founded by Sermisy.

In fact, a large group of Sermisy’s contemporaries wrote chansons in much the same style as his. This showed a preference not only for chordal writing, but for having it à 4. However, Pierre Cléreau included in his output many chansons that are à 3 but share the general features of this style, notably chordal writing. The simplicity of the style produced music especially suitable for performance by amateurs. (In the realm of theory, the needs of the amateur were cared for by such material as the Nouvelle Instruction familière of Michel de Menehou, which, printed in 1558, concerned itself with rudiments; a chanson of the Paris type, written by Menehou, concludes the little work.) Variety of color is often gained by contrasting brief two-part passages with passages for two other voices or for larger groups. The two upper voices often move in progressions of thirds. Imitation, even of short duration, is most sparingly used. In Claudin's C'est une dure departie, however, two voices sing an extended canon.

Most of the other composers of the Paris type, when compared with Claudin and Janequin, appear as minor figures. However, their works include many of great charm. Pierre Sandrin's Douce mémoire enjoyed a deserved popularity, as did D'amours me plains by Rogier Pathie, organist of Mary of Hungary's court chapel in the Netherlands. Hesdin's Ramonez moy ma cheminée illustrates the disfavor into which the formes fixes had fallen for purposes of musical structure: its text is a simple rondeau, but (except that the music of the last two lines repeats that of the first two) the setting ignores this fact entirely. Passereau's use, in his witty Il est bel et bon, of descriptive matter—which here takes the form of barnyard cackle—reminds one of Janequin's music. The piece, though basically chordal, contains several passages of imitation. The number of these little masters is legion. It will suffice here merely to add mention of Courtois, Jean Maillard, Godard, Garnier, Conseil and Gascogne

Besides Attaingnant and others at Paris, the principal publishers of chansons in the first half of the sixteenth century were Jacques Moderne at Lyons (publications 1532-60) and Tilman Susato at Antwerp (fourteen collections, 1543-55). Lyons was to a considerable extent a musical outpost of Paris, and Moderne was the counterpart of Attaingnant. Among the composers published mainly by Attaingnant, but represented in Grand Jacques's Parangon, are the old dependables, Claudin, Janequin, and Certon. But Moderne, too, had a group that clustered primarily about him. Most important, probably, was Francesco or François de Layolle, who made his career partly at Florence, partly at Lyons. The Layolle represented in manuscript in Florence was perhaps his grandfather. The younger Layolle's varied output included chansons, and Attaignant did not disdain to reprint, in 1539, Cc me semblent choses perdues, which had appeared in Book IV of the Parangon in 1538. Among Layolle's companions in Books I and II was the minor but colorful figure, Eustorg de Beaulieu, who as a poet has left us a repertory of early Protestant song-texts (but without the music).

The chansons published at Antwerp were mostly by Franco-Flemish composers, chiefly Gombert, Clemens non Papa, Pierre de Manchicourt and Thomas Crécquillon. As a rule their chansons were somewhat more contrapuntal than those written by the Paris composers, with fuller texture, more melismatic lines, and a less marked rhythmic beat. These men, in fact, continue the older Netherlands chanson tradition, influenced, however, by the French example toward a style more homophonic than that of the early sixteenth-century Netherlanders.

Susato and other Netherlands publishers also issued a few polyphonic songs with texts in their own language. Practically all the chanson writers, French and Netherlandish, also produced Masses and motets; Manchicourt in particular was a distinguished composer for the church. Like the earlier chansons, those of the sixteenth century were used as material for Mass themes, and many of them also served as models for parody Masses.

Although the chanson composers of the Paris-school type dominated the French musical scene during the earlier part of the sixteenth century, we may regard their production as a brief (but important) "intermezzo" in the development of the chanson from Josquin to Lassus. During the initial decades of this "intermezzo" the older style was so little regarded that, after Petrucci's Canti C, there is no printed collection containing chansons by Josquin until the Selectissimae . . . cantiones of 1540 (printed by Kriesstein at Augsburg), in which the chansons of his mature style were published for the first time. Thereupon the neglect of the master ended, and Susato's seventh book of chansons, devoted entirely to him, appeared in 1545. But, whereas Claudin's style no longer holds sway in printed collections after 1540 (only in the one significantly called Chansons anciennes by Du Chemin in 1550 is real interest still shown in his secular works), Josquin's chansons appear often in LeRoy and Ballard's Meslanges of 1560 to 1572. The tradition of the motet-like Franco-Netherlandish chanson had been carried on during the period of the Claudin-Janequin supremacy by several composers, among them Jean Richafort and a group whose works appear infrequently in the Attaingnant prints of 1539 to 1549, but in far greater number (as befitted the Netherlandish origin of many of these men) in the collections of Susato. Among the musicians of this group may be named Jehan Le Cocq (= Gallus), Cornelius Canis, Pierre de Manchicourt, the long-lived Jean Guyot (Castileti), Thomas Crecquillon, and Jacobus Clemens non Papa (= Jacob Clement). In contrast to Claudin and Janequin, all these composers, including Richafort, not only wrote chansons in a polyphonic style with some frequency but, after ca. 1540, produced chansons in five or more parts.

The Composers (and some others)

Supplemental Materials

Poetry and Prose


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