Analysis and Sixteenth Century Theory

Important contributions to our knowledge and understanding of Renaissance music are found in the works of a series of music theorists whose observations and suggestions date from well before Janequin began to compose (Ficino, Tinctoris, Gaffurius), from a period roughly parallel with Janequin’s main activity (Pietro Aron and Glarean) and from a slightly later period (Zarlino). How closely the works of an individual composer correspond to or deviate from the precepts articulated by these early theorists is an engaging, if somewhat daunting, exercise, toward which, in the case of Janequin, only a few commentators have chosen to venture.

One of these is Pierre Bonniffet, who devotes a considerable amount of attention to Janequin in his book from 2005, Structures Sonores de l’Humanism en France.[1] Bonniffet’s thesis is that the musical theories of Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) were increasingly influential on both poets and musician in France as the sixteenth century progressed. Bonniffet starts his examination with the flowering of the “Parisian chanson” (in which Janequin was a central figure) and extends his exploration of the developing relationship between poetry and music up to and including the 1612 Meslanges of Claude le Jeune, relating the works examined to Ficino’s four “fureurs”: the poetic furor, the Bacchic furor, the Apollonian furor, and the furor of love.

The questions and developments that Bonniffet has chosen to address are far broader than just the question of theoretical influences on Janequin, and his conclusions on the development of French vocal music in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in France are beyond the scope of the present study. There are, however, aspects of his approach that make his work interesting for the student of Janequin. One of these is his systematic and consistent consideration of the chanson not as a kind of elevated variant of the poem, but as an independent and self-sufficient entity with its own parameters and integrity, a fundamental distinction for any constructive discussion of the genre. Another positive feature of Bonniffet’s explorations is that there are no traces of the predisposed condescension that occasionally marks Janequin criticism. Bonniffet goes into depth and makes a number of interesting observations as well as revealing an extensive and appreciative acquaintance with the composer’s work.

That having been said, it is not certain that performers looking for a convenient and effective analytic tool that will aid them in developing interpretations of Janequin’s music will find this in applications of Ficinian theory. It may be that somewhere along the sixteenth-century chain of competence transmission and musical inspiration, Ficino’s worldview and artistic insights provided significant or even decisive impulses for one or several of the authorities who participated in forming Janequin as a composer. Even if this, in its quintessential untraceability, should be proven true, it does not change the fact that what Ficino describes are not tools, but categories, dangerously similar to the plethora of generic suggestions presented at the beginning of chapter 6 of Clément Janequin: French Composer at the Dawn of Music Publishing. For today’s performers to have any joy from knowing that they are in the Apollonian realm, they will need some rather specific musical characteristics indelibly and uniquely connected with the performance of works in that particular realm. But since, as we have already observed, Janequin applies his musical procedures unhesitatingly over the entire psychological and topical spectrum, there is little room in his opus for relating specific sound patterns to subjective values. In a word, Ficino’s categories are a bit too general and a bit too vague to be of specific use in musical analysis.

Bonniffet approaches Janequin with sympathy and sensitivity, but he makes no effort to systematically connect Janequin’s chansons with their potential Ficinian furors. In fact, in the course of his discussion, he brings in a few more alternatives, including the “fureur mysterieuse” and the “fureur didactique.” The suggestion is also advanced that most of what Janequin wrote, at least until around 1540, can be conveniently grouped into one of two categories: the “chanson gaillarde” and the “chanson mélancholique.”[2] His discussions of Janequin’s work, in which he particularly looks at LM41 “Or vien ça” (1533) and LM238 “Vivons folastre,” are less concerned with the possible consequences of this bifurcation than with illustrating the efficacy of his chosen rhetorical guidelines in musical contexts—the Aristotelian rhetorical tools of invention, disposition, and elocution, to which he adds his own “connivence” (interrelationality). Janequin’s “Or vien ça” is an engaging piece, a festive romp unmatched for rhythmic sprightliness, and a bubbling mix of refrains and cheeky wordplay. It can be asked, however, if a discussion of the structure of “Or vien ça,” with all its repeats and recurrent half-ritornellos, is substantially changed by calling it “dispositio” instead of “form” or if a particularly clever musical pun is more properly described as “inventio” or “elocution.” Clarity and insight are in no way guaranteed by playing the naming game.[3]

Another reservation to Bonniffet’s approach comes to light in a discussion of Janequin’s 1556 setting of the opening verses of Jean-Antoine de Baïf’s poem “Vivons folastre.” A discussion of this setting must necessarily begin with the observation that the editors of the Chansons polyphoniques made an absolute pig’s breakfast of their transcription. In the forty-four measures this chanson lasts, Lesure and Merritt (or one of Merritt’s graduate conscripts at Harvard) managed to get things wrong no fewer than eight times.[4] And here we are not talking about niggling disagreements with editorial ficta recommendations, but eight instances where that which appeared on folio thirteen of Le Roy and Ballard’s Cinquiesme livre simply didn’t survive the leap to the modern edition, after which the editorial ficta recommendations have such a corrupt point of departure that they are more or less useless.

Of course, Janequin and his publishers didn’t exactly make things easy for them. Janequin jumps right into the fray by putting what looks like a mistake, an A-F♯-B♭ melodic sequence, in the very first measure (the alto). Diminished fourths are normally not good Latin in the chanson repertory, and then Le Roy and Ballard (or Janequin) compound the confusion by being typographically inconsistent. Measures 35–40 are carbon copies, both musically and textually, of what went on in measures 1–5 and measures 12–17, except that where in the two preceding instances a B♮ has been specified in the tenor, in measure 37 the B♮ is omitted. Mistake, or enharmonic subtlety?

To his credit, Bonniffet gets the transcription right in his Structures sonores.[5] It is in his application (or non-application as the case may be) of editorial recommendations that we part company. Bonniffet, consistent with his overall view of the repertory, is taking his point of analytic departure from one of the “furors.” This resonates well with the opening invitation of the poem, which is to “live crazily” (“vivons folastres”). Janequin’s “crazy” opening interval (the F♯–B♭ in the alto line) is obviously right on target. Bonniffet, invoking the consistency of the furor, proposes that we stay on track by putting in a parallel “crazy interval” at the same point in the melodic line when it is transferred to the superius in measure 2. This, as Bonniffet points out, is deliciously “grincante” (“jarring”) and gets things truly off to a crazy start.

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By and large, I agree with Bonniffet when he implies that editors are often far too eager in sprinkling accidentals above the staves. I certainly agree in measure 3 of “Vivons folastres” where Lesure and Merritt & Co. have suggested that the E in the tenor line should be transformed to E♭, robbing us of a brilliantly aggressive G major-C major-D major progression as well as the robust diatonic voice leading. When Janequin has taken the trouble to specify a B♮, it seems reasonable to me to accept the logical consequences of his alteration and let the cross relations fall where they may.

At the same time, and admitting that it is all ultimately a matter of taste, I find it reasonable to believe that in situations that were clearly (and authentically) cadential, singers did in fact raise the leading tone. So when, in the name of non-interventional consistency, Bonniffet suggests that we refrain from raising cadential leading tones in “Vivons folastres,” I find the result curiously archaic, not to mention lacking a certain energy. And when Bonniffet recommends and defends jarring melodic tritones in situations where I suspect none to have been intended, because the piece is purportedly inspired by a harmonically provocative furor, then a whiff of circularity is in the air.

Ultimately, I doubt that articulated theories about music were a major determinant in how Janequin approached composition. Certainly, his educational baggage included a great many attitudes and precepts about music of varying internal consistency, shared with or impressed upon him by colleagues and mentors. At the end of the day, however, I would guess that hands-on experience in the choir loft and his own creativity, and not specific theoretical impulses, were the most significant influences on his composing activities.

  1. Pierre Bonniffet, Structures sonores de l’humanisme en France: de Maurice Scève: Delie, objet de plus haulte vertu (Lyon, 1544) à Claude Le Jeune, Second livre des Meslanges (Paris, 1612), Bibliothèque littéraire de la Renaissance Série 3 (Paris: Champion, 2005).
  2. Bonniffet, 548.
  3. Indeed, the most pressing application of rhetorical theory to “Or vien” would seem to be not inventio or dispositio, but kairos—that is, finding an appropriate moment (other than frat parties and Playboy clubs) in which to present this engaging but socially challenging romp.
  4. In measures 12, 14, 15, 21, 21, 30, 35, and 38. LM238 is correctly transcribed on the website
  5. Bonniffet, Structures sonores de l’humanisme en France, 402–7.