Analysis by Stylistic Paradigm

In the late fifteenth century, chansons were being sung and enjoyed by that relatively restricted number of privileged people who had access to music manuscripts. In contrast, during the third decade of the sixteenth century, chansons were being sung and enjoyed by literally thousands. This explosion of activity is clearly connected to developments in the music printing industry, but it is also accompanied by both subtle and striking changes in musical style. For better and worse, the music that flooded the market in the 1530s and after has come to be called the “Parisian chansons”—a term often qualified with scare quotes, prefaced with “so-called,” or accompanied by an author’s disclaimer—but nonetheless pressed into service to describe secular vocal music between the time of Josquin and that of Lassus, or thereabouts.

The development of this genre has attracted the attention of several notable scholars, in particular Howard Mayer Brown and Lawrence F. Bernstein, and as work progressed, a rich flora of subcategories were proposed, including Brown’s opposition of the lyrical and anecdotal genres as well as his three-part arrangements, four-part arrangements, and chansons rustiques. Bernstein’s energy has gone in the direction of defining the quintessential Parisian chanson, and as his work progressed, that definition came steadily closer to a description of the style of Claudin de Sermisy. Bernstein provides a quick and dirty description of the Parisian chanson in a 1990 article: “homorhythm, treble domination, clarity of phrase structure, repetition of opening and closing material, syllabic setting of the text, and the liberal use of dactylic rhythm and repeated notes.”[1] Bernstein immediately cautions that this definition is not all-encompassing; there are chansons that do not “incorporate all (or, in some cases, even most) of the stylistic features mentioned above and, as a result, lack the strong sense of uniformity that pervades the mature genre.” Of all the features that promote this uniformity, says Bernstein, “none is so transparent and so effective as the stereotyped melodic designs” so often encountered in the Parisian repertory, and he enumerates five principal elements of Claudin’s melodic logic (including quadripartite form and musical division corresponding to the poetic caesura) as benchmarks.[2]

Bernstein is anything but cursory in his examination of Claudin’s music, and his descriptions of Claudin’s style and technique are of unquestioned validity. The validity of transferring Sermisian parameters to the rest of the repertory is another question. As long as Bernstein’s personal preference for Claudin’s cookie-cutter consistency remains focused on defining that particular composer’s artistic responses, all is well. When these responses are stipulated as generic guidelines, and even worse, as qualitative criteria, then trouble is afoot. The consequences of this kind of misguided normativism are apparent when Bernstein ventures an analysis of Janequin’s “De vray amour” (LM52).[3]

This particular analysis is doomed from the start, since an article of faith for Bernstein is that in the Parisian chanson, the primary melodic interest is in the superius. This collides head-on, of course, with the polyphonic nature of Janequin’s writing—polyphonic in the sense that Janequin has four voices at his disposition, all of whom he regularly furnishes with moments of melodic interest. In his secular settings, Janequin hardly ever features a single and potentially independent vocal line as “the melody”: rather, phrases with melodic contours permeate the texture, frequently appearing in several voices at the same time. In other words, if you are entertaining plans for a Janequin performance where one of your singers stands in a spotlight while the other three “comp” in the background, you’re in for trouble.

Undaunted, Bernstein, true to his creed, declares the superius of “De vray amour” to be “the melody” and proceeds to a detailed analysis of this voice, in which he discovers “long, sprawling lines,” phrases that are not divided into “the two conventional hemistiches,” no single phrase serving as “the major repository of tension and contrast,” and a host of other modal and cadential shortcomings. Bernstein is particularly disturbed by Janequin’s lack of “clarity” that is described as “subtlety” at times, and otherwise in more pejorative language, as when “the decisive subsemitonium modi is withheld from the melody and buried, instead, in the tenor part.”[4] Janequin’s affective key to the poem appears to Bernstein to have been expressed in the long melisma on “tristesse” in measures 6–8.

This melisma, however, is far from the affective key to Janequin’s setting of “De vray amour.” It is a melodic one-off, whose main function is simply to provide directional energy in connection with an internal cadence. The affective key in the piece is a phrase that appears first in the altus in measures 4–6, and then permeates the texture for the rest of the setting, providing nothing less than a classic example of a “major repository of tension and contrast,” which Bernstein would have noticed if his attention had not so blindly been fixed on the highest-sounding voice.

Impatience with Janequin’s failure to follow the rules regularly colors Bernstein’s rhetoric. Describing the contents of Trente et une chansons of 1529, Bernstein says “all but one of the five pieces by Janequin display extremely heterogeneous textures: long, uneven, and poorly articulated phrases; and a host of unusual mannerisms.”[5] Looking at five more chansons from an Attaingnant collection in 1534, Bernstein admits that two of Janequin’s efforts might qualify as “Parisian,” but that the others “in their sprawling, serpentine melodies … and volatile, eccentric rhythms … speak dialects somewhat removed” from the Parisian language.[6]

Bernstein also seldom ignores an opportunity to promote his preferred Parisian-provincial bifurcation, even after both Perkins and Miller effectively pulled the rug out from under this premise. Majestically ignoring opportunities for travel and communication in sixteenth century France, Bernstein proclaims that since Janequin lived in Bordeaux and then Angers, he could not have written in the Parisian style and peppers his references with rhetorical flourishes about “endemic provinciality.”[7]

All honor to Bernstein for his comprehensive, even relentless, examination of chanson repertories in the early sixteenth century. For performers of the music of Claudin Sermisy, his meticulous analysis will certainly prove both interesting and rewarding. For Janequin analysis, however, several caveats obtain. Clearly the Parisian-provincial nuance is an empty case. In all probability, Janequin was aware of developments in Paris from very early on, and his stylistic development was a product of this, among other awarenesses, and his own talent and preferences. Second, any Janequin analysis that maintains that the melody is and must be in the superius is not going to lead to meaningful results. Janequin was a polyphonist, not a harmonizer of tunes, to the eternal satisfaction of all of us who sing one of the lower three voices. Third, the relationship of music to text, and in particular Claudin’s penchant for matching the Renaissance 4–6 decasyllabic split, is in no way as bound in the works of Janequin as it is in those of Claudin, a virtue in the eyes of some, and seemingly a vice for Bernstein. Finally, there is a fundamental premise in Bernstein’s attitude that I, for one, do not share. Bernstein speaks warmly of the fundamental similarity of the chansons in what he calls “the mature Parisian chanson” and significantly less warmly of the variety and spontaneity that color the efforts of “the provincial Janequin.” Similarity, however, is not the spice of life. Long live lots of different kinds of cookies.

  1. Lawrence F. Bernstein, “Melodic Structure in the Parisian Chanson,” in Studies in Musical Sources and Style: Essays in Honor of Jan LaRue, ed. Jan LaRue, Eugene K. Wolf, and Edward H. Roesner (Madison, Wis: A-R Editions, 1990), 122.
  2. Bernstein, 126.
  3. Bernstein, 152.
  4. Bernstein, 161.
  5. Bernstein, “The Parisian Chanson,” 195.
  6. Bernstein, 205.
  7. Bernstein, 205.