Analysis in Modal Terms

Inevitably, attempts have been made to make sense of what Janequin wrote in the light of modal theory. “Inevitably” because modes and polyphony were central subjects for theorists like Pietro Aron and Heinrich Glarean, because composers like Adrian Willært employed modal frameworks, and because large numbers of chansons from the period are arranged in modal order in the printed collections in which they appear. In addition, the concept of “modal affect” connected certain of the modes with a variety of moods or humors. Surely all composers from the period were influenced by modal thinking in some way or another?

In her 1971 dissertation,[1] Uta Hertin charts changing tendencies in “key centers” (“tonarten”) in French music in the sixteenth century, considering works by Sermisy, Janequin, Guillaume Costeley, and Antoine de Bertrand. Hertin’s methodology underlines one of the basic problems of looking at Janequin’s music through modal eyes. She examined 246 Janequin chansons for which complete information on opening and closing tonalities exist[2] and grouped them according to final tonalities (F, G, D, C, and A), key signature (B♭ or natural), and cleffing (high, middle, and low). This shows a preponderance of chansons in an F tonality with B♭ in the signature (104 chansons), in a G tonality with B♭ in the signature (76 chansons), in an A tonality without B♭ in the signature (26 chansons), and a sprinkling of other combinations.[3]

The first problem with this way of thinking is that a “home tonality” is not a necessary element in Janequin’s harmonic universe. A chanson may well have a tonality that dominates, or appears most frequently, or a string of cadences in which some kind of harmonic direction seems implied. Or it may not, starting with a long sequence in one harmonic sphere, then migrating to another, and perhaps ending in yet a different harmonic frame. Harmonic variety is certainly a feature, but harmonic direction is not. As such, breaking down Janequin’s chansons into groups that can be said with any level of precision to “be” in one or another mode will prove a challenging exercise.

A further dilemma for the modal categorist is that while one of the voices in Janequin’s polyphony may be shown to correspond to or to be ruled by one or the other of the modal categories, one or more of the other voices in the same chanson quickly demonstrates an affinity to another mode, or to no mode at all. This is, of course, the classic dilemma of applying a system designed to describe and organize single, monophonic melodies from a controlled, traditional, liturgical environment to a body of material that has myriad other concerns (harmony, tessiture, and voice crossings for starters) that must be addressed.[4]

When it comes to the question of modal affect, it is hard to know if this concept has ever been consistently or universally taken seriously. Although the concept makes for wonderful anecdotes and a pleasing testimony to the power of music, the number of melodic and harmonic variants that existed, multiplied by the number of possible psychological results, must inevitably have led to regional or national variations that were then compounded by the time-related mutations common to language, fashion, and existence in general. The most serious argument against affect as an important element in Renaissance compositional psychology is not the latent inconsistency of its transmission, nor the specific inconsistencies of its description by a variety of theorists (and anecdotists), but the inherent unreasonableness of the theory’s basic premises. Either the theory of affect is accepted as so general and flexible a concept as to be void of any real content, or else it pairs a finite set of constructs (the number of modes stops at eight, or ten, or twelve) with an infinite number of psychological states that in fact cover the entire range of human experience. It is hard to imagine that serious composers, consistently confronted with the inconsistencies and contradictions that the concept carries with it, could ever regard it as much more than an interesting and amusing musicological urban legend that had peripheral influence, if any at all, on their compositional choices.

All this being as it may, then why did a series of publishers, starting with Attaingnant in 1537, and including Du Chemin and others, take the trouble to organize their collections by modal precepts? It was certainly not for the convenience of the singer, for whom the arrangement of the pieces in a given collection was generally irrelevant. The men working in the print shop hardly saved a lot of work time by doing all the chansons carrying a B♭ in the signature at one shot, and then those with none. To the degree that the practice lasted, it smells rather like a fad, a quasi-academic “in” procedure that gained currency for a while and was then abandoned. Goudimel, intellectually and musically progressive, stopped bothering with modal ordering as soon as he took the Du Chemin editorial responsibilities from Nicole Regnes in 1551, and in the years that followed, the practice gradually disappeared.

What does modal thought have to do with Janequin and those who would sing his works? There are bits of modal flavor sprinkled here and there in the secular chansons. For example, the melody bantered between the tenor and the superius in LM211 “La Meusniere de Vernon” is pure Dorian, if you choose to regard it as such. Two questions can be posed in this regard. First, did Janequin select Dorian because it had a special significance for what he was communicating? I doubt it. As far as I am aware, Dorian has no traditional connection with horny furniture makers or specific moods related to lovemaking, carpentry, or sprightliness in general. Janequin took, or made, a tune with the intervallic character he liked, then set it. The harmonic solutions he chose in the rest of his setting are certainly not D-Dorian, unless we posit that one of the characteristics of D-Dorian is that it always cadences somewhere else, in the case of “La Meusniere” on B♭ in most of the internal cadences and on a g minor triad at the final cadence.

Second, even if one considers that significant sections of “La Meusniere” follow Dorian patterns, and embrace the importance of shaping phrases with a scale that doesn’t lower the sixth step, most modern performers will be more focused on the condition that in certain sections of the chanson, B natural is called for, and in certain others, B flat is required, than on which set of inconsistently defined historical nomenclature is currently appropriate for discussing the piece.

  1. Uta Hertin-Loeser, Die Tonarten in der französischen Chanson des 16. Jahrhunderts:(Janequin, Sermisy, Costeley, Bertrand), vol. 24 (Musikverlag Katzbichler, 1974).
  2. Of the 254 chansons identified in the LM edition, eight are incomplete, and were consequently omitted from Hertin’s examination. The tonal centers of the incomplete fragments can be noted at the website
  3. In his review of volume V of the Lesure-Merritt Clement Janequin: Chansons polyphoniques (Music and Letters LI, 1970, 463–64), Frank Dobbins employs a similar methodology, noting “the unstable condition of modality at this traditional epoch” but nevertheless confidently labelling the fifty chansons in the volume as Ionian (21), Dorian (14), Aeolian (8), and Mixolydian (7).
  4. Despite Harald S. Powers landmark articles (“Tonal Types and Modal Categories in Renaissance Polyphony,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 34, no. 3 [1981]: 428–70; and “Is Mode Real? Pietro Aron, the Octenary System, and Polyphony,” Basler Jahrbuch Für Historische Musikpraxis. 16 [1992]: 9–52) describing modes as ideal types that only weakly influenced expressive processes in polyphonic composition; as well as Frans Weiring’s recommendations in The Language of the Modes. Studies in the History of Polyphonic Modality [London: Routledge, 2001]; that modes be relegated to the repertories for which they are best adapted, some authors, among them Susan McClary in her Modal Subjectivities [University of California Press, 2004] remain reluctant to relinquish modal influence as a significant factor in polyphonic writing.