Analysis Tied to Geography

Quite understandably, music historians have often described repertories in terms of the geographical areas in which they developed. The multitude of dynastic variants in Europe in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, however, occasionally made this a complicated exercise. The “Burgundian” court is a case in point: its rulers, who spoke French, held sway in Dijon, governed great patches of land in what is now the Netherlands, and employed artists from all across the continent. Kiesewetter, seeking to describe central trends in music from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, proposed “First-, Second-, and Third Netherlands” schools, a suggestion that did little justice to the dominant place of French language and culture in the repertory, and his suggestions were subsequently replaced by variants like “Franco-Flemish” or “Franco-Netherlandish.”[1]

In 1931, Denes Barthes pointed out that there were significant differences between the more contrapuntal chansons produced by “northern” composers, and the simpler, more transparent works that were published by the hundreds in Paris after 1528, and the term “Parisian chanson” subsequently entered the critical vocabulary.[2] At a conference in 1964, Howard Mayer Brown presented a now classic definition of the “Parisian chanson,” reflected that the works of Claudin de Sermisy were those that best illustrated the traits he had defined, and suggested that the perimeters of the “Parisian chanson” be moved backward in time to include the events that led to the great flowering of chanson literature in the early sixteenth century.[3]

Lawrence F. Bernstein embraced Brown’s definition and the crowning of Sermisy as the leading exponent of the genre, but at the same time noted problems with the term, chief among which was that when Brown’s criteria were rigorously applied to what Attaingnant and his fellows had published, more than half of this repertory fell outside the established boundaries. Bernstein suggested that several new categories were necessary,[4] and that ultimately, the true “Parisian chanson” was best illustrated in the works of those composers intimately connected with the French court.

A logical extension of this line of reasoning was to divide chanson production in France in the early sixteenth century into “Parisian” and “provincial” categories. This is the fundamental premise of Leta Miller’s 1977 study, in which she compares the works of Sermisy, Pierre Certon, and Sandrin (the “Parisians”) with the works of twenty composers, including Janequin, known to have provincial connections.[5] Miller constructed a set of fourteen parameters (text lengths, caesura placement, use of triple meter, etc.) and applied these to the more than one hundred “provincial” chansons she transcribed herself and the already available works of Janequin and the “Parisian” composers. Her method of choice was the construction of tables, in which she broke the twenty-year period under consideration (1530–1550) into smaller segments, in order to trace the application of the chosen parameters over time.

Miller’s parameters represent an analytical tool of a kind, but given the scope of her study, which ultimately involves several hundred chansons, it was understandably necessary to restrict herself to a limited number of criteria, some of which are rather broadly defined. The presence or absence of triple meter, for example, is a useful bit of information, but doesn’t tell us to what extent triple meter was used in the individual chansons, in what situations it was chosen, or whether or not it was connected to particular stylistic textures. Miller’s numerical data is also necessarily of the most approximate sort: multi-sectional chansons with up toward or more than two hundred measures are put on equal statistical footing with chansons of twenty and thirty measures, and sometimes inflated Janequin totals connected with certain techniques (represented numerically and not in terms of percentages) do not in fact signal a change in the composers’ attitudes, only a higher publication rate during the period concerned.

A major challenge for Miller was determining how to group the composers that were the object of her study. Selecting Sermisy, Certon, and Sandrin as representatives of “Parisian” chanson writing, while not exactly revolutionary, is nonetheless arbitrary. Sermisy and Certon worked for the court all their lives, and Sandrin became a court favorite (for reasons that may have more to do with his talents as an entertainer than as a composer) upon his return from Italy. But there were surely more than these three whose personal and cultural connections were essentially Parisian, and some of these are likely numbered among Miller’s “provincial” candidates. The amount of historical and biographical information that we possess concerning these twenty names, however, is less than overwhelming. Some of them may indeed have been born, educated, and employed in provincial centers all their lives. For others, the available information does not preclude the possibility of significant, even decisive, participation in the musical life of the capitol.

Miller’s dilemma was acute in the case of Janequin. Recent biographical findings by Lesure and Levron had made it clear that a significant part of Janequin’s life had been spent in Bordeaux and Angers, and that he was thus, by definition, provincial. On the other hand, nothing in Janequin’s production gave Miller stylistic arguments for grouping him with the provincial composers, nor, for that matter, with his Parisian colleagues. Quite the contrary:

“… in comparison to the works of his contemporaries, Janequin’s chansons show more complexity of texture, more use of triple meter, and more attention to the meaning of words as opposed to the structure of the poetry. Even in his use of stylized formulas, he did not hesitate to ignore conventional patterns when unusual treatment was demanded by the text or in the interest of musical variety.”[6]

Miller’s methodological solution was simple. She created three categories: one for “the leading Parisian composers”; one for composers with a whiff of provincial biography; and one for Janequin. At the close of study, however, Miller was careful not to exaggerate the consequences of her findings. “In fact,” she says, “a broad overview of the chanson literature reveals a rather homogeneous genre that perhaps justifies the use of a single generalized term to describe it.”[7] That would seem to preclude any meaningful stylistic distinctions between geographical areas in France in the early sixteenth century, a point of view Leeman Perkins heartily endorses. No matter which of a variety of definitions of “Parisian chanson” (chansons by composers living in Paris, by composers connected with court who occasionally resided there, or by provincial masters who managed to have their works published there) is selected, he says, “… any expectation of a definable stylistic consistency with the repertory so identified is certain to be disappointed …”[8]

  1. A succinct summary of efforts to apply geographic terms to musical styles in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is found in Leeman L. Perkins, “Toward a Typology of the ‘Renaissance’ Chanson,” The Journal of Musicology 6, no. 4 (1988): especially 421–26.
  2. Dénes Bartha, “Probleme der Chansongeschichte im 16. Jahrundert,” Zeitschrift für Musikwissenschaft, 13, 1930–1931., 1930, 507–30.
  3. Brown, “The Genesis of a Style: The Parisian Chanson, 1500–1530,” 1–50.
  4. Bernstein, “The Parisian Chanson,” 239–40.
  5. Leta E. Miller, “The Chansons of French Provincial Composers, 1530–1550” (Stanford, 1978) Miller’s preface (p. iv) gives credit for the initial stimulus for the topic to Lawrence F. Bernstein.
  6. Miller, 212.
  7. Miller, 216.
  8. Perkins, “Toward a Typology of the ‘Renaissance’ Chanson,” 426.