Lesure’s Epithets

François Lesure (1909–2002) was the grand old man of Janequin scholarship, and more than anyone else, he made significant contributions to bringing Janequin’s life out of the shadows and Janequin’s music out of the archives. So, in what now follows, let it be clear that his memory shines and that his work is not just appreciated, but saluted. Nevertheless, on two occasions Lesure contributed formulations that, although highly speculative, were so engagingly expressed that they have subsequently been practically sanctified by endless repetition. Both appear in the 1963 article he co-authored with Paul Roudie entitled “La Jeunesse bordelaise de Clément Janequin (1505–1531),” and both deserve slightly more nuance than they are usually granted.

The first is the reflection that “… toute sa vie il semble avoir eu un tempérament assez chicanier …”[1] (“… all his life he seems to have had a thorny personality …”), an opinion that Lesure saw fit to repeat in the short biographical introduction to the Lesure/Merritt Chansons polyphoniques (1965). Predictably, something as juicy as this has not been ignored. Brown and Freedman, to their credit, left it out of their Groves article, but everywhere else you turn, you risk finding an elaboration of some kind. Albert Seay translates the passage with “a thorny individual,” Guy Marchand wonders if the composer perhaps had “un tempérament difficile” (“a fiery disposition”), and the rest of the secondary literature adds several more variants, generally pejorative. [2]

What initially inspired Lesure and Roudie’s description was the observation that most of the documents they found in the Bordeaux archives had to do with legal proceedings, some of which (like those concerning Janequin’s dispute with Destuberro over the procureur des ames prebend) pitted Janequin against an adversary. Perhaps the most accurate translation of Lesure and Roudie’s comment “assez chicanier” would be “rather much disposed to quarrel,” and it is easy to understand that the authors, eagerly searching the archives for something that would broaden their understanding of Janequin’s music, were perhaps disappointed at the regular emergence of documents that revealed only limited aspects of the composer’s activities.

Certainly, there is no reason to presume that Janequin, any more than any of us, was not occasionally rude, irritating, and unreasonable. He was human. But making judgments on personality on such thin evidence (and in such quotable form) is a dangerous game. In the first place, litigation was common in this period,[3] not just because the codifying of laws was in its adolescence, but because the very nature of the prebend system encouraged it.[4] Further, not every one of Janequin’s visits to his lawyer had to do with disagreements; most had to do with agreements (notarial activity) about the administration of his revenues and loans. Of course, there were disagreements, not least that with Destuberro about the procureur des ames prebend and much later (1549) with his brother concerning the disposition of house rentals from Châtellerault. Nevertheless, there is plenty of evidence that he got along with people well enough. He remained in the du Fau household for eighteen years, he stayed with the same publisher for twenty-one years, he had a circle of friends in Angers, and he seems to have been on speaking terms with the queen herself. In all fairness, it must be asked: how many of us muddle through seventy years without ever having a disagreement at work or hard words with our brother? In short, we are all best served by refraining from forming opinions on the character of historical figures about which we possess only limited amounts of information.

The second bit of Lesurian drama follows shortly after in the same article: “Deficientibus pecuniis! Telle est la devise que l’on pourrait à bon droit inscrire en exergue en tête de toute étude biographique du pauvre musicien.” (“Out of cash! Such is the motto one could justifiably inscribe at the head of any study of the poor musician’s life.” [5]) Nothing can match the starving artist syndrome in popular biographical portrayal, and Janequin himself adds fuel to the fire with the “poor old age” remark in his dedication to the queen.[6] Add to this a rich assortment of documents describing loans, a family disagreement about rental revenues, and voilà! The field is clear for Olga Bluteau to relate that Janequin “bankrupted himself in interminable lawsuits against his brother who he accused of stealing his part of the inheritance.”[7]

Accounts like Bluteau’s—equal parts error and free invention—taken together with a myriad of similar secondary laments about Janequin’s finances, impose a brief review of the relevant economic realities. On a detail level, Janequin’s lament from 1529, “Deficientibus pecuniis,” is not only accurate but has special relevance for that year, as records show that poor meteorological conditions fostered widespread crop failure and famine. Janequin’s failure to pass along the fruits of his procureur des ames prebend were likely conditioned by the fact that there were no fruits to pass. Again, in 1557, when Janequin penned his “poor old age” remark to the queen, we are forced to ask to what degree this elocution is a precise description of Janequin’s fiscal state, and to what degree it is a conventional turn of phrase employed to elicit sympathy and understanding. Both “poor” and “old” are notoriously subjective terms, and while Janequin was undeniably “old,” his estimation of what amounted to being “poor” was necessarily relative: poor in comparison to the king, poor in comparison with Sermisy, poor in comparison with his butcher, or with his housekeeper? When Janequin penned these words, he had the reasonable expectation of revenue from both the court and from LeRoy & Ballard, and the self-demeaning description he chose makes equally good sense as a polite but nevertheless pointed reminder to the queen that the court owed him money.

In the broader perspective of Janequin’s entire life, the impoverished artist picture seems distorted at best. Janequin experienced significant periods of economic stability, first due to the relative affluence of his parents, later to the generosity of his patron Lancelot du Fau, then to the modest, but stable and secure conditions he enjoyed during the entire Angers period (1533–1547). Certainly, there were difficult moments: the ten years after the death of du Fau in 1523 are marked by instability and financial insecurity. All his life, significant travel costs must have accrued both for promoting the printing of his music and for exploring new positions. Then, after having renounced the advantages of Angers, the years in Paris were a pioneering economic gamble in which he attempted to support himself primarily with revenues from the commercial music trade. Even during these last Paris years, there are moments of financial optimism, as in 1555, when promises of court support seem to have become reality.

The point again is that blanket estimations about a life and career that lasted as long as Janequin’s are doomed to be of limited value. Janequin made a lot of money, and he spent a lot of money. He had times of security and prosperity, and times when he was forced to loan and hope. He certainly had much less security and much less prosperity than many of his colleagues, particularly Sermisy and Certon, and perhaps several more about whom we know too little to comment. But instead of flaunting the starving-artist cliché, we may rather remind ourselves that poverty and prosperity are always relative, and that Janequin kept body and soul sufficiently together over a period of seventy-plus years to bequeath some five hundred artistic creations, none of which sound as if the composer was fainting from hunger.

Did Janequin’s 1547 decision to make publishing revenues a key element in his survival strategy during the last years of his career influence the kinds of music he chose to write and the way he wrote this music? Almost certainly.

The growth of the music printing industry in the early sixteenth century carried with it many changes, among them the accelerated dissemination of both material and reputations. These changes affected different composers in different ways. Josquin was highly regarded and widely sung during his lifetime, but his reputation and his presence in the market expanded dramatically during the first couple of decades of music publishing. His reputation was greatly enhanced because of music printing, but music printing had no influence on how he wrote; he was not paying his bills with printing revenues. Something of the same can be said about Claudin de Sermisy. Sermisy was already established as a gifted choir leader and a talented composer before 1528, when his works began appearing in Attaingnant’s newly established publications. The dissemination of his works unquestionably bolstered Sermisy’s accrual of honors and remunerations, but his welfare and living standard were determined not by how many partbooks Attaingnant sold, but by his status with the royal music establishment.

For Janequin, moving to Paris in 1549, it can never have been a question of what he wanted to write or what he thought he was good at. Rather, the economic eagle eye of each respective subsequent publisher became the determining factor, and while Attaingnant, Du Chemin, and LeRoy & Ballard all continued to print Janequin’s secular chansons, it was the devotional market that occupied center stage. Psalms, proverbs, and spiritual chansons were the order of the day, and Janequin complied, even though the rather many restraints involved (given texts and melodies of uneven quality; restricted rhythmic, harmonic, and structural formats) gave him little opportunity to use his full musical palette. He complied quite simply because despite his prebend from Unverre and some gratifying but inconsistent royal support, he depended on the revenues from these devotional publications to survive. Had his economic support during this brave but only marginally successful attempt at being a commercial composer been less restrained, perhaps the musical expressions of his last years would have followed suit.

  1. Roudie and Lesure, “La jeunesse bordelaise de Clément Janequin (1505–1531) Documents inédits,” 173.
  2. Albert Seay, review of Chansons polyphoniques I, ed. by A. T. Merritt and F. Lesure, by Clément Janequin, Notes 24, no. 2 (1967): 337; Marchand’s remarks from album notes to Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal, Janequin: Chansons élégiaques et pittoresques (Analekta FL 2 3184, 2004).
  3. Levron recounts Françoise Auvé’s legal engagements as well as those of Janequin’s aristocratic acquaintance François de Gondi in Jacques Levron, Clément Janequin, musicien de la Renaissance: Essai sur sa vie et ses amis, Flammarion (Paris: Edition B. Arthaud, 1948), 70 and 82.
  4. Robert Boutrouche, ed., Bordeaux de 1453–1715, vol. 4, Histoire de Bordeaux (Bordeaux: Fédération historique du Sud-Ouest, 1966), 224.
  5. Roudie and Lesure, “La jeunesse bordelaise de Clément Janequin (1505–1531) Documents inédits,” 174.
  6. “… en povre veillesse …” in the preface to the 82 Psalms (published in 1559).
  7. “se ruinant dans interminable procès avec son frère ainé qu’il accusait de lui avoir volé sa part d’heritage.” Olga Bluteau, “Clement Janequin,” 2004, http://olga.bluteau.free.fr/Janequin.htm.