“Compositeur du roi”: The Court Position That Never Was

Three “royal titles” have been related to Janequin: (1) “chantre du roi” (“singer of the king”), (2) “chantre ordinaire de la chapelle du roi” (“ordinary[1] singer of the king’s chapel”), and (3) “compositeur ordinaire de musique pour le Roy notre Sire” (“ordinary composer of music for our Lord the King”). The first of these titles appears in four documents from Bordeaux in 1531, the second in a contract where Janequin rents a house in 1555, and the last in the composer’s last will and testament. What are we to make of these? Note that none of the documents issue from the court itself, none have “official” standing, and none have as their primary purpose the defining of the relationship between the court and the composer. Indeed, apart from the composer’s will, they are all quite peripheral, describing events that are neither official nor momentous.

Chantre du roi (1531)

The first example comes from four documents in Bordeaux archives: two from March 3, one from March 31 and one from June 2, 1531. All four of these documents have to do with the same situation. Janequin had been accorded the revenues of two small prebends, that of St. Jean de Mézos and that of Garrosse, and as he clearly did not intend to remain in the area (both of these are villages 40–100 kilometers south of Bordeaux), he made arrangements with a Bordeaux fur trader, Vidault Labat, for their administration. In short, Labat got the long-term revenues, while Janequin got cash up front. Second, all four of these documents were written by the same person, a certain Anchesme Peyrault, who signed himself “Royal notary.” This does not necessarily mean, however, that Peyrault had close connections with the court: it more likely simply meant that he was an approved operative for writing and registering legal documents in the Bordeaux area.

Thus, it seems not to have been a direct representative of the court who used the phrase “chantre du roi,” nor was it likely the composer himself who specified that the term should be used. Neither the composer nor his wealthy fur-trading friend, I think, stood by and watched while this wealth of precision and legal jargon was fastened to paper. They would have given Peyrault the specifics of what was needed, and then come back later with witnesses to sign, pay for, and collect the documents. Whether or not they read the documents with a fine-tooth comb is also open to question, and whether any of them found it appropriate to quibble with the chosen phraseology is even less likely. The purpose of the exercise was to ensure that the composer got his cash, that the fur trader got his futures, and that the notary got his fee.

Of course, for the documents to have any value, they needed to make a clear identification of the parties involved. Normally in this type of document, the names of the parties involved would be further identified by telling where the person lived, the person’s occupation, or listing the prebends involved. In the case of Janequin, his residency in Bordeaux at this moment was ending, he was no longer directly connected with any of the Bordeaux churches, and he was in the process of signing away the revenues of two prebends. Peyrault solved the identity criteria very simply by writing “chantre du roi.” Why did he choose this phrase?

One possibility is that the title had been bestowed on the composer by the court, and Peyrault was acquainted with this fact. The court had been in Bordeaux a year earlier, during the months of June and July, 1530, after securing the release of the king’s sons, and since the composer of the famous “La Guerre” was not only present in Bordeaux but had a long association with local aristocratic entertainment traditions, he would have been a natural choice to participate in the royal entertainments. He had probably done the same four years earlier when the king, returning from his own imprisonment in Spain, was honored with a long chanson celebrating the pleasures of the hunt. Now on the reuniting of the king with his sons, and at a distance of seven years from the defeat at Pavia, it is possible that both “La Chasse” and “La Guerre” were performed for the royal party, plus a new chanson, LM17 “Chantons, sonnons,” naming the royal children and calling for general rejoicing.[2] Since the king had just paid a huge ransom, he may not have been in the mood to expand his staff, but surely an honorific title would not tax the royal treasury?

A different explanation for the selected wording could have been that no official relationship existed, but the composer himself deemed the phrase an appropriate description of his activities and consequently suggested or insisted on its use in the documents. Two things argue against this explanation. One is that the phrase is not found in any other documents: it was never used by anyone except Peyrault. The other is that it would have been a bit presumptuous, perhaps even dangerously so, to accord oneself a royal title where none really existed, no matter how accurately the phrase described events that had perhaps once occurred.

The more likely explanation, it seems to me, is that it was Peyrault himself who deemed that “chantre du roi” was an appropriate description. Whether the good notary was thinking metaphorically (Janequin “sang the king’s praises” in his compositions lauding the monarch) or literally (in reference to the not unlikely condition that at some time Janequin had actually performed for the king), in a flourish of local pride and personal satisfaction at having such a distinguished client Peyrault identified the composer as “chantre du roi” on all four of the documents that he had been bidden to execute. It was the first and only time the title was applied in that form.

Chantre ordinaire de la Chapelle du roi (1555)

On the first of February, 1550 (n. st.), Janequin signed a document that describes him as “vénérable et discrete personne, maitre Clément Jehannequin, curé de Saint-Jehan de Mezos, diocese de Bordeaulx,”[3] with, at this point, no mention of the royal chapel. Five years later, on the thirteenth of July, 1555, he dedicated the Premier livre of the “Invention” series to the duke of Guise, with still no mention of the royal chapel.

Then, a few weeks later, on 28 September, 1555, Janequin signed a lease permitting him to occupy a house on the ruelle Neufve-St-Sulpice in which lease he is described as “maitre Clément Jehannequin, chantre ordinaire de la Chappelle du Roy a Paris.” Thus, before the end of September 1555, something had happened, but we don’t know what, and we don’t know when. However, we can extrapolate a couple of events in this time frame, based on information from subsequent documents. One is that sometime around the time that Janequin was renting the house at St. Sulpice, he also hired a servant, Barbe de Pleuve. We know this, because in his will (January 18, 1558) Janequin says that this servant had not received the salary that was her due, and that he owed her for services stretching over two and a half years. While the time period involved might not have been two and a half years to the letter, it is clear that in the fall of 1555, Janequin was in an expansive economic mood.

The other event is that sometime before the autumn of 1557, Janequin had the opportunity to notice that Queen Catherine de Medici appreciated “progressive” musical harmonies. This we know because Janequin refers to this condition in his rhymed dedication to the 82 Psalms. Not only is Janequin familiar with the queen’s preferences, but we are given to understand from the phrasing and tone of the dedication that this knowledge came to him as part of a personal experience he shared with the queen. When this interchange may have taken place is an open question, but something clearly happened that allowed Janequin to both associate himself with the court, and as his will subsequently establishes, to receive royal funds.

Who might have taken this initiative and what was then expected of our composer? It would have been a heartwarming example of professional brotherhood if this impulse had come from the royal musical establishment itself, for example from Sermisy or Certon, and the fact that no documents have survived does not prove that it was not so. But given the normal fiscal constraints of making the allotted funds stretch to cover the artistic ambitions of the chapel, making room for an aging competitor is not an altogether convincing alternative. Not altogether convincing either is the suggestion that it was an idea that originated with the king. Henry II was an avid sportsman and hunter, but his enthusiasm for the fine arts was never overwhelming. That essentially leaves us with Catherine of the piquant harmonies, who, recognizing that despite his prebends and publishing revenues the composer was struggling financially, felt sorry for him and put him on the payroll.

Compositeur ordinaire en musique pour le Roy notre sire (1558)

On the eighteenth of January 1558, Janequin wrote his will. In it, he tells us that he is sick, but of sound mind, that he is a good Catholic, that he wants to put his affairs in order before he dies, and that Mathurin Lebeau is to be his executor. He also tells us that the king owes him money, and that he, Janequin, hasn’t paid his servant, Barbe de Pleuve, for going on two and a half years.

What does all this reveal? It certainly raises intriguing questions about the kind of relationship Janequin had with Barbe de Pleuve. Two and a half years is a long time to serve without getting paid. Why did she remain in his service? Perhaps she was more than just a lady who cooked his meals and washed his clothes? Certainly, in his will, Janequin took care that she be well treated. She was to have all his “habillements” (clothes and things); she was to have 12 livres tournoises a year for the entire period of her employment, and her daughter, Thibaulde Guybert, was to have 40 sols.

Which raises another question: if the composer didn’t have the funds to pay de Pleuve while he lived, where would these funds come from after he died? The most secure source of revenue would have been the as-yet-unprinted music books that were being prepared by Le Roy and Ballard, including both the 82 Psalms and the huge retrospective Verger. Unless Janequin had been paid in advance for these, and already used up these funds, income from book sales could help settle de Pleuve’s back pay. But since he took the pains to mention it, it is also clear that Janequin also expected the king to honor his commitments, although the court was never the most reliable of debtors. Not a few bankers in this period, having been pressured into making loans to the state, were forced to exercise significant patience in the effort to recuperate their investments. Although a relative newcomer to courtly largesse, Janequin was probably not altogether naive about royal support.

What does this tell us about Janequin’s “job” at court? Apparently it was a position for which he was not always paid on time, or at all; it left no traces in the existing court records; and it did not prevent the composer from devoting himself to sizable projects for the publisher Le Roy and Ballard. What should we call this “position”? Three years earlier, Janequin had described himself as “chantre ordinaire de la chapelle du roi.” Even if he still was in good voice as he approached seventy, the chances of him trudging up to the choir loft to sing daily services seem remote indeed, his proclivity for committing liturgy on a regular basis never having been acute.

In his testament, the wording has been changed to “compositeur.” Does this mean that previously his duties were to sing, and more recently they had been to compose? I think not. I think the “position” Janequin had in 1558 was exactly the same as his “position” in 1555. That is to say, the court, in recognition of his long service to the state (he was, after all, still the composer of the iconic Valois “Battle” chanson and an internationally recognized representative of French culture), accorded the aging composer a sinecure that was large enough to prevent him from starving to death, an event that would not have brought credit to the nation’s cultural self-image. That dire outcome avoided, and royal appreciation having finally been publicly noted, the court could then get back to its various other duties, and the aging composer could do what he liked. In a word, his job was not to do anything specific, but to add prestige to the royal establishment in whatever way he was able, for which he would occasionally get paid, if the court had the money and remembered to do so. Is it any wonder that this “position” doesn’t show up in the court records?

A Musicological Extrapolation

The word “composer,” or something close to it, shows up in documents from this period on three occasions, and from these occurrences, commentators are in the process of fashioning a construct that describes a position at court, identifying the three composers who enjoyed this status, and imbuing this “position” and those who held it with the incumbent honor and status of royal Valois court composer.[4] The three documents are:

  1. A 1547 list of the musicians in the royal chapel at the time of the funeral of Francis I that refers to “Officiers de ladicte chappelle/me Pierre Sandrin composeur.”[5]
  2. Janequin’s last will and testament of January 18, 1558, beginning “Me Clément Jannequin prebtre, compositeur ordinaire en musique pour le Roy notre sire.”[6]
  3. A chanson anthology published by Nicolas du Chemin in 1570 with the title “Les meslanges de Maistre Pierre Certon, compositeur de musique de la chappelle du roy.”[7]

Pierre Regnault (Sandrin) was a member of the royal chapel, and a much appreciated one. His setting of “Douce memoire” was one of the huge hits of the period, endlessly reprinted and rearranged for instruments. (He seems to have had a background both as a musician and as an entertainer as his artist’s name, “Sandrin,” refers to a character in a play who answers every query with a line from a popular song.[8]) Sandrin was present at the court both before and after a sojourn in Italy that lasted from 1536 to 1544, and his popularity at court is undisputed. What is not clear is what the scribe who compiled the list in 1547 meant by the term “composeur.” The scribe’s list is organized in seven short sections, and names two leaders (Servisas and Sermisy), six treble singers, six tenors, five basses, six pages, three chaplains for high masses, and four “officers,” one of whom was Sandrin. The duties of these officers are appended to their names: Alexis Franquereau was “fourrier,” which perhaps had to do with logistics[9]; Jehan Moria was “clerc de chappelle” and may have kept track of attendance and payments; Symon Girault was “noteur” and was possibly responsible for copying and making available music materials.

Sandrin is thus grouped with the copyist, the librarian, and the dresser, and is called “composeur.” But what was it that Sandrin composed? It would seem not to have been that staple of the royal chapel, sacred music, as all of Sandrin’s known compositions are secular chansons. Sermisy, who certainly was the primary composer of music for the royal chapel, is not listed as such – he and Servisas are called “soubz maistre.” Was Sandrin thus named in recognition of his secular contributions? This seems a bit out of place. Or perhaps the word “composeur” had a different meaning. Perhaps Sandrin “composed” programs or entertainments? Perhaps, as a consequence of his experience and talents in those areas, he served as program developer, stage director, and master of ceremonies for all those occasions where extra-musical elements needed to be coordinated, such as banquets, receptions, royal entries, and the like?

We don’t know, and we don’t know whether or not to attach any significance to the fact that the word chosen to describe Sandrin was “composeur” and not “compositeur.” What seems clear is that Sandrin did something for the royal chapel that merited including him among its members, and that the clerk who recorded the members’ names included this “something” among the administrative functions connected to the royal chapel. Whether the clerk did this because it naturally fit in with these other duties or because he simply didn’t know where else to put it remains a mystery.

Twenty-three years after the court clerk called Sandrin “composeur,” and twelve years after the lawyer Mathurin called Janequin “compositeur ordinaire du musique du roi,” the printer Nicolas du Chemin published a large anthology of works by Pierre Certon, with the title page reading as follows:

LES MESLANGES || DE MAISTRE PIERRE CERTON || COMPOSITEVR DE MVSIQUE DE LA CHAPPELLE DV ROY || ET MAISTRE DES ENFANS DE CHOEVR DE LA SAINCTE CHAPPELLE || DV PALAIS A PARIS: ESQVELLES SONT QVATRE VINGTZ DIX-HVICT || tant Cantiques que Chansons Spirituelles, & autres : || à cinq, à six, à sept & à huict parties || Plus || Deux le Roy boyt, l’vn à neuf, & l’autre à treize parties : || lesquelles se chantent touts sur la partie du Bassus. ||A PARIS, || De l’imprimerie de Nicolas du Chemin, à l’enseign du Gryffon || d’argent, rue Sainct Iean de Latran || M.D.LXX. || Avec priuilege du Roy

Roughly translated, this reads, “A mixture of things by master Pierre Certon, composer of music at the chapel of the King, and master of the choirboys at the Royal Chapel in Paris: in which there are ninety-eight pieces, both Cantiques, Spiritual chansons and others,” after which the title lists the voice combinations, gives the printer’s address, and notes the year (1570). The collection is preceded by a dedication as expansive as the collection itself, to the provost of the merchants of the city of Paris, Nicolas Le Gendre.

This is a large and important collection, and the title certainly presents the author and the contents of the collection as truthfully as could be desired. By 1570, Certon had been connected with the royal chapel for forty years, twenty-four of which he had served as master of the choristers (“maistre de la psallette”). Moreover, there is no doubt that Certon was a composer: his sacred and secular compositions had appeared regularly in collections going back as early as 1533. But does this phrase, extracted from the title of a collection of printed music, reflect an actual official position (“composer of music for the king’s chapel”), or is it rather simply a comprehensive and accurate description of who Pierre Certon was and what he did?

Thus, we have three phrases, none of which are semantically identical, appearing in three different contexts (list of employees, testament, music print) at the remove of ten and twenty years from each other. This being the case, I would submit that any consistency in the use of these terms is more coincidental than real, and that we can safely rule out a conscious and organized application of the terms to “a position” at court. In short, the title that Brown imagined Janequin inherited from Sandrin and then passed on to Certon very likely never existed. Instead, sometime before September 1555, at which time Janequin was around seventy, the composer seems to have been accorded a kind of “pension,” one that probably did not require any specific services, and one that proved to be subject to the varying economic fortunes of the French crown. The motivations for this “pension” may have been good form, gratitude, or even something noble, but whatever they were, they seem not to have demanded any specific circumstances in return, nor do the terms of the agreement seem to have been respected with any rigor. But even if the crown forgot to pay up occasionally, and even if the “position” Janequin held seems never to have been very carefully defined, a faint whiff of the reciprocity of the patron/protégé relationship lingers in the air, and we can accord the aging composer the prestige, if not all the material benefits, of a status he longed for throughout his career.

  1. Exactly what the French “ordinaire” signifies in this context is open to question. It may have had to do with status, with salary level, with expected attendance, or with some other quality. “Ordinary” is certainly a poor translation, but since “regular” carries with it connotations that may not be justified, I have let it stand.
  2. The possibility that LM17 «Chantons, sonnons» was not a royal commission but rather the result of an astute assessment by Pierre Attaingnant of the market for court-friendly chansons is explored in Clément Janequin: French Composer at the Dawn of Music Printing, pp. 90–91.
  3. Document 1550/1 is described more fully in the document section of this website.
  4. Howard Mayer Brown, “Clément Janequin,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. George Grove and Stanley Sadie (London : Washington, D.C: Macmillan, 1980) writes : “a title that only Sandrin before him seems to have held”; Cazaux, La musique à la cour de François Ier, 347 says “titre qui jusqu’à cette date n’avait été porté que par Sandrin, en 1547, et par Janequin, en 1557 [sic].”
  5. BNF ms. F 10392 fol 173v. – Chantres chanoines, chappelains et autres officiers de la Chappelle de musicque dudict feu roy. (Singers, chaplains and other officers of the Music chapel of the late king.) Transcribed in Cazaux, La musique à la cour de François Ier, 255.
  6. Appendix A: Document 1558/1.
  7. Preserved in the University Library in Uppsala (Sweden) Vok. mus. tr. 129–133 (Quinta pars missing). Contents listed in François Lesure and Geneviève Thibault, Bibliographie des éditions musicales publiées par Nicolas du Chemin, 1549–1576, Annales Musicologiques (Société de musique d’autrefois, 1953), 343–45.
  8. The late fifteenth-century farce “Le savetier qui ne respont que chansons.”
  9. Randle Cotgrave’s French-English dictionary of 1611 doesn’t offer a readily apparent solution to what the responsibilities of the “fourrier” might have been, but more recent sources suggest “quartermaster.” Whatever it meant, the same term appears in a list from 1520 of the people connected with Charles V’s musical chapel. See Mary Tiffany Ferer, Music and Ceremony at the Court of Charles V: The Capilla Flamenca and the Art of Political Promotion, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music 12 (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK ; Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2012), 36.