Verdelot, Susato and Janequin: Fanfares Without Politics

In August of 1545, Tilman Susato in Antwerp published a collection of music entitled:

The Tenth Book containing the Battle for four voices by Clement Janequin with the fifth voice by Phili. Verdelot thereto added, and two hare hunts for four voices and “The song of the birds” for three voices…[1]

Nicolas Gombert is given as the author of one of the hare hunts and the three-part “Chant des oiseaux,” while the remaining hare hunt is listed as being by “authori incognito.” The music is prefaced by a greeting directed from Susato towards “noble musicians, connoisseurs of wars, hunts and flyings- about”[2] in which he talks warmly about the place that trumpets, fifes, drums and the like have played in the manly activities listed.

Judging by the number of surviving examples, this was a popular edition.[3] Indeed, it was even reprinted (after the composer’s death) by Janequin’s own publishers, LeRoy&Ballard, in the “Verger de musique contenant partie des plus excellents labeurs de M.C.Ianequin…reveuz & corrigez par luy mesme” (“The Musical Garden, containing the most excellent labors of Master C. Janequin, reviewed and corrected by himself”.) In this collection we find both a reworked version of “La Guerre” with all five voices are by Janequin, and the Susato version “with the fifth voice added by Verdelot without any changes.”[4]

The reliability of the attribution to Verdelot has been questioned by Lawrence Bernstein,[5] and indeed, one wonders how an added voice for a French chanson by a madrigalist working in Italy wound up in a Dutch print two decades after the death of the contributor? Born in France, perhaps around 1480, Phillipe Deslouges (“Verdelot” was the name of his local parish) seems to have crossed the Alps when quite young. He was choir master in the Baptisterium San Giovanni in Florence in the mid-1520’s, where he among other things collaborated with Machiavelli on a production of La Mandragola. After 1527 there are no further records of the composer, and it is thought that he may have been a victim of an outbreak of the plague in Florence that year.[6] Aside from the chronological and geographical gaps, Bernstein questions the expediency for a French musician working in Italy during politically unstable times (in which Savonarola, the Medicis, the pope and Francis I all figure) of associating himself closely with a work which celebrates a major defeat of the Italians by the French, and also points out that there are few indications that Verdelot composed chansons at all.

The liens connecting Janequin with Susato, or Susato with Italy are equally tentative. The bulk of Susato’s printing activity was centered on northern composers like Gombert, Crequillon and Clemens non papa, and only on four occasions did Susato print music by Janequin: one is the collection under discussion, one includes two well-wrought instrumental arrangements of Janequin tunes,[7] two others contain 3-voice vocal arrangements of questionable heredity. As far as contact with Italy is concerned, at a later date Susato had extensive international connections, doing business in Germany and assisting diplomatic missions to Sweden, but there is nothing to suggest that he had particularly strong connections with Italy at this early point in his career (the Dixiesme livre was in fact only his tenth publication), and he was certainly not personally acquainted with Verdelot.[8]

All things considered, Bernstein’s skepticism seems justified. And yet. Susato was an honest tradesman, and the fifth voice as it appears in 1545-17 is a competent and sometimes inspired product worthy of a craftsman of Verdelot’s stature. LeRoy and Ballard, also honest tradesmen, gave the concept unhesitating credibility in 1559. Perhaps there are reasons for us to do the same?

If Verdelot had been composing his fifth voice in the direct aftermath of the Italian defeat, one could appreciate that this might have nettled some feathers. While we don’t actually know when Janequin wrote “La bataille,” the most appealing argument is that he did so while French enthusiasm was at its height, shortly after the event in 1515. What we do know is that the piece was well enough known in Italy to be the object of a parody version by Werrecore after the battle (won by the Italians this time around) of Biccoca in 1522. This means that Verdelot could have made his musical addenda at more or less any time between 1520 and 1527.

If we arbitrarily select 1525, three years after Werrecore did his Milanese mockings of the French, there is then a chronological gap of ten years between the event itself and the chanson’s current reception. As Bernstein points out, the political situation in Florence was chronically volatile, and Verdelot as a foreigner may have occasionally been in a delicate political position, but after a full decade, some of the political flammability connected with the piece must have faded.

There is another situation, however, in which the political flammability of the piece would have been significantly reduced, or even eliminated. This is if the envisaged performance of the fifth voice, together with the original four voices, was instrumental. Even if there was a flourishing French speaking community in Florence, the number of potential participants and listeners for a foreign language chanson with political history would have been limited. The potential audience for an instrumental version with exciting fanfares and driving rhythms, on the other hand, was unlimited: the members of the town band could take the piece onto the ramparts and thrill the entire population without offending a soul. Without the encumbrances of a text and a narration to respect, the band could even pick and pluck sections depending on the nature of the occasion.

They could, of course, have simply done the same with the original four-voice version, but two conditions argue for the plausibility of the fifth voice being an instrumental adaptation. One is that town bands frequently had five members, often three cornettoes and two sackbuts.[9] The second is that when you add a fifth voice to a four voice vocal original, you run the risk, due to the added number of imitative entries and additional text, of saturating the texture: “too many notes, Mr. Mozart” can quickly become “too many words, Mr. Janequin.” The balance between musical and textual focus is necessarily altered, and unless the original lacked activity at key points, the version with additional voice runs the risk of clutter. Textual clutter is obviously not a danger in an instrumental version, however, and if the removal of the textual element removes one of the chanson’s sources of energy, then enriching the instrumental texture with the addition of a fifth line puts some of this energy back in place.

It seems likely, as Bernstein suggests, that Verdelot’s contribution to the chanson genre was limited, if at all. However, adding a sackbut part to what was fast becoming a Renaissance favorite hardly constitutes opening new generic frontiers on Verdelot’s part, and his neatly contrived fifth voice perhaps started life as part of the baggage of the Florentine town musicians. How did these scraps of paper wind up in Antwerp 20 years later? Probably in the bag of a trombone player who got it from another trombone player. Moving from town to town on festival days, the fifth voice got played, discussed and traded, and in the course of the years, wandered across Germany until it got to Susato, who printed it. Why would he do so?

When Tylman Susato opened his music printing shop in 1543, he had a solid musical background. Originally from near Cologne in Germany, Susato was hired as a civic musician in Antwerp by at least 1520 and held the position until 1549. A great many of the urban centers in the Netherlands at this time had professional musicians in their employ responsible for playing music in processions, in connection with religious services, from the towers and in what we would now call “concert” situations. Antwerp was the largest and most dynamic of the Dutch commercial centers during this period, and Susato must have been an accomplished instrumentalist to have been given the position, in competition with colleagues from similar positions in neighboring areas.

Thus, when the experienced town musician Susato came across a snippet of music that would permit him not only to offer a piece of vocal music whose popularity had already been clearly demonstrated, but would expand the possibilities for effective performance of the piece by instrumentalists, a market he understood intimately, he was probably not in doubt. By fitting words to the fifth voice, Susato could appeal to several markets (vocal groups a4, vocal groups a5, instrumentalists) in a collection that featured not just one, but three well known composers (Janequin, Verdelot and Gombert). Judging by the number of surviving copies, his project seems to have done quite well.

  1. ” Le dixiesme livre contenant la Bataille a Quatre de Clement Iannequin, avecq la cinquiesme partie de Phili. verdelot Si placet, Et deux Chasses de Lievre a quatre parties, & le Chant des oyseaux a troix…”
  2. “Aux nobles Musiciens hanteurs de guerres, de chasses & de volleries” (p. xiiii verso)
  3. To the copies in Austria, Belgium (two), Germany (three), France, England and Sweden (two) listed by Ute Meissner in Der antwerpener Notendrucker Tylman Susato. Eine bibliographische Studie zur niederlänishen Chanson-publikation in der ersten Hälfte 16. Jahrhunderts. 2 vols. Berliner Studien Zur Musikwissenschaft. Berlin: Merseburger, 1967, can be added PL:KJ 2328 Mus Ant Pract S 1795 (10).
  4. On the Verger and the curious (and costly) case of two parallel five-voice versions of “La Guerre,” see Clément Janequin: French Composer at the Dawn of Music Publishing, pp. 305-08.
  5. Bernstein, Lawrence F. ed. La Couronne et fleur des chansons a troys Vol. I, Historical Commentary. Masters and Monuments of the Renaissance 3. New York: The Broude Trust, 1984, page 41.
  6. On Verdelot see H. Colin Slim A Gift of Madrigals and Motets Chicago: 1972; Fenlon88:79-80; Alexandra Amati-Camperi “A Fresh Look at the Life of Verdelot” in Cantate Domino: Musica nei secoli per il Duomo di Firenze ed. Timothy Verdon and Annelisa Innocenti (Florence, 2001); and Gargiulo, Piero “Da Willaert a Merulo: testi e madrigali nel Primo Libro a 4 voci (1533/2, poi 1537/9) di Phillippe Verdelot. Philomusica on-line 9/2 – Sezione II/54-71.2010. p. 63. Gargiulo sees 1521-1524 as the period of Verdelot’s most intense presence in Florence.
  7. Het Derde muyck boexken: Alderhande… of 1551, containing non-texted versions of LM3 “La guerre” and LM77 “Il estoit une fillette.” On Susato’s life see Kristine Forney, “New Insights into the Career and Musical Contributions of Tielman Susato” in Tielman Susato and the Context of Instrumental Music in Northern Renaissance Europe ed. Kenneth Polk and J.Nussbaum (Hillsdale, New York, 2005) 1-44.
  8. Richard Taruskin’s treatment of Verdelot’s fifth voice (in the first volume of the Oxford History of Western Music pp. 711-712) is a bit fanciful. The fifth voice was hardly “at the request” of Susato, who was only a teenager at the time of Verdelot’s death, and, as described above, putting both Janequin’s and Verdelot’s 5-voice versions in LeRoy&Ballards Verger was probably not the result of any surfeit of affection on the part of Janequin, since he put a lot of effort into making a competing fifth voice of his own, but was an editorial decision by LeRoy&Ballard that postdates Janequin’s passing. See Chapter 11, pp.¤¤¤
  9. See Kenneth Polk: “Susato and Instrumental Music in Flanders in the Sixteenth Century.” in Tielman Susato and the Music of his Time, ed. Keith Polk. Pendragon Press: Hillsdale, New York, 2005. Pp. 61-100. and Polk, Keith. “Exchange and Enrichment. Traffic Local and International in Instrumental Music in Flanders 1450-1550” in La, la, la Maistre Pierre, Mélanges de Musicologie en hommage à Henri Vanhulst, eds. V. Dufour & C. Ballman, Turnhout, Brepols, 2010, 55-59.