The “Battle of Metz”: An Unlikely Landmark in the History of Western Music

With the publication of “La Guerre de Metz” Janequin (or his printer) followed a procedure that in the eyes of some amounts to a landmark in the history of Western music. At different points in the partbooks, starting with the superius at measure 61, the notes are no longer texted, and above the corresponding staves are printed “le phifre” (pipe), “Tabourin de Suisse” (drum), “Cleron” (cornet), and “Trompette” (trumpet). This, it has been suggested, is the first recorded example of a composer giving specific instructions about desired instrumentation, and as such is a harbinger of developments that we normally associate with the dawning Baroque.[1] Truly, a propitious event! Before we unanimously declare our composer a precursor, however, it may serve to reflect a little on what exactly Janequin (or the boys in the print shop) might have meant with their indications.

One possibility is that the indications mean exactly what they say: at the point in the partbook where it says “Le phifre,” Janequin meant that the singers should stop singing and flute players brought in for the occasion take over (unless the singer doing the superius just happens to master the “phifre”). The same for the other voices: when the partbook says “drums,” the tenor takes a rest, and a drummer drums; when the bass book asks for “trompette” the bass stops singing, and the trumpet takes over. This undeniably sounds exciting, but applying this theory—that the instructions were meant literally and specifically—leads quickly to quirkiness beyond the pale. In measure 62, the tenor is given over to a “Swiss tambourine.” Parallel with this, however, the bass is asked to continue to sing, and to employ the “pon” sound that conventionally represents drums. Three instruments and a drum, plus a bass singer imitating a drum—is this the desired texture? What of the measures that follow where our non-melodic drummers are requested to produce a tune? Can some kind of musical logic be found in the constantly shifting text=sung/no text=played salad in the measures that follow? And, honestly, what kind of musical sensibility puts instruments into the mix for a few measures at the end of a first section, bringing things momentarily to a resounding climax (albeit while the singers stand and watch) and then sends the instrumentalists home for the duration?

A second possibility is that these instructions were not meant to be taken quite so literally and that what Janequin is doing here is making some initial suggestions about combinations that might prove effective, and that by taking the supplied hints and developing them further, an effective evening of horns, drums, and voices will result.[2] This is a kind of compromise suggestion for those uncomfortable with rejecting the “beginnings of instrumentation” theory out of hand, and which is also palatable for those who point out (and rightly so) that musicians in the Renaissance were hardly governed by any kind of rigid vocal-instrumental dichotomy. Certainly, at the time, instrumentalists and vocalists made music together in a variety of ways, and instrumentalists frequently, even regularly, used “vocal” partbooks as the contemporary counterpoints of modern “cheat sheets,” extracting melodies, harmonies, and rhythms at will, while leaving the texts on the cutting room floor.

But is this what is happening in “La Guerre de Metz?” I doubt seriously that Renaissance instrumentalists either required or expected suggestions as to how they might approach a work like “Metz,” especially in the fragmented and short-lived style in which things are presented at the end of Janequin’s first section. If a handful of instrumentalists were at some time invited to join some vocalists in presenting “Metz,” their participation would surely have been carried through in a somewhat more integrated fashion, joining in at regular intervals and certainly not sitting tacit during the climactic final measures. The idea that Janequin meant to bring instruments into the fabric of Metz is simply not of whole cloth. In the big picture, it just doesn’t make any sense.

What, then, is going on following measure 61? The fact that names of instruments appear above the staff and words disappear from below the staff is simply a result of Janequin saving himself the trouble of writing out a long chain of nonsense syllables in his rough draft, and Nicolas du Chemin saving himself the time, trouble, and ink involved in setting these same nonsense syllables. Janequin was writing for voices, but in a style in which voices were asked to imitate dogs, horses, cannons, muskets, apple-sellers, chattering ladies, larks, starlings, cuckoos, and dying stags. For the singers, the game was to pretend to be something that they were not, letting their listeners be entertained both while they were discovering what facet of reality was being mirrored and subsequently as they enjoyed experiencing the discovered event. Mimicry was the whole point of the exercise, and in this case, Janequin simply included a terse message designed to alert the singer that from this point on, the printer is taking a shortcut, and the singer should simply imitate the sound of whatever instrument is indicated in his partbook.

  1. Michel Brenet says that instruments “intervene, separate from the voices and alternating with them” (“C’est dans le courant de ce couplet que les instruments interviennent, séparément des voix et alternativement avec elles.” Rudolph Gläsel follows Brenet’s lead, declaring that this is a very early [1555] example of clearly separated alternation between vocal and instrumental sections [“rein instrumentale Teile, die in Wechsel mit textierten treten”]. François Lesure says “where the author has indicated an instrumentation” [“ou l’auteur a indiqué une instrumentation” while Isabelle His calls the procedure “atypical” but describes it as “an instrumental interpolation.” Johann Herczog is more circumspect, calling the episode “a possible participation by the named instruments.” See Michel Brenet, “Essai sur les origines de la musique descriptive II,” Rivista Musicale Italiana XV [1908]: 481; R. Gläsel, Zur Geschichte Der Battaglia [Thomas & Hubert, 1931], 45; Clément Janequin, Chansons polyphoniques VI, ed. François Lesure and A.Tillman Merritt, vol. 6 [Monaco: Editions de L’oiseau-Lyre, 1971], 178; Isabelle His, “L’invention de la ‘mêlée’ en musique: du chant de bataille au chant de victoire,” in Clément Janequin: un musicien au milieu des poètes, ed. Olivier Halévy, Isabelle His, and Jean Vignes, 15 [Paris: Soc. Française de Musicologie, 2013], 222; Johann Herczog, Marte Armonioso: Trionfo Della Battaglia Musicale Nel Rinascimento, Saggi e Testi / Università Degli Studi Di Lecce, Dipartimento Dei Beni Delle Arti e Della Storia 22 [Mario Congedo Editore, 2005], 201.

  2. This is what Le Tourdion (L’amour, la mort et la vie ADMS 122K, 2000) do: they gather a group of truly outstanding instrumentalists, and rearrange the entire piece, adding ritornellos where they see fit, resulting in a fresh and occasionally exciting performance, of which most listeners will understand almost nothing of the narrative content.