Expressive Core Analysis

Identifying and exploring the essence of Janequin’s creativity requires analytic procedures that are broader than those that regard the text as the essential and governing point of departure. The chanson, as practiced by Janequin, is a compact, polyphonic, triadic, often imitative genre that may or may not take its point of departure and/or selected formal elements from a pre-existing text, and the most successful discussions of his work take all these conditions into account.

The key element in this description is that Janequin was conscious of working in a genre that was by custom compact. The vast majority of Janequin’s chansons commence, grow, and conclude within the space of two or three minutes. Within this short span of time, only a certain number of ideas can be established, explored, and reinforced in depth. If tranquility is the composer’s quest, then there will probably not be room for demonstrations of rhythmic ingenuity. If hearing all the details of Jhan’s love life are paramount, then straightforward homophony serves, and flowing, contrapuntal lines are saved for another occasion. Not using every possible effect in every chanson is hardly a weakness, however. Rather, it is selecting and maintaining focus, and my proposal for an adequate analytic framework for Janequin is one that views as its primary function the identification of this focus, which I refer to as “the expressive core.”

Essential to this concept is the recognition that the inspiration for this expressive core can come from anywhere, not just from literary sources. There are several instances in Janequin’s production where this is self-evident. Clearly, LM14 “Les Cris de Paris” did not see the light of day in response to a poetic work, as the text as set contains no trace of rhyme or line regularity. It came about because Janequin thought it would be fun to add more music to the boisterous melodies of the Parisian markets. In the same way, LM3 “La Guerre” started life as an idea, telling the story of the battle of Marignan in music, and not with pages and pages of “pon pon” and “zin zin.” I would submit that this premise applies to far more than just program music. For example, I think it likely that when Janequin was confronted with the text for LM77 “Il estoit une fillette” (“Once Upon a Time a Maiden”), his initial response was not “How can I maintain the integrity of the alternating sixain and huitain couplets?” but rather “Can I use these verses to make a joke about speed changes while shagging?” I would guess that for the author of these verses, the contrast of perceived innocence and experience and the reversal of those loci was central. Janequin certainly had no issue with this, but I suggest that the expressive core of his setting was not the fine points of who started things off, but the much less subtle (but much more accessible) effect of demonstrating through music how things can start slowly, heat up, and then pleasantly fade.

The position that Janequin’s compositional inspiration and techniques relate more to a guiding idea or concept (“the expressive core”) than to any feeling of responsibility to the “text as a work of art” can be observed in the way Janequin handles texts. Occasionally (as far as we know, given our limited knowledge of the original states of most of what Janequin set) he set the text as it was originally assembled by the poet. On other occasions, Janequin selects only one of several verses, uses a fragment of one of these verses, or, in some instances, makes free to change, reduce, or add to the text he is setting. And why not? In Janequin’s eyes, he was not extending or enhancing a work of art by someone else, he was creating a new entity, using the raw materials that were available.

The function of Janequin analysis in my view, then, is to identify the expressive core in each chanson and to illuminate its implementation and development. LM52 “De vray amour” (“True Love”) can serve to illustrate some of the basic premises of the expressive core concept. The expressive core of the poem can be expressed rather succinctly as “love hurts.” The more you love, the more it hurts, and all that can be done is to try to hide one’s suffering. The poem has no ambitions about being pleasant, comforting, or hopeful. It is disappointed, bitter, and after having perhaps gained some small solace from giving expression to the intensity of the pain, resigned. I have no doubts that Janequin carefully studied this text (and every text he set) and that he would have given immediate agreement to the proposition that the expressive core of the poem is centered on pain and resignation.

This, however, does not automatically make pain and resignation the expressive core of the chanson. The expressive core of the chanson emerges as a result of the musical techniques employed by Janequin to clothe the idea or ideas that the text (and his own experience) has elicited. In the case of “De vray amour,” I would submit that the expressive core is one interval—the half step from e to f—that is the seminal unit in a phrase that appears first in the alto in measures 4–6, and out of which the rest of the chanson is generated.

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This bleak phrase contains the absolute minimum of melodic material available to the composer—throbbing repeated notes that make one tentative movement (using the smallest available interval) and then sink back to the point of departure, the pain undiminished. This theme is repeated insistently, moving from the altus directly to the tenor (measures 6–8), to the bass (measures 8–10), and then returning to the altus (measures 10–12). In the second section of the chanson (measures 12–21), the throbbing recedes slightly (three repetitions of the e in place of five), and descending lines signal the coming resignation.


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After a short and marginally hopeful third section (measures 22–28) in which repeated notes nevertheless continue to throb, the chanson ends on a phrase (variants of which are stated and repeated in each voice) that moves scale-wise up to the key e-f interval, and then scale-wise down to the resigning cadence.

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One interval is of course not sufficient raw material for constructing an entire chanson, and Janequin makes phrases, triads, and imitation that fill out and complete his setting. That having been said, at any given moment in “De vray amour,” the taste and memory of the unrelenting and unresolved e-f-e interval is never far away, which to my eyes and ears puts it at the expressive core.

The intense exploration of one interval to the point that it permeates the entire texture of a chanson is just one example of a technique employed by Janequin that can be identified as the expressive core. The same can be said for the exploitation of one sound in LM56 “Revenez vous,” one phrase in LM202 “Avant que partiez,” one rhythmic figure in LM203 “Robin couché,” pulse in LM77 “Il estoit une fillette,” flow in LM148 “Quand contrement,” interlinearity[1] in LM96 “Ce tendron,” and a host of other techniques and procedures employed as points of departure. Janequin’s frequent use of structural and rhetorical repetition notwithstanding, no one of these techniques or procedures can be isolated and identified as typical, a state of affairs at the very heart of the expressive core concept and one that presents analysts and performers alike with the recurring but rewarding challenge of discovering and emphasizing that which makes each chanson unique.

  1. The term “interlinearity” is used here to describe the practice of beginning a phrase in one of the voices and (by way of a seamless transition) continuing that phrase in one of the other voices.