“Linguistic” Analysis

Jean-Pierre Ouvrard (1948–1992) studied first literature at the university in Angers, then moved to Tours, where he divided his energies between performing (the Ensemble Jacques Moderne) and a brilliant academic career. His master’s thesis from 1970—in translation “Aspects and Functions of the Poetic Text in the Development of the Musical Form in the Chansons of Clément Janequin”[1]—can be seen as one of the first fruits of Lesure and Merritt’s newly available edition of the secular works,[2] and laid the groundwork for a significant number of contributions to Janequin criticism in the course of his career.

In working with vocal music from the first half of the sixteenth century, Ouvrard found the terminology currently in use very little succinct, and applying terms borrowed from contemporary developments in the field of linguistics, he sought to remedy this.[3] His preferred description for the process by which chanson composers created their works was “une lecture du texte poetique”—a reading of the poetic text—a concept he incorporated into the title of his 1979 dissertation “La Chanson polyphonique Franco-Flamande autour de 1530–1550 comme lecture du texte poetique.”[4]

This reading took different forms. The “metrical” reading established the line lengths and accents of the poem, and might or might not coincide with a “syntactic” reading, in which contextual meaning was the primary concern. These two kinds of readings—metrical and syntactic—come into conflict when “enjambment” occurs, where the syntactic content is continued and completed in the next metric unit, while the length of a musical phrase normally mirrored the governing metric line. For Ouvrard, the way in which a composer resolved these conflicts was significant in understanding that composer’s expressive intentions.

Ouvrard distinguished further two kinds of syntactic emphasis: a rhetorical dimension, in which repetition, long notes, melismas, and other techniques serve to emphasize a particular word or meaning, and a semantic dimension, in which word-painting (“madrigalisms”) and illustrative techniques are employed. To “metrical emphasis” and “syntactic emphasis” Ouvrard added “ludique” (playful) emphasis, as well as a “theatrical” dimension to describe the frequent use of dialogue in this repertory. Linguistic analysis of this kind is certainly useful, but I think that Ouvrard did not intend us to regard this as the only, and perhaps not even the quintessential, analytical tool for the chanson repertory. Obviously, for pieces like “Les Cris de Paris,” in which there is essentially no poetic structure at all, the procedure is of limited use. Similarly, in the long sections of “pitapoc pitapoc” in “La Guerre,” or of “Gnof! Gnof! Gnof!” in “La Chasse,” other analytical tools are required.

There is a more subtle reservation about Ouvrard’s approach, however, and that is that in a large number of chansons based on traditional and clearly articulated poetic forms, the relevance of the poems’ original structure to the structure of the chanson is open to question. This bit of heresy requires an explanation. When we read a poem as a poetic text, without music, we notice moods and colors, we notice rhyme and sonorities, we notice semantic and rhetorical emphases, and we notice the ways in which the poet has respected, manipulated, or extended the formal constraints within which the poem has been situated. So far, so good. When we move to readings of the individual vocal lines in the chanson, however, we discover that these readings are fundamentally different. They are colored and inevitably altered by the addition of the height and length of the musical tones to which the syllables are wedded. The aesthetics that governed the poem are now modified and supplanted by a new aesthetic that goes beyond, and in part or totally destroys, the original aesthetic. In many chansons, it is indeed possible for a listener to recognize a melody built on a line of poetry with ten metric feet, especially if it is built, like so many are, on first four feet, then a slight pause, and then the completing six feet. In very many other cases, however, the number of feet that are present are completely obscured by varying tone lengths, chains of melismas, other voices entering and exiting in imitation, or for rhythmic effect, such that by the time we arrive at the cadence, any feeling that this is an octosyllabic, a decasyllabic, or an alexandrine line has been completely obscured, if not obliterated.

This brings us to the second caution, which is that in speaking of the chanson as “a reading of the poetic text,” the insinuation or underlying assumption can quickly become that the chanson is not really an independent entity, but a kind of extension or elaboration of the poem.[5] The musical obliteration of the poems original metric structure mentioned above is not a destruction, however, or even a deconstruction, of “the poem”: the poem per se exists only in its original context, without the addition of melody and harmony. In its new context, the poem is a piece of raw material, as are melody and harmony and rhythm, all of which are combined into a new kind of work, the chanson.

Further, the chanson is not one “reading” of the text, but several: there are four micro-readings, one for each voice, and a macro-reading, in which the combination and interplay of all the voices obtains. This macro-reading may have found its inspiration in the mood or message represented in the original text, or it may have as its central focus some purely musical idea not significantly conditioned by the text. The original text, then, may be a point of departure, but it is not—pace all poets—the final result. It is a contribution to a new entity, and the techniques and rules that apply to the original entity ultimately have limited validity in judging and understanding this new entity.

Some of the limitations of linguistic analysis can be observed if we look at Janequin’s setting from 1533 of Clément Marot’s saucy “Tu as tout seul, Jhan, Jhan” (LM128), which Ouvrard explores in a 1987 article.[6] Marot’s poem runs to eight lines, the first seven of which are a long list of things that the apparently miserly and only marginally sympathetic Jhan holds close: money, vineyards, properties, and so forth. Then, right at the end, in typical Marotian style, comes “the twist” (in French, “la chute”) wherein the tables are turned—surprise ending, reversal, punch line. A condensed version of Marot’s poem runs like this:

You have, Jhan, all for yourself,

this, that, and the other thing …

… except your wife.[7]

Janequin’s technique in setting this is to erect a mockingly self-confident declamation for the pre-twist proclamations, and then invert all his parameters for the post-twist. The pre-twist marches along in a steady, even arrogant triple meter, complete unanimity of purpose and status reflected in the simultaneous declamation, the regularity of the meter underlining the resoluteness and stability of Jhan’s pompous self-image. Big, rich, important guy, Jhan, no doubts about it.

Then, just when Big Jhan is starting to relax, his feet are cut out from under him: his wife is playing around. Ouch! And Janequin accordingly turns everything upside-down. Gone the steady triple meter, gone the regularity, gone the simultaneous declamation. Now the voices attack from different directions, with different densities, different rhythmic figures—all of which wind down to a venomously ironic plagal cadence. Sorry, Big Jhan, but you’re a cuckold.

Ouvrard was perfectly conscious of what Janequin was doing in “Tu as tout seul”; this much is clear from his succinct description in his 1981 “Du narratif …” article.[8] What is less clear is how a general strategy of separating exposition from denouement by an abrupt and total shift in musical style falls under a linguistically oriented “reading of the text” analysis. Certainly, on a macro level, our reading of the text is that it is one of those clever baubles with a “chute,” and this has consequences for the compositional strategy. But are we served in “Tu as tout seul” by distinctions between “rhetoric of emphasis” and “rhetoric of representation”? Janequin emphasizes “seule” (“alone”) with a chain of eighth notes, and “femme” (“wife”) with a dotted figure. Both of these details add nicely to the general diversification of expression that marks the final section, but are they examples of the rhetoric of emphasis, or are they consequences of musical considerations of density, rhythmic variety, or perhaps line?

At the end of the day, “reading of the text” analysis at the macro level approaches metaphor. Everything we do to approach a chanson can be called “our reading,” at which point the linguistic terminology that Ouvrard recommends is not yet applicable. On the other end of the scale, attempts to precisely describe compositional responses quickly degenerate into codes, a danger of which Ouvrard was aware. Although Ouvrard’s primary concern was to contribute to a more precise terminology for discussing texts and music in the chanson literature, he found in Janequin a rich source of examples for illustrating his suggestions, and citations from Janequin abound in his work. Among other contributions specifically related to Janequin is an article from 1978 in which he looks at rondeaux form in LM53 “Mon confesseur m’a dict,”[9] an analysis of LM60 “Martin menoit son porceau”[10] from 1987, and two dozen sensitive and insightful capsule summaries of Janequin chansons in Honegger’s encyclopedia of vocal music.[11] Indeed, like the dramatist Bertolt Brecht, Ouvrard is often at his best when his artistic intuition takes precedence over the constraints of the theoretical constructs he sought to apply.

  1. Ouvrard, “Aspects et fonctions structurants du texte poétique dans l’invention de la forme musicale des chansons de C. Janequin.”
  2. Lesure and Merritt’s six-volume edition of the secular chansons began appearing in 1965.
  3. In particular, Jean Cohen, Structure du langage poétique (Paris, Flammarion, 1966) and works by Jacques Roubaud, Jean Mazaleyrat, and Roman Jakobson.
  4. “The Franco-Flemish Polyphonic Chanson of around 1530–1550 as a Reading of the Poetic Text,” (my translation). Doc. diss., Tours, 1979. Key elements of Ouvrard’s dissertation, in which he expands his analytical field to 140 chansons by a variety of composers, are outlined in two articles from 1981: “La Chanson Francaise Du XVIe Siècle: Lecture Du Texte Poétique,” in La Chanson à La Renaissance: Actes Du XXe Colloque d’études Humanistes Du Centre d’études Supérieures de La Renaissance de l’Université de Tours, Juillet 1977, ed. Jean Michel Vaccaro (Tours: Editions Van de Velde, 1981); and a somewhat more schematic presentation in “Les jeux du mètre et du sens dans la chanson polyphonique française du xvie siècle (1528–1550),” Revue de Musicologie 67, no. 1 (1981): 5–34.
  5. In fact, great chunks of literary and musical reflection have been devoted to the marriage of music and poetry in which this underlying assumption is not an assumption at all, but a received truth.
  6. Jean-Pierre Ouvrard, “Du narratif dans la polyphonie au XVIe siècle: Martin menoit son pourceau au marché. Clément Marot, Clément Janequin, Claudin de Sermisy,” Analyse Musicale 4e trimestre (1987): 11–16.
  7. The full text reads “Tu as tout seul Jhan, Jhan, vignes et prez, Tu as tout seul ton or et ta pecune, Tu as tout seul des logis dyaprez, Ou nul vivant n’y prétend chose aucune, Tu as tout seul ton bonheur et fortune, Tu as tout seul ton vivre et ton repas. Tu as tout seul toutes choses fors une, C’est que tout seul ta femme tu n’as pas.”
  8. “Du narratif dans la polyphonie au XVIe siècle: Martin menoit son pourceau au marché. Clément Marot, Clément Janequin, Claudin de Sermisy,” 21.
  9. “Pour le rondeau en forme mettre …: Mon confesseur, rondeau de Clément Janequin.” Revue de Musicologie LXIV (1978), 203–228.
  10. “Du narratif dans la polyphonie au XVIe siècle: Martin menoit son pourceau au marché. Clément Marot, Clément Janequin, Claudin de Sermisy,” 11–16.
  11. Honegger, Marc, and Paul Prévost, eds. Dictionnaire des oeuvres de l’art vocal. Paris: Bordas, 1991–1992. The Dictionnaire contains articles by Ouvrard on LM2 “Réveillez-vous cueurs endormis” (“Le Chant des oyseaulx”) col. 1757; LM3 “Escoutez tous gentilz” (“La Guerre”) col. 348–49; LM4 “Gentils veneurs, allez en queste au buysson“ (“La Chasse”) col. 790; LM5 “Or sus, or sus vous dormez trop” (“L’Alouette”) col. 1523; LM10 “Ce moys de mai” col. 321; LM12 “Au joly jeu du pousse avant” col. 176–177; LM14 “Voulez ouyr les cris de Paris” col. 2211; LM17 “Chantons, sonnons, trompetes” col. 347; LM63 “Ung jour Colin la colected accula” col. 2145; LM66 “Tétin refaict, plus blanc qu’un oeuf” col. 2211; LM68 “En escoutant le chant mélodieux” (“Le Chant du rossignol”) col. 601; LM71 “Celle qui veit son mari tout armé,”col. ???; LM77 “Il estoit une fillette” col. 920–921; LM82 “Plus ne suys ce que j’ay esté” col. 1615; LM94 “Ung mari se voulant coucher” col. 2145; LM108 “Estant oysif quelque journée” (“Le Caquet des femmes”) col. 637; LM128 “Tu as tout seul, Jhan, Jhan” col. 2122; LM209 “L’Aveuglé Dieu qui partout vole nud” col. 1047; LM211 “La Meunière de Vernon” col. 1062; LM217 “Qui vouldra voir comme un dieu me surmonte” col. 1703; LM218 “Nature ornant la dame qui debvoit” col. 1421–1422; LM219 “Petite nymphe folastre” col. 1589; LM250 “Pourquoy tournez-vous vos yeux” col. 1629; and LM251 “Bel aubépin verdissant” col. 219–220.