The Mid-16th-Century Chanson

Today I have five chanson for you, all published between 1520-1540. Although I chose them a bit randomly, they happen to be perfect examples for a discussion of the characteristics of the chanson during this period!

So, what is a chanson?

Development of the Chanson

In a broad sense, a chanson is any song with French words. (The word just means “song” in French.) However, it also refers specifically to a catch-all category of French polyphonic songs of the 15th and 16th century: all polyphonic songs that are not formes fixes. (I’ll talk more about formes fixes sometime, but basically, they are a set of three poetic/musical forms that dominated French poetry and music from the 13th to the 15th century.)

Because the “non-formes fixes” chanson was not tied to any specific structure, it was free to develop in ways that other genres could not. A chanson could change texture or meter mid-song, a technique composers sometimes used to more closely approximate real speech. Lacking any pre-set form, composers used repetition to create musical structure: For example, they might mimic the poetic structure (e.g., all the lines that rhyme with each other also have the same melody) or use melodic repetition as a frame device (e.g., beginning and ending the piece with the same material). And since composers could choose to repeat material (or not) as they liked, many chanson employed imitative counterpoint to a degree not previously seen in French music. Imitation in turn encouraged the creation of a texture in which all of the voices are equal in importance and melodic style.

The Chanson in the 16th Century

The development of the chanson in the 16th century is tied to the success of the French publishing industry. During this period, many cheap books of pop-style poems/song lyrics were published and were widely available. (One important name to mention here is that of Clément Marot; he was the most prominent chanson poet of the time, and also edited anthologies of pop song texts.) Unlike the formes fixes, these poems used a variety of line lengths and rhyme schemes. They generally had a straightforward form and were structurally balanced – so it was easy to anticipate what came next, and felt natural to the listener. The language used in this poetry also tended to have a relaxed, natural tone. Their subject matter was much more varied than that of the formes fixes; though they definitely included static love poems, they could also be narratives, or even jokes, and they encompassed everything from the grave and reverent to the comic and bawdy.

The composers of the chanson (in general, a courtly genre that required some education to compose) used these collections of lyrics as source material for their lyrics. While we know that some composers based their courtly compositions on the original pop tune as well as the lyrics, some used entirely new melodic material. Unfortunately, except in the rare cases where the pop song survived alongside the chanson, we can’t always tell how much material was new.

Two Styles of Chanson

By the 16th century, two major styles of chanson composition had developed.

The first was used by the composers of the Franco-Flemish School. The best example is the music of Adrian Willaert (though Nicolas Gombert, Jacques Arcadelt, and Jacob Clemens non Papa were also composing in the Burgundian Netherlands at this time – click their names to see examples of their work). This style was less “rustic” and closer to the sacred art music of the time, though it is distinct from sacred music in that the pieces are shorter and tend to be a bit less serious. Compared to the French style, the Franco-Flemish style tends to be denser, with more voices in the texture. It is extremely imitative and contrapuntal.

My example here is “J’ayme bien mon amy” by Willaert. While it is quite short, it has a highly formal, “intellectual” structure (it’s a double canon) and pervasive imitation. Its melismas and constant repetitions of short phrases of text make it very un-speech-like. (For an Italian-language madrigal by Willaert, in a drastically different style, see “Sempre mi ride sta“.)

I couldn’t find a good recording of “J’ayme bien mon amy” to share, so here is Jacob Clemens non Papa’s “O Souverain Pasteur et Maistre“.

The French style of composition is best exemplified by the works of Claudin de Sermisy, the most favored court composer of the time. (Claudin de Sermisy also happens to be one of my personal favorite composers, because of the quirky, sophisticated texts he chooses and the straightforwardness of his settings.) Sermisy and those who composed like him preferred a simpler style than did the Franco-Flemish composers. The French-style chanson was much more likely to have a homorhythmic texture, with melismas and imitation used only for emphasis (though sometimes the inner voices can be quite lively). They also tend to be quite short, almost like miniatures. With simple chord progressions and rhythms that align with natural diction, the emphasis is on the beauty of simplicity.

My two examples of the French style are by Sermisy and his compatriot, Pierre Certon.

In Sermisy’s “Jouissance vous donneray” (with a text by Marot!), you can see what I mean about a primarily homorhythmic texture with melismas and imitation used for decoration and emphasis.

A more extreme (and more famous) example of Sermisy’s style is “Tant que vivray“, which is almost entirely homorhythmic. If you’d like to compare more examples of Sermisy’s style, see also:

See what I mean about quirky texts? If you can’t get excited about that mix of BDSM, friend zoning, and pigs eating their own shit, I don’t know what to tell you.

Another example of a French-style chanson is Pierre Certon’s “La, la, la, je ne l’ose dire“. Here you can see similar features to Sermisy’s songs, including homorhythm, natural speech style, and an irreverent text. I don’t know much about Certon’s music, but the ones I’ve experienced so far feature topics such as a woman who constantly cheats on her husband, an underage girl who just wants to get married to an old guy so she can have sex, a three-day dance party, and a priest who gets in trouble when his girlfriend gets her ass stuck in the window while trying to sneak in. Considering this man’s job was teaching choirboys, I find this very revealing about his personality. (`へ´*)ノ

Of course, even though we speak of two primary styles of chanson, in reality, both groups encompassed a lot of variation. Here, I’d like to talk about Clément Janequin. Janequin, like Sermisy, was an extremely prolific composer who lived and worked in France. However, he certainly did not favor the restraint that is characteristic of Sermisy’s music. In contrast, Janequin loved long, melismatic vocal lines.

In “Au joly jeu“, in fact, he typically uses a primarily polyphony texture and employs homorhythm only for emphasis!

On the other hand, “Ce moys de May” is entirely homorhythmic, and I already have two other songs of Janequin’s that use a less florid style: “Tu as tout seul, Jean, Jean” and “Il sen va tard“. I guess these are the exception that proves the… exception? At any rate, I have more of his simpler pieces because I personally prefer them. 🙂

If you really want to contrast Janequin with Sermisy, check out some of his long, descriptive chansons, such as “Les cris de Paris” and “La guerre”. I haven’t done translations for any of them, but they are some of my favorites to listen to.

J’ayme bien mon amy

Key Facts

  • Date: 1520
  • Composer: Adrian Willaert (b. c. 1490; d. 1562)
  • Manuscript: Motetti novi e chanzoni franciose a quatro sopra doi
  • Original Language: French
  • Genre: chanson
  • Musical Form: double canon


Jouissance vous donneray

Key Facts

  • Date: 1528
  • Composer: Claudin de Sermisy (b. c. 1490 ; d. 1562)
  • Poet: Clément Marot (1496 – 1544)
  • Manuscript: 37 Chansons musicales a quatre parties
  • Original Language: French
  • Genre: chanson
  • Poetic Form: aabaab
  • Musical Form: through-composed


Au joly jeu

Key Facts

  • Date: 1529
  • Composer: Clément Janequin (b. c. 1485; d. after 1558)
  • Manuscript: Trente et une Chansons Musicale
  • Original Language: French
  • Genre: chanson
  • Musical Form: ababa


Ce moys de May

Key Facts

  • Date: 1538
  • Composer: Clément Janequin (b. c. 1485; d. after 1558)
  • Manuscript: Tiers livre contenant xxx. Chansons vieilles esleves
  • Original Language: French
  • Genre: chanson
  • Musical Form: aba


La, la, la, je ne l’ose dire

Key Facts

  • Date: 1540
  • Composer: Pierre Certon (d. 1572)
  • Manuscript: Tiers liure contenant xxix. Chansons novvelles a qvatre parties
  • Original Language: French
  • Genre: chanson
  • Musical Form: ababa

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s