The Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal was founded by Father Léandre Brault in 1956. Father Brault was inspired by the great tradition of boys’ choirs, which dates back to the 6th century. Since its [...]
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Clément Janequin: Master of the Renaissance Polyphonic Chanson
Clément Janequin is the embodiment of a common Renaissance paradox. One might expect that as both priest and musician he would compose primarily sacred music, but his celebrity arose instead from his prolific output of some 250 secular chansons, which ranged in style from the vividly descriptive to the intensely moving to the outright bawdy.
Janequin is thought to have been born in Châtellerault sometime in the decade following 1480. According to his friend Pierre de Ronsard—several of whose poems he set to music—he was a disciple of Josquin des Prés, though this hardly proves Janequin actually studied with him. In fact, nothing is known of either his musical or religious training. The oldest document in which his name appears dates from 1505, in which we learn that he has become a “clerc” in the service of Lancelot de Fau, President of the Court of Inquests for the Bordeaux Parliament, Vicar-General of the archdiocese and, from 1515, Bishop of Luçon. After de Fau’s death in 1523, Janequin entered the service of Jean de Foix, Bishop of Bordeaux. Previously ordained, he was named Canon of Saint-Émilion in 1525; he also held several other minor, un-lucrative prebends. By the time de Foix died in 1529, Janequin had already attracted attention as a composer in both France and Italy.
A number of his chansons had been published in two collections the previous year, one in Paris, the other in Rome. Subsequently, hardly a year would go by without one or more of his chansons appearing in other similar collections. The year 1531 found him serving as maître of the children’s choir of Auch Cathedral, and in 1534, he turned up as maître de chapelle of the cathedral in Angers, where his brother Simon lived.
The previous year, in 1533, the Parisian music publisher Pierre Attaingnant had issued the first volume entirely dedicated to his chansons. By 1540, three others would follow, and in 1541 his reputation would reach such heights that an unscrupulous Italian publisher would produce a volume of chansons by other French composers and attribute them all to Janequin. But in 1537, for unknown reasons, Janequin was replaced in Angers and we lose track of him until 1548 when, according to a notary’s deed, he was a student at the University of Angers and the parish priest at Unverre. However a year later, in 1549, he moved to Paris. Possibly penniless, despite his advancing years, here too he enrolled in the university, probably because his status as a student would afford him certain advantages. He joined the group formed by Pierre Certon, Marc-Antoine Muret, and Claude Goudimel, who were setting Ronsard’s Amours to music. He also sought the patronage of prominent nobles such as Cardinal Jean de Lorraine and Duke François de Guise (who would appoint him his chaplain), by dedicating works to them. In 1555, while his best known chansons were being reprinted, he entered the royal chapel as “chantre ordinaire” (“ordinaire” referring to a full-time or permanent position) under the direction of Claudin de Sermisy.
He would later obtain the enviable title of “compositeur ordinaire du roi,” or King’s Composer. But despite all this, he would appear to have lived in poverty to the end. After 1558, we lose all trace of him. Neither the date nor the circumstances of his death are known. Unlike contemporaries such as Certon and Sermisy, Janequin had trouble holding down a steady job in music. Perhaps he had a disagreeable character. A fiery disposition would certainly explain why he almost bankrupted himself in legal proceedings against his brother, convinced he had stolen his part of the family inheritance. But perhaps this character “flaw” was also the “quality” that resulted in such a wealth of original music. Janequin’s music stands out by its unique descriptive power. While the musical imitation of natural phenomena was nothing new, never before had anyone done it with such sparkle, realism, and wit.
Le chant des oyseaulx begins innocently enough, but on several occasions, the supple counterpoint is transformed into a rich, multi-textured squawking—a true catalogue of bird calls. La guerre on the other hand—with its musical imitations of fanfares, drums, battle cries, canons and other artillery—celebrates the 1515 victory of François I at Marignan. In Les cris de Paris, merchants hawk their wares in a joyous cacophony, recreating the ambiance of a public market with an “accuracy worthy of a tape recorder” (J.C. Margolin). Finally, in La chasse, the huntsmen’s calls pursuing a large deer are set to a musical score. However, on this disc, you will hear neither galloping nor gunshot because only the first part has been recorded. But the tense atmosphere of the hunt, strategic calls, and chases through the forest are all well represented.
These descriptive chansons were published for the first time in 1528 (Les cris de Paris in 1530) and immediately conferred upon their composer a renown that never diminished. But Janequin’s originality was not limited to the descriptive. He was a master of all genres, from drinking songs such as Rions, chantons, passons temps to pastoral pieces such as Ce moys de may to poignant love songs, which are more serious and often under-represented on recordings and to which much of this recording is devoted. Examples of this work are some of the later chansons that, aside from Puisque mon cueur, are all from Janequin’s second Parisian period: Doulens regretz, ennuys, soupirs, Ce faux amour, Il s’en va tard, Herbes et fleurs, Nature ornant la dame, Ce n’est pas moy, and the two Ronsard settings Bel aubépin verdissant and Pourquoy tournez vous vos yeux. These chansons are ample proof that Janequin was just as masterful in the expression of noble sentiment as he was at the descriptive.
© 2004, Guy Marchand for Traçantes, the music research, text-writing and translation service of the Société québécoise de recherche en musique.
Translation: Peter Christensen.