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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 17 Commercial and Literary Music
Richard Taruskin

During the fifteenth century, the word “chanson” connoted an international courtly style, an aristocratic lingua franca. A French song in a fixed form might be written anywhere in Europe, by a composer of any nationality whether at home or abroad. The French chanson was thus nearly as ecumenical or “travelable” a style within its rarefied social domain as the Latin motet. In addition to the examples given in previous chapters (Du Fay in Italy, Binchois in Burgundy, Isaac in Austria, Josquin everywhere), one could add the names of two English composers, Robert Morton and Walter Frye, both of whom wrote French rondeaux in the purest “Burgundian” style (although only Morton is known to have actually worked on the continent).

The age of printing brought a change: a new style of French chanson that was actually and distinctively French the way the frottola was Italian and the Hofweise setting German. Its centers were the printing capitals: Paris to the north and Lyons to the south, with Paris (through Attaingnant) sufficiently out in front that the genre is generally known as the “Parisian” chanson. Its great master was Claudin de Sermisy (ca. 1490–1562), who served King Francis (François) I as music director of the Chapel Royal and furnished the voracious presses of Attaingnant with dozens of chansons for publication as household music.

Attaingnant’s very first songbook, the Chansons nouvelles en musique of 1528, opens with a run of eight songs by Claudin (as his pieces were signed), plus another nine scattered later in the volume for a total of seventeen, more than half the total contents. The second item in the collection, Claudin’s Tant que vivray (Ex. 17-7) to a text by Francis I’s court poet Clément Marot, has always been the textbook example of the new chanson for the sake of its memorable, very strongly harmonized tune.

The “Parisian” ChansonThe “Parisian” Chanson

ex. 17-7 Claudin de Sermisy, Tant que vivray, mm. 1-16

The interesting historical question is where this sudden new style could have come from. It did not rise up like the frottola from subterranean improvisatory depths; it wasn’t there all along in oral tradition, so far as we can tell. It really was a new invention. Hypotheses about its origins include the impact of Italian musicians who were welcomed at the French court following King Francis’s conquest of Milan in 1515 (this would reinstate the frottola as a stimulus on the chanson). Another guess is that court musicians, possibly spurred by the King’s taste, began to copy the style of urban popular music (this would give the chanson an oral ancestry after all). A third conjecture is that the print market and the chance to make a quick profit caused musicians to lower their sights: this could be called the sell-out theory.

These theories, while they all allude to factors that may have had a bearing on the situation and are hence all plausible in some degree, are nevertheless completely speculative and somewhat circular. That is, they are inferences drawn not from any evidence of the processes they describe, but from the nature of the perceived result, the Parisian chanson itself. And they are all subject to refutation in some degree. For one thing, the later history of sixteenth-century secular music (as we shall see) suggests that by the 1530s Italian musicians were learning as much from the French as the other way around. For another, no composer seems to have gotten rich during the sixteenth century on the basis of publication, printers generally paying authors in kind, in printed copies rather than in cash.

The main generative influence on the new chanson style may not have been musical at all; it may well have been the newly humanistic poetic idiom of Marot and his contemporaries that spurred the musicians. Claudin’s chanson clothes the syllabification of its poem in a musical scansion that seems as strict and formulaic as those we observed in the frottola. As Howard Mayer Brown, an important historian of the genre, has noted, “some chanson melodies are virtually isorhythmic, so closely do they fit the patterned repetitive rhythms of the poetry.”6 This sharp observation tends not so much to confirm the direct influence of the frottola on the chanson as it confirms the more general notion that national musical styles arose out of vernacular poetic idioms, in this case the chanson rustique.

The opening long–short–short rhythm seems to suggest a dactylic meter, and its ubiquitous presence at the beginnings of chansons has even misled some commentators into assuming that chanson verse was largely made up of dactyls. But it is not a dactyl, and the reason why it became so conventional is worth a small digression. For one thing, the initial “pseudodactyl” became an identifying tag, a sort of trademark that identified the Parisian chanson and (more to the point) some later derivations from it. And for another, it offers a stunning illustration of how from the very beginning of the “music business,” the business side of music affected the artistic side.

Instead of a dactyl, the tag in question is just a three-syllable pickup that has been distended so that the piece need not begin with a rest. In a scoreless notation without bars, upbeats could not be indicated in relation to what followed; they could only be indentified as “off the beat” by preceding them with a rest. Example 17-8a shows an alternative, “undistended” version of the pickup, notated the only way it could have been at the time. The reason why such a rhythm was considered undesirable at the beginning of a piece had nothing to do with any “purely musical” consideration. It was a purely practical matter having to do with the way in which music was packaged for sale.

People singing a chanson together sang from printed part books, each of which contained only a single line. The social consequences of that drab little fact are illustrated in the Flemish etiquette manual mentioned above, which gives a model polite conversation for domestic music-making:

Rombout: Give me the bass part.

Antoni: I’ll do the tenor.

Dierick: Who’ll sing alto?

Ysaias: I, I’ll sing it!

Dierick: Who begins?

Ysaias: No, not I. I’ve a four-beat rest.

Antoni: And I one of six.

Ysaias: Well then, you come in after me?

Antoni: So it seems. It’s up to you then, Rombout!7

If a piece began with a rest in all parts, the answer to the preliminary question, “Who begins?” would be a chorus similar to that elicited by the Little Red Hen (not I… not I… not I). To avoid confusion and wasted time, then, all the parts began at the beginning. Everyone could “be first.” Even pieces that began with points of imitation had to be similarly adjusted if published in part books. In Ex. 17-8b, the opening point from a motet by Clemens non Papa (published in part books by Susato of Antwerp in 1553) is laid out in score. The motif on which the point is based is a syncopated idea. The first voice in, however, begins at the beginning, the first note being extended back, as it were, to remove the rest (and with it, the syncopation) just so that there would be someone to answer the question, “Who begins?”

The “Parisian” Chanson

ex. 17-8a Hypothetical beginning for Tant que vivray


(6) H. M. Brown, Music in the Renaissance (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976), p. 213.

(7) Roger Wangermée, Flemish Music, trans. R. E. Wolf (New York: F. Praeger, 1968), p. 134.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017004.xml