The French Chanson mid 1400's to mid 1500's
by Margareta vanden Velde
Gypsy, Music-maker and bodice-wearer extraordinaire
The chanson was a secular art form of music that flourished in France in the late Middle Ages. The chanson was a strophic (with verses) vocal form, usually but not always expounding upon the many pleasures and heartaches of courtly love. It was not the only form of secular music popular at the time; in fact, there were many other types of songs and instrumental pieces, many of which had cross-pollinating effects on each other, and many forms can be directly or indirectly traced back to the music of the church. It is important to remember that musical forms never spring up fully formed and totally independent of their predecessors; rather like fashion, each change evolves slowly and it is often not until many years later that the transition periods are fully identified and labeled. The chanson as it can be traced to the period between the middles of the 15th and 16th centuries is perhaps immediately recognizable to the average SCAdian as being a "typical" mediaeval form.
Many of the songs were written by composers living and working in Paris, so much so that the chanson was also called the "Parisian chanson". Chansons were specifically connected to the royal court (Charles VIII, Louis XII, and especially Francis I). During this time, the importance of the court in the intellectual and artistic life of the country increased enormously.
Luckily for historians, the chanson was popular in an era that had access to publishing resources. Pierre Attaignant (Paris) was a notable publisher of the chanson, who printed more than three hundred in two years alone, between 1528-1530. The other two main publishers of chansons were Ottaviano Petrucci, who worked in Venice, and Andrea Antico, who worked in Rome. Generally, the three publishers favoured mutually exclusive repertories. Petrucci favoured Ockeghem and Josquin Desprez; Antico favoured Fevin and Mouton, and Attaignant favoured Claudin de Sermisy. The chanson had a fairly broad definition and each composer had a definite style within the genre; it would be relatively easy, for example, for a musically educated person of the time to distinguish between a chanson by Ockeghem or a chanson by Josquin Desprez. Of the works that the passage of time has now deemed musically significant, Petrucci seems to have had the right of it, because the chansons by his favoured composers, Ockeghem and Desprez, seem to be the most remembered in the annals of music history today.
The chanson could be written for three to six voices. Originally three or four voices were more common, but towards the turn of the century there was a drive towards a fuller sound, and five and six voices became more popular. The original method of composition was to write one line of music from beginning to end, and then add the second and the third parts. This style of "horizontal" composition was gradually replaced over the years with a more "vertical" style, with all the voices being written at the same time in order to sound more homogenous. The previous "horizontal" method of composition frequently produced sounds that were dissonant and awkward (as compared to the new "modern" sound, which was much more pleasing to the ear).
In period documents, the text is not placed specifically to the music; rather, one phrase of each is written and where the notes fall is often a matter of interpretation. Largely, the text is meant to be syllabic (one syllable per note of music) with clear declamation. Although the music of the chanson was much more important than the words (and the words of the chanson were often not of the best quality poetry, to put it gently) the composers wanted them to be heard. The texts of the madrigals that would follow had some first-class poetry, but the texts to the chansons often were composed very quickly, often on the same topic (courtly love) and often to a tedious rhyming scheme that repeated over and over without variation.
Technical Aspects of the Chanson
As has already been noted, all musical forms flow out of what came before. In the case of the chanson, one of the most respected composers in the field, Josquin Desprez (also known as Josquin, De Prez, Josquin de Pres or any variant thereof) took the tradition of the chanson as it was and changed it to make it uniquely his. Prior to Josquin, two of the most respected composers of chansons were Ockeghem and Obrecht. Obrecht's chansons were notable for their use of imitation, the singable nature of the melodies, and the literal quotation of the material as the cantus firmus (based on the church tradition of chant).
Ockeghem was both similar to and different from Josquin in many ways. Ockeghem tended to compose more in the "horizontal" style; at the most, he would write two voices (ie. The top and the bottom) together so that the song was harmonically complete, and then add in the other voices almost as an afterthought. As a result, his chansons can be considered to be musically complete with only two voices, but the other two (or more) voices often have awkward leaps and intervals in order to fit around the main voices.
The 15th and 16th centuries slowly developed an awareness for tonality and chord progressions, but we see little of this in Ockeghem's music, save for the cadences, which were well-defined, but more in "older" styles. For example, Ockeghem uses the older VII 6 - I cadence instead of the more modern V - I cadence favoured by Josquin (and indeed present-day composers). Other cadences also in use at the time were: the Burgundian cadence, which involved passing notes and was reasonably dissonant; the Phrygian cadence, which ended on the supertonic (II); the Plagal cadence (IV - I); the Deceptive cadence (V - VI), and the Perfect cadence, also sometimes called a Full Close (V - I).
The cadences which most clearly define the tonality of a composition are the Full Close, the Plagal cadence, and the Half Close (ending on V) which are the cadences most in use today (it is no coincidence that the chords I, IV and V are almost exclusively the chords used in country music today).
Josquin's music was much more tonally clear than the music of Ockeghem. Not only did he write in a "vertical" manner, making sure that all the voices agreed with each other, but he used different cadences that were often more tonally clear (the "modern" sound) and made them more structurally visible within the piece, so that the formal outlines were also more clear, with the cadences acting as punctuation at the ends of phrases. He would sometimes, however, overlap phrases to create an uninterrupted melodic flow.
Both Josquin and Ockeghem used the poetry of "rhetoriqueurs" for their texts (ie. pre-existing poems), but they used different poets. Josquin's texts also differed from Ockeghem's in that he was less concerned with the form of the text and more with the subject matter. In fact, Josquin actually composed some chansons that were NOT about courtly love….
Josquin was very concerned that the music be unified and harmonically clear, which he would achieve by the use of imitation and canon within his chansons, as well as the clear cadences discussed previously. He was also very concerned with declamation; although the text was not written directly under the music as is the style today, there is little doubt in Josquin's chansons how they are meant to fit together.
Finally, it should be mentioned that the modern composer's need to create completely original music was not a pressing concern in the Renaissance. While it was generally accepted that one would produce new music, the definition of what was "new" could be very broadly defined to include previously-existing music that had been only slightly changed from the original, or perhaps only embellished in a new way, while the basic tune remained unchanged. Although the harmonies (the accompanying voices) were unique to Josquin, many of his melodies were borrowed, that being standard practice at the time.
Music in the Middle Ages. Gustav Reese, New York, W. W. Norton and Co. 1940.
Chanson and Madrigal. James Harr, ed. Isham Library Papers II. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1964.
The Development of Western Music: A History. K. Marie Stolba, Dubuque, Wm. C, Brown Publishers, 1988.