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Quodlibet

The Early Music Week faculty share thoughts on the year's program

Anne LegeneFeb. 9, 2015

Thoughts on the French Chanson, part 1: Genre

by Larry Wallach

Veteran World Fellowship participants are aware that our themes are often built around countries and languages:  ‘Music of the Fair Isles,’ ‘Paris is Worth a Mass,’ ‘Luther’s Gift,’ or last year’s ‘El Siglo de Oro.’  We also have combined national categories by looking at relationships between countries with themes such as ‘The Migrant Muse’ or ‘Crossing the Channel.’  This year’s theme is different:  although it seems to be French in focus, it is actually built around a genre, and a specific sub-species of that genre at that:  the ‘classic’ (sub-species) French chanson (genre), from the period 1520-1540.  We have expanded our scope by adding “and its legacy” to indicate that this type of music had deep and broad influence, giving rise to a wide range of musical forms.  That enables us to provide a varied musical experience with a strong central focus. 

‘Genre’ in music is important but easy to misunderstand.  It really means a gardentype of piece, defined by basic categories such as whether it is vocal or instrumental (or both), sacred or secular, public or private (a relative category), and if it is vocal, by the language of the text, and (to complicate matters) the genre of the text, meaning the poetic form of the words and its subject-matter. There is also the question of the historical context:  at what point can we start identifying music with a specific genre and when should we stop?  Beyond categories, there is the issue of the music’s common aesthetic profile: the artistic and musical characteristics are shared by works within a specific genre.

The classic French chanson is clearly secular vocal  music setting simple poetry, usually of the melancholy lovelorn variety.  It was perfectly suited to the abilities of the highly skilled aristocratic amateurs of the period, for whom singing and playing the lute were skills essential to their role of “courtiers,” as described by Castaglione in “The Courtier.”  The aesthetic quality is what makes this genre distinctive.  It is characterized by clarity, elegant (and deceptive) simplicity, and lack of any form of “learned” complexity.  That means that contrapuntal artifice and syncopation is either not present or kept far in the background.  This distinguishes it from earlier forms of chanson, such as the Burgundian (think Dufay), Franco-Flemish (Ockegham or Josquin), or programmatic (Jannequin) predecessors.  The style is foreshadowed in the work of some of these composers (for example sections of Josquin’s “Ave Maria) but even more in the semi-folk style of the Italian ‘frottola’ which gets its name from a type of poetry.  The names of the chanson composers of this period are not of the marquee variety.  They include Pierre Sandrin, Claudin de Sermisy, Philippe Verdelot, Guillaume Morlaye, Clement Marot, Pierre Certon, Pierre Passereau, Philip van Wilder, and someone named Jacotin.  The list goes on at considerable length.

Technically the chanson’s simplicity comes from its homophonic texture, which means that all parts (usually four) move in almost identical rhythms, allowing the words to come through very clearly.  This texture allows chansons to be performed equally effectively by four singers, or one singer with a lute, or any combination of voices and instruments, providing the top voice remains in the foreground.  This texture has been called ‘treble-dominated.’  The absence of counterpoint inevitably throws the focus toward expressive harmony, a new consideration in music partly fueled by the enormous growth in popularity of the lute (basically a chordal instrument).  The expressive value of harmony (major or minor chords with an occasional dissonant suspension) was being discovered at this moment in music history, thanks in part to the French chanson.  While this type of texture also characterized the frottola and the villancico, the French chanson adds a sense of repose, elegant simplicity in its melodic line, and expressiveness mostly of the melancholic variety.  It represents a confluence of musical traits that marks a new beginning in secular vocal music, one which had profound consequences. 

Here's an example of one of the most beloved chansons, Sandrin's Doulce Memoire:

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