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pamApr. 9, 2015

The Chanson: Language, Experimentation, and Musique Mesurée

by Pamela Dellal

Greetings to World Fellowship Early Music Week participants, past, present, and future! I'm excited to be preparing a workshop based on the French chanson. Last month Larry gave us a terrific overview of the origin and influence of this wonderful genre on the developing styles of European music; in this blog I'm going to focus on the elements that make the chanson unique. In particular, it was in the chanson where composers in France for the first time began to engage the special features of their native language, and how to set words to music in ways that exploit the fluent, rhythmic, and sonic qualities of French.

In fact, while music in the Renaissance was largely international, ignoring national and cultural borders, it was the French composers who first began to develop musical forms that were specialized for singing their native language. Unlike Italian, German, English, and Spanish, French has very little tonic accent (word stress) and does not readily fall into a metrical (organized and repeatable) pattern of strong and weak accents. French words placed on music designed for Italian texts, for instance, will often sound awkward and ungainly, because the rhythms of the music are designed to serve the highly inflected Italian words.

So a group of French composers decided to try something radically different: while composers in other countries were developing rhythmic organization by grouping patterns into bars, the French decided to design a form where the only accents corresponded to the word accents. They called this "musique mesurée," or "measured music." Like many other ideas in the Renaissance, this was consciously linked to ideas about ancient Greek composition. But it also introduced very modern ideas about national and linguistic exceptionalism, and involved experimentation with metrical patterns that were quite different than contemporary music from other cultures and from typical songs we hear.

Listen to this example - "Revecy venir du printemps" by Claude le Jeune:

Other experiments that play with the sounds of French include pieces that almost sound like "vocal percussion" - songs that mingle poetry and sound together, and the voices begin to sound like instruments!

Passereau: Il est bel et bon:

The tension between composing music in an international style and music that responded to the unique sound of the French language continued into the early Baroque period and beyond. The inspiration of "musique mesurée" led to the creation of the solo "air de cour," the French equivalent of the English lute song. Many of these exquisite pieces were published with no bar lines, reflecting the composer's intent to set the French inflections flawlessly without regard to regularity of meter. Listen to this example, and try to establish a meter - you can't do it!

Etienne Moulinie - Enfin la beauté que j'adore:


I hope to see many of you at this summer's workshop, where we will explore this wonderful repertoire in depth!

Recent posts:

EMW 2019:
Dances of Love and War, by Ken Pierce

EMW 2018:
Transformative Dance, by Ken Pierce

Transformation, by Larry Wallach

Music: A Transformative Art, by Pamela Dellal

EMW 2017:
Music and nature, by Larry Wallach

Images of Nature in Dance, by Ken Pierce

EMW 2016:
Dancing to music, by Ken Pierce

Playing for historical dance, by Jane Hershey

EMW 2015:
Language, by Pamela Dellal

Genre, by Larry Wallach

Legacy, by Larry Wallach

EMW 2014:
The Spanish Golden Age in the Netherlands,
by Anne Legêne

Sephardic Music, by Jay Rosenberg

Ensalada by Salomé Sandoval