Composer Biography: Clement Janequin (c.1485-1558)
Also spelled Jannequin
Clement Janequin was a French composer with a huge reputation across most of Europe, including as far north as Sweden, Poland, and east to Spain and even England. Along with Claudin de Sermisy (c1490-1562), he was probably the most influential composer in the development of the Parisian chanson (a song in a particular courtly style, not necessarily French).
Janequin was born in Chatellerault, near Poitiers, but I found nothing about his family or whether his musical talent was inherited, nor whether he was of noble birth or otherwise. He held a succession of minor positions with important patronage, but he never held an important Cathedral position. The church may have paid his wages, but it wasn’t where his passion resided.
In 1505, Janequin was a clerk in Bordeaux to Lancelot du Fau (d. 1523), who eventually became Bishop of Lucon. When du Fau died, Janequin went to work for the Bishop of Bordeaux. Around this time, he became a priest.
He then held a series of posts in Anjou, beginning as a singing teacher in the Auch Cathedral (about 120 miles southeast of Bordeaux) in 1531. He also studied at the university there, presumably either music or theology. From 1534 until 1537, he was master of the choir at Angers Cathedral.
In 1548, he was curate at Unvere (near Chartres), apparently because Charles de Ronsard, brother of the poet Pierre de Ronsard, pulled some strings and got him the post. He was also a protégé of the Cardinal of Lorraine, Jean de Guise (d. 1550), who was also the patron of Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536, a Dutch humanist), Clement Marot (1496-1544, a French poet), and Francois Rabelais (1494-1553, a French humanist and fantasy writer).
In 1549, Janequin moved to Paris. In 1555, he was a singer at the royal chapel there, and later “composer in ordinary” to the king (which meant that he wrote the movements of the Mass that changed, such as the Introit, the Gradual, and so on). He was the first recipient of this title according to most sources, and the second to hold it (the first was Pierre Sandrin, 1490-1561) according to one source. Sadly, Henry II’s (1519-1559) coffers were emptied by war, and Henry’s successors (his three sons in turn), didn’t continue the arrangement.
So Janequin found some new employment. Starting in 1555, Janequin was protected by Francois, Duke of Guise (1519-1563), the nephew of the Cardinal of Lorraine he’d worked for in 1548.
His appointments were lucrative by the standards of the day, but he complained about money for the whole of his life. Janequin died a pauper in the Latin Quarter of Paris in 1558, leaving a small estate to charity.
Janequin was more of a specialist than most Renaissance composers. He wrote a LOT of chansons, plus 150 psalms settings, and a handful of chansons spirituelles. The chansons far overshadow his two Masses and single surviving motet in both quantity and quality.
He wrote 286 chansons, mostly in four voices, and was considered a leader of the Paris school of Parisian chansons (courtly song of a particular form). Pierre Attaingnant (c1494-c1552), the first French music printer, published a collection of his works that were considered the ideal manifestation of the French Renaissance for their wit, charm, and lyricism.
His chansons vary in texture from chordal to imitative, and have a characteristic “pattering” declamation. Many tell a story, but his most celebrated pieces are the descriptive or “programme” chansons (e.g., La guerre, Le chant des oiseaux, L’alouette, and La chasse—all printed by Attaingnant in 1528) in which onomatopoeic effects create a realistic atmosphere for whatever is being described.
His works vary from sweet to exquisite, from florid counterpoint to pure homophony (such as in his Ce moys de may). He also wrote spiritual chansons and French psalm settings and, in 1540, he published an Italian madrigal. He wrote a lone motet. (You’ll remember that a motet is like a madrigal but in Latin and with a sacred text, to the madrigal’s vernacular and secular text.)
His church music is considered (by some) to be unremarkable. Only two of his Masses have survived: an early one, La Bataille, which borrows the non-onomatopoeic sections of La guerre (his most famous chanson written about King Francis I’s victory over the Swiss at Marignano in 1515 and that Janequin witnessed), and a later one on his own chanson L’aveugle dieu.
In the mid 1500s, both Janequin and composer Pierre Certon (c1510-1572) became involved in another form of religious but not liturgical composition, called chansons spirituelles, sparked by the Reformation. The Reformation encouraged compositions of vernacular works, such as hymns, spiritual songs for domestic devotion, and metrical translations of the Psalms. Janequin and Certon rode this wave to accolades in their own lifetime. It’s not clear whether Janequin and Certon met, but Certon dedicated several pieces to Claudin Sermisy (c1490-1562), who was considered, with Janequin, to be the best and most prolific of the Parisian chanson composers. Janequin certainly knew Sermisy’s work.
Janequin’s chansons are based on short and simple musical formulas that create a mosaic of superimposed fragments. Often the music is harmonically static, depending for effect on rhythmic invention and witty superimposition. In addition to programmatic chansons (most written early in his career), he also wrote shorter, pithier ones.
Janequin’s genius lay in his witty narrative and programmatic pieces, which are filled with onomatopoeic effects, such as fanfares, birdsong, drum beats, rallying cries, galloping horses, cannon fire, and the cries of the wounded, and he symbolizes the confusion of fighting by mingling duple and triple rhythms and street cries.
Singing one of these programmatic pieces is fun for the performer, but might be a little dull for the listener, as they often possess little melodic or harmonic interest, according to once source. I disagree.
In work published posthumously in 1559, in the dedication, Janequin mourns both his “age and poverty.”
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