Background on the Le Jardin de Mélodies Program

Mar 27, 2019 | blog, Le Jardin, Renaissance | 0 comments

Our April program, Le Jardin de Mélodies, is less than two weeks away! In advance of our upcoming performances, we asked Kate van Orden, the Dwight D. Robinson Dr. Professor of Music at Harvard University, to put together some more detailed information about the types of music you’ll hear at our concert. Make sure to purchase your tickets today, and read van Orden’s complete program notes below!


Music in sixteenth-century France issued from two completely different spheres: that of musiciens (musicians) and that of ménétriers (minstrels). Musicians, to use the sixteenth- century designation, composed polyphonic songs and sacred music. They studied at cathedral schools, where they became skilled in reading and writing music, and they went on to take up positions in chapels, cathedrals, or at court. A minstrel, on the other hand, would have served an apprenticeship to a master violinist, lutenist, or master of another instrument, and then entered a guild that oversaw and protect its members’ careers. Secrecy was of paramount importance to minstrels, who controlled the tricks of their trade and the melodies that comprised their repertories within a guild system that relied on memorization, oral instruction, and improvisation. Guilds like the Confrérie de Saint Julien des Ménétriers in Paris passed the same tunes down through generations of guild members. Fortunately for us, occasionally the silence was broken and music publishers would issue prints of dance tunes and instrumental music for popular consumption or students of a famous master might bring to light their teacher’s greatest hits posthumously. But such prints are just written records of a primarily oral tradition. One could say that writing and printing separated the minstrel from the musician, for training in instrumental performance practice and the dance repertory rested largely on oral exchange while the composition of musicianly vocal polyphony required knowledge of and facility with music on the page.

This program brings to light the rich entertainments minstrels staged for French monarchs at the end of the Renaissance. We know that music was performed by violins at Catherine de Medicis’s lunch each day (Queen Mother during the second half of the century); Henry III scheduled musical evenings on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, and dances on Thursday and Sunday nights during his reign (1574-89); and experimentation with music and dance was an integral part of Jean-Antoine de Baïf’s secretive Académie de Poésie et de Musique (1570-74) and the Palace Academy that seems to have superseded it. In the intimacy of aristocratic salons, we know that songs were performed as part of evening entertainments, sometimes by singer-lutenists such as Mellin de Saint-Gelais and the Ferrabosco brothers, and sometimes by the courtiers themselves. At balls, marriage ceremonies, and royal entries like the one described in “Mon dieu la belle Entrée,” it was the king’s violin band that helped fête the last of the Valois and their successors.

Dance tunes were the pride of Renaissance minstrels, offering a garden of melodies that might be turned to songs, elaborated upon in virtuosic divisions, or gathered together in bouquets of dance suites. The simplest of the dances was the branle, which originated as a round dance of kicking steps common at local weddings and popular festivities. Even when the branle came to court, it still bore a blush of the provincial, its rustic origins signalled in epithets such as “de Poictou” and “de Champagne.” The

“Branles d’Escosse,” or Scottish branles included here were introduced into France by Mary Stuart after her marriage to François II in 1559.

Of the other dances presented here, the pavane was the most stately: a majestic couple dance used for solemn processions, the entrance of the king or queen, and the appearance of the chariots of Gods in masquerades. The pavane was often paired with the quicker galliard, another couple dance that might often be quite intricate and energetic. The saltarello, or “little hop,” was an Italian version of the galliard popular in France for its rapid pace and fancy footwork. Like the galliard, the saltarello was often the second in a pair of dances, where it varied the tune of the first by changing the meter to a swift triple or compound meter. The saltarello included here is a variation on a duple-meter allemande.

Galliards often finished off dance suites and were used as occasions to exchange kisses, favors, or flowers. Thoinot Arbeau, who published the first treatise on French dance in 1588, tells us that dancing was essential in a well-ordered society because it reveals whether lovers are in good health. And about kissing he says that after dancing, lovers “are permitted to kiss their mistresses in order that they may touch and savor one another, thus to ascertain if they are shapely or emit an unpleasant odor as of bad meat.” Thus, couple dances like the galliard and pavane helped display polished social skills—not to mention good hygiene—and served as a marker of courteous behavior.

Another of the particularly evocative dances is that of the Buffoons or actors. Arbeau’s treatise concludes with a Pyrrhic ballet of flashy choreographed swordplay based on this tune for four men costumed as Roman warriors.

A wealth of songs took dances as their musical models, creating the chanson à danser. Some of these chansons were actually meant to be danced and sung together, while more abstract couplings of dance music and poetry were only meant to be sung. Either way, the process was the same. “Ton amour ma maistresse,” “Laissez la verde couleur,” and “O combien est heureuse” are all songs in which the poetic text was written to fit to a popular dance tune. They circulated orally and come down to us in the cheapest and most ephemeral printed forms: broadsheets and tiny pamphlet-like poetry collections (app. 3″ x 4″ and 32 to 64 folios long) where no musical notation accompanies the text, only the instructions to “sing this new song to the tune of….” The floral titles of the prints—“Pleasant Garden of New Songs,” “Flower of New Songs,” “Rosebush of New Songs,” etc.—present their chansons as a bouquet picked from the largely anonymous garden of French song verse. From them comes the inspiration for this program, which reconstructs a number of these songs based on melodies recovered from monophonic chansoniers, instrumental arrangements, and manuscript sources.

“Laissez la verde couleur” and “O combien est heureuse” can firmly be connected to noble circles, for they were authored by the court poet and lutenist Mellin de Saint Gelais. Famed for improvising sung performances of his poetry to the lute, Saint Gelais

was heritor of an Italian tradition associated with strambottists such as Serafino Aquilano and Il Chariteo. In his poem on the death of Adonis, “Laissez la verde couleur,” Saint Gelais uses lofty diction to treat classical subject matter and in this way satisfies the passion for ancient verse that inflamed the French at mid century. Although “Laissez la verde couleur” was based on the rhythms of a galliard, it came to be so well-loved in its own right that its tune was used as the basis for innumerable subsequent songs. It shows how well-known songs often served as stock tunes or “timbres” just like dance melodies. The anonymous “Helas faut-il que je lamente” is a song like this, a new text written to a song timbre entitled “Dames d’honneur, je vous prie.” Like Elizabeth’s lamentation at the death of her husband in 1574, most of the songs written on the “Dames d’honneur” timbre are lamentations or “complaintes” in the feminine voice that recall not only the poetry of the model, but a tradition of writing and improvising women’s plaints that reaches back centuries.

Alongside dance music, the minstrel’s other great stock-in-trade was the polyphonic chanson. Chansons musicalles could be turned to chansons ménétrieres by improvising divisions on a polyphonic model, or by playing some or all of the vocal lines on instruments. Many of the chansons the program come from a massive retrospective collection of French chansons issued in Paris in 1572, the Mellange de chansons tant de vieux auteurs que des moderns. Gathered within its covers are chansons from across the whole of the sixteenth century: everything from Sermisy’s arrangement of the monophonic chanson rustique “Il me souffit” (ca. 1530) to Le Jeune’s setting of the latest verse from the pen of the king’s poet, Pierre de Ronsard (“Rossignol, mon mignon”). Ronsard, who wrote the preface to the collection, reminds us how the love of music was a touchstone by which the nobility of one’s soul could be judged: “he who hearing a sweet accord of instruments or the sweetness of the natural voice feels no joy and no agitation and is not thrilled from head to foot, as being delightfully rapt and somehow carried out of himself—’tis the sign of one whose soul is tortuous, vicious, and depraved…. Music has always been the sign and the mark of those who have shown themselves virtuous, magnanimous, and truly born to feel nothing vulgar.”

Related Articles