article 65:
The 16th-Century French Keyboard Repertoire / additional notes to

The CD recording to which these lines serve as an attachment is presented under the name of Pierre Attaingnant, who published seven books of keyboard music in 1531 without actually having anything to do with their musical content (see my notes to Naxos 8.572999). These are usually cited as the only keyboard music from 16th-century France; however, there are isolated survivals which prove otherwise, and which are in some respects more interesting than Attaingnant’s error-ridden books, six which survive as unica in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich.

Before the country was ripped apart by the Wars of Religion, the French musical tradition was vast and influential. The earliest known keyboard music of all, from the early 14th century, is in a notation which should be called “Old French Tablature” instead of “Old German”; the French were the first to use 32nd notes (demisemiquavers), the first to use the modern keyboard score of two five-line staves, and the first to shift to a quarter note (crotchet) beat—and yet the list of 16th-century keyboard composers in the standard history of the genre (Apel) includes not a single Frenchman in the company of the English, German, Italian and Spanish masters. Jehan Titelouze, in the introduction to his Hymnes of 1623 says that “within living memory no music has been printed in France for the organ” (which is shorthand for “keyboard”), and almost all manuscripts have vanished. Every scrap that I could locate is presented here. From these, a vague idea can be formed of what has perished. Each work is discussed under its track number on the CD.

I must first mention two sources that I have disregarded. At some point in mid-century, the important Lyon printer Jacques Moderne published Musicque de Joye. It, too, survives in a unique copy, oddly enough also in a library in Munich. Without it, 22 of the most important Italian ricercars ever composed could not be reconstructed, since it is a pirate edition of the epochal 1540 Venetian print Musica Nova, which exists today only as one of four part-books. Moderne’s title page says the ricercars are appropriate for learning to play the espinette (the rectangular virginal which was the usual plucked-string keyboard instrument in France of the time), violins and flutes; this in spite of the fact that it too was published in part-books, which means that players of the espinette would have transcribed (intabulated) the separate parts either into open or keyboard score. Moderne appends 29 anonymous French dances to his book; seven of them have concordances in a collection of dances for ensemble published by Attaingnant in 1547, and the others were undoubtedly also snatched up here and there in the casual fashion of the time. Moderne tells us the dances are included to learn their characters and meters; obviously, a keyboardist might transcribe (intabulate) these as well, but this small difference of declared purpose, as well as the fact that a true keyboard version would need plenty of added ornamentation, put these lovely pieces outside of the present purview.

Secondly, the Mulliner Book, an English keyboard and cittern miscellany of around the same time, contains three small pieces with French titles notated as treble and bass only. These look like unfinished arrangements of continental dance tunes, and it would be too bold to call them French keyboard music, or to try to fill them out.

Finally, before proceeding to the pieces actually recorded, two prints from Lyon known to be lost deserve mention: an earlier print from Moderne’s shop entitled Tabulature d’epinette (1536) by Guillaume de Brayssingar (mentioned in 1585 as “Allemand, organiste à Lyon”, doubtless a relative of the lutenist and guitarist Grégoire Brayssing from Augsburg, who was also active in France); and Simon Gorlier’s Premier livre de tabulature d’espinette (1560).

31) The versatile mid-century Paris printer Guillaume le Bé published at least one volume of music, as evidenced by a single page of a “Tabulature d’Espinette” which survives as part of a collection of samples of his art which le Bé himself assembled, and which is kept in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. The delightful piece begins with the final chords of the first of four strains, and is very likely a Corranto, the latest thing from Italy; but we cannot be sure since the title is missing. It is especially poignant that the rest of this otherwise unknown book is lost.

32) Munich is once again the location of a unique source: a manuscript of 14 chansons arranged around 1550 for keyboard in “Old French Tablature”, which consists of an ornamented upper voice in staff notation, with letters representing pitches and positions underneath it for the left hand. A handful of manuscripts survive exhibiting what must have been a very widespread, practical, space-saving expedient, as long as the left hand moved only in slow notes. One chanson from this source must suffice here, pars pro toto: Pierre Sandrin’s song of requited love, ”Quand je congneu en ma pensée”.

    When I realized that my sole joy lay in looking upon you,
    I feared rejection too much, and dared not hope.
    But then you gave me to understand
    That a flame had been ignited in yourself as well;
    And thus the debt we both owed to Love was well repaid.

33, 34) Jacques Cellier was a master draftsman who produced remarkable manuscripts of calligraphy, architecture, geometrical design and musical instruments, as well as a small treatise on the elements of music. On his own testimony he was organist at Laon and Reims, but if there is any truth to the assertion, he must have been a minor, improvising assistant at best, because the astounding errors in his notation of music show him to have been musically semi-literate.

One of his manuscripts, produced between 1583 and 1587, was dedicated to king Henri III. It contains two fascinating fragments of keyboard fantasias. One is by the great Guillaume Costeley (see track 38), the other by the little-known Pierre Megnier; both show great promise once the errors are dealt with, but they are heartbreakingly brief.

Cellier transmits one complete work to us in a manuscript of 1597, unfortunately anonymously. He titles it Pavanne; it is in fact a Passamezzo Moderno, a set of variations on a popular bass line. The piece bears an uncanny resemblance to one attributed to Sweelinck in its only source, which is usually eliminated from the canon of works by the Orpheus of Amsterdam on grounds of its simplicity. I disagree—see my NAXOS Sweelinck recording—and this piece may just possibly have filtered down to Reims from Amsterdam as well (the French were sometime allies of the Dutch Republic in the struggle against Spain). Its use of Sweelinck’s echo technique (repeating figures at a lower octave, a manner so brilliantly developed in his Echo Fantasias) is very striking. Of course we will never know; both pieces are delightful representatives of a carefree Italian genre which had made its way northward via the South German trade routes, and possibly via Lyon. “Echoes” of various types were popular in the nearby Southern Netherlands, too (and even in Dutch poetry). But Cellier’s little piece may be the earliest datable example for keyboard. The next oldest is from 1603 (Banchieri).

35) One of the most famous Italian madrigals of the century was by the Netherlander Cipriaan de Rore, a song of parting and anticipated reunion, “Ancor che col partire”. Countless ornamented versions for lute and keyboard exist, but here we have a rare example of a fantasia upon the piece: the framework of subjects is present, but whereas some passages are taken over whole, most get an entirely new, emotionally heightened development at the hands of Nicolas de La Grotte (1530–ca.1600), a composer of chansons and highly famed keyboardist (praised for his “sweetness of execution and delicate hand”), who was first employed as organist and player of the espinette to the King of Navarre at Pau (the father of Henri IV, who may have heard La Grotte playing while lying in his—still extant—sea-turtle-shell cradle), and later as “organiste ordinaire” to Henri III. The work survives in open score, the usual notation for keyboard polyphony of the era, in the Nationalbibliothek at Vienna.

36) Another manuscript has taken an even odder journey, namely from Nîmes to Aberdeen. Thirteen modest pieces for espinette, added around 1600 in clumsy manuscript to a print of vocal music,somehow found their way to the Northern home of the “auld alliance” between France and Scotland. The most musically significant is an anonymous little Fantasie sur l’air de ma Bergère, based on the first bar of a tune by Gabriel Bataille, published with his lute accompaniment by Ballard (Paris, 1613), which ends abruptly in a different key from the beginning. But its companion here, a diminutive Pavane de Aranda, is not without charm. It is the famous “Spanish Pavane”, known to the incomparable Antonio de Cabezón, an older countryman of Luís de Aranda, as the “Pavana Italiana”. Aranda settled in France, the Western Mediterranean portion of which was then (and still is in some ways) more Catalan than French.

37) Long after I had already compiled the program for this disc, it occurred to me that I had better take another look at my copy of the “Œuvres Complètes” by Eustache du Caurroy (1549–1609), a handsome book of 42 strictly imitative/contrapuntal 3- to 6-voice fantasies in open score which had been gathering dust in my library for longer than I care to recall. I am very glad I did, for it yielded an education in French contrapuntal mastery in the style of the Italian ricercar at a time when such efforts were few and far between. They were, as far as we know, the first such to be printed in France since Musicque de Joye. Du Caurroy stood at the pinnacle of his profession as surintendant de la musique to the court of Henri IV. His Requiem was performed at the funeral of Le Bon Roi Henri after his assassination by a Catholic fanatic who hated Henri’s ideas about religious freedom, and it continued to be performed at the funerals of French monarchs.

This great repository of learned composition was published posthumously at the instigation of the composer’s nephew in 1610 (Ballard, Paris), but was undoubtedly created for the most part before 1600. Titelouze, the main link in keyboard music between the old and the new centuries, praises du Caurroy’s profound studies, and builds on his work. The 42 fantasies, since they appeared in part-books, are always consigned to the realm of ensemble music. But we have already seen in Musicque de Joye one example of such publications being intended as well for intabulation and performance by keyboardists; there are dozens of similar examples. Furthermore, there actually exists a contemporary manuscript in open score for keyboard of the fantasies in four voices; and a remark by the composer’s nephew in his preface to the edition of 1610 suggests performance on “instruments which have almost all their consonances tuned imperfectly, such as usage has determined and the greatest masters of the profession have deemed necessary”. This, alongside a further analogy involving “good temperament” (keyboard tuning), points towards the use of the keyboard not only as an alternative, but even as the primary medium.

As a final argument for intabulation of such works, I will cite Charles Guillet’s set of 24 Fantasies (two cycles of the twelve modes, natural and transposed), also published by Ballard in 1610. They appeared in part-books like those of du Caurroy, but are, according to the preface, expressly intended for keyboard performance. I have left Guillet out of this recording because he was from Bruges in Flanders, but it is interesting to note that he wrote one of the dedicatory poems for du Caurroy’s set.

The complications involved in printing music of this complexity on two staves, or even in open score, simply made part-books the easy way out. They in no way preclude keyboard performance, while allowing distribution over the music desks of a consort; and du Caurroy’s pieces, at least as far as I have tried them out, are playable as keyboard solos, which surely says something about them. I put this thesis to the test by choosing the second-biggest (and the most beautiful) of the 6-part fantasies for the recording. (The longest of them is an endless, largely theoretical exercise on the hexachords.) The last work in six parts that I wrestled with was Bach’s masterpiece from the Musical Offering. Du Caurroy cannot compete at that level, but he is more than worthy of serious study and performance; one finds a sense of drama and gesture that is rare enough in 16th-century contrapuntists, and which is reflected in his nephew’s description of the fantasies as “the free exertions of a forthright soul”.

Almost all of the fantasies have a Latin cantus firmus in long notes, which are noted in subtitles. The present work (number 39) is one of the six (including the book’s first) that are based instead on Calvinist/Huguenot or “Geneva” psalm melodies, only two of which are specified in the print. The tremendous religious tension that led to the king’s murder is surely behind this reticence. Henri might say that “Paris vaut une Messe”, and convert superficially to Catholicism, but his surintendant seems to have wanted to play it safer. The four major themes of our Trenteneufiesme Fantasie are developed progressively from one to the next, after the Italian manner of the variation ricercar. Emerging triumphantly at the end is the melody used for several Psalms. Nr. 32 would be especially appropriate for the philandering King: “Blessed is the man whose trespass is forgiven”.

38) A French writer of the late 16th century complains that “certain composers” write pieces that even the most accomplished singers “do not dare approach”.He probably had Guillaume de Costeley’s chromatic “Seigneur Dieu, ta pitié” in mind, which was published twice, in 1570 and 1579. Costeley (ca. 1530–1606) was the major composer of chansons of his generation and court composer to Charles IX, the pathetic son of Maria de’ Medici who presided over the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

The piece in question, an anguished plea for divine aide in deep depression, is built upon a perplexing riddle involving hexachords, which need not be explained here, but which has the effect of bumping the music down a half-step into very strange keys, and back up again, several times. In addition, this chanson spirituel was conceived for one of the myriad speculative ways of adjusting the size of the musical intervals among themselves that preoccupied theoreticians at the time, to the point of distraction. These were born of the irksome impossibility of fitting the pure intervals offered by nature into a complete scale which would allow more than a few keys or modes to be used. This particular scheme divides the octave into 19 equal intervals and demands a special keyboard. But since the piece was specifically conceived for singers accompanied by such a harpsichord, and especially seeing that it is so beautiful in itself, I wanted to include it here, with the harpsichord tuned more or less as singers probably would actually have intonated without such guidance if the music had been written out normally. John Koster has shown that, contrary to the usual specialist thinking, temperaments in which all keys were more or less usable (including the “modern” equal temperament) were already discussed, and sometimes applied, in the 16th century.

It is striking that Costeley’s modulations into strange keys always happen where the text is particularly tortured, and that, when things take a turn for the better, the key changes back to normality. This leads me to think that the composition was (perhaps unconsciously) written with a way of tuning in mind which allowed circulation through all keys, with those moving farther away from C major sounding progressively less pleasant. With the octave divided into 19 equal intervals, they all sound equally awful.

This splendid work was influenced by the emotive late Italian madrigal, on the threshold of monody, and already breaking the bonds of strict tempo in order to express the text, as many sources attest. How far one can go in that respect as a solo harpsichordist is a matter of delicate judgement. The instrument has its limits, not only in terms of dynamics, but also (and especially) of timing. To push these too far is to lose all; to respect them is to concoct magic with the most inflexible of tools.

My solution of the hexachord riddle does not claim to be definitive, and I daresay that anyone making such a claim must be mad. The piece’s notation is full of ambiguities (which may be part of its intended charm), and there are differences between the two editions, which may or may not be corrections by the composer. But I think my version follows the text well:

Lord God, extend your mercy over me,
For I am in a terrible state.
My destiny is cruel—
It oppresses, it crushes me,
Though I combat it with all my powers.
Alas, Lord, without You,
I am as a rose deprived of water,
Its petals withered.
Help me, oh Lord!
Let your wise counsel
Remove me from a fate
That renders me miserable.
To You belong the high heavens.
Yours is the firmament.
Only you can transform them,
Altogether, in an instant—
Transform my pain, then, I beg of Thee,
And give me comfort!
For Thou hast promised to open the door
To him who knocks.

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