Secular music
Secular music
Psalms to music
20th Century

Marot set to music : secular music

or: Why was Marot’s so popular with musicians ?
[part of the C.A. Mayer Memorial lecture (11/11/11), London, see: the website]

Nota praevia: "one should not talk about music, but listen to what it has to say"
[examples of musical settings appear next to texts in the section 'poems', in particular the 'chansons']

To begin with, let's get rid off one persistent mis-conception : Marot was not a melody-maker and singer himself, he was not the 'last of the troubadours' as was he romantic thesis of Jean Rollin in the 1950s.[1] The merit of that book was that it provoked reaction, among others of François Lesure, who in a very polite way made matchwood of that thesis and at the same time took up the gauntlet to show the real importance of Marot as a lyricist. In an appendix he drew up a real not a fantaisiste bibliography of texts by Marot put to music.[2] In the 1990s Annie Coeurdevey published a bibliography of Marot’s chansons[3] and now an electronic database can be consulted in which all extant musical settings of texts by Marot (including only those Psalmsettings which are published in secular chanson collections) can be found by entering Marot’s name.[4] This database confirms that Marot was simply the poet most sought after by composers in the 16th Century. To give an impression of the number of musical settings based on texts of Marot[5]:


Lesure 1951

Coeurdevey 1997

CESR 2011





Mellin de St-Gelais








This means that Marot surpasses Ronsard in respect of attraction exerted on musicians, and … not unimportant as well: his attractiveness began earlier and lasted longer: Marot still rules in the chansonniers at the end of the 16th century and outside France even afterwards. Compared with his colleague and rival, Mellin de Saint-Gelais, he is thrice as popular. Even more telling is the comparison of the number of composers that took the challenge to put Marot to music, that is found by Coeurdevey (1997):


different composers

different texts







And if you would take the time to investigate what poems of Marot are the most popular, then you would of course find the fixed form poems: rondeaux, ballads… (or parts of them) but especially his sizeins, huitains, dizains, or epigrams, occasionally an epistle or a few lines of an elegy, and - of course - his chansons, but by no means his chansons only, not even predominantly. In the end his epigrams are the winners.

Q: What attracted musicians to Marot’s texts, and made them prefer his texts above those of other poets?
A: It is the inherent 'musical' quality of his poetic output combined with the refinement of the traditional form of lyrical chanson, which leads to the paradoxical conclusion that their success was basically their conventionality.

I explain: Although Marot was not a musician himself, he was musical. According to his own testimony  he was a bad singer (he always sang out of tune, he confesses in a jolly epigram addressed to Maurice Scève), but nevertheless his words sang: sound, rhythm, the movement, tension in his lines (arsis-thesis), not only in his chansons. For a 15th-16th century man there was hardly a boundary between poetry read aloud and poetry sung. ‘Chanter’ could simply mean ‘recite, celebrate’[6]. In the Platonist vision poetry is the first and most natural manifestation of music (= the result of the Muses in action), which then can take all kinds of forms. The inherent musical aspect can be made explicit when put to music, but it does not need to. Poetry is music, a form of musica humana , the instrument which expresses the universal musica mundana. Verse and music are one, separation between them is artificial. With regard to both his Chansons and his Psalms, we should not think that Marot constantly imagined them to be sung, either as simple songs or in a more elaborate way. They are ‘read’ recited, hopefully with enthusiasm, like the Orphic image sketched in his 1541 epistle accompanying his first Psalm collection. To Marot poetry itself is ‘music’ a gift from the ‘Muses.’

In the musical idiom of Claudin de Sermisy Marot’s words found their natural expression, making the inherent music explicit, audible and performable.  The essence of vocal music in is the melody… “hè melooidia” = the singing it self // “ho melooidos” is the lyrical poet. Music begins with the invention of a melody and sing it. And then others sing along, or perhaps they sing ‘contra’; the tenor with the theme, the counter-tenor. Then you can put something below: bassus or above: superius. So these two courtiers were a perfect match. Together they gave birth to what the musicologist call the ‘Parisian chanson’. In it two tendencies merge: the popular and the courtly. And they blend seamlessly because of Marot’s textual and Claudin’s musical genius. Both – text and music – are characterized by an only seemingly simplicity.  Or to quote a Marot scholar “we touch here upon the paradox of the chansons as a whole. They bear witness to the facility so essential to light lyricism, ... a facility so seldom easily achieved, being won by labour, restraint and the highest art. The triumph of the chansons is the triumph of art concealing art.” (Smith, 1970, p; 140).  In my opinion this is the secret not only of Marot’s chansons, but also of his epistles and many of his epigrams, and the best of his Psalms. The injustice done to Marot being praised as an easy-going versifier (I won’t quote Boileau) is thus rectified by the simple but true observation that “writing light verse requires heavy labour”.

And there is something else: In the person, the soul of Clément so to speak, there is no contradiction between the old and the new. There is only good and bad poetry. The old and the new blend naturally. Son of a court poet, participator at rhetorical festivals (les puys), he easily combined tradition and when his talent began to bloom and bear fruit (during his adolescence) he found words in his lyrical poems that expressed universal human feelings of love, hope, despair, enjoyment. The plaintive register, melancholia, he supremely masters it. But also the exuberant and the ironical, the biting satirical, subtle eroticism and the jocular farce, though – for a 16th C poet – the latter in a surprisingly low quantity, and still quite ‘tongue in cheek’. But the few he produced were instant and lasting successes.[7] Despite of all talking about the dawn of a New Age, the Renaissance, Marot did not really break with the past (nor did Francis, although they both used the rhetorics to celebrate his government). How could they? The past was their present and the old forms were the ones they had been taught to love and use. Especially in his chansons Marot more continues a longstanding tradition of 14th  and 15th century chansons, to which not only explicit references can be found in his poetry, but which with his poetry simply continues and – perhaps – reaches its apex.[8] Learning begins with imitating and then interiorisation and when there is talent, the imitating will become emulating and when there is extraordinary talent the emulating will lead to the disclosure of new horizons, or – exceptional – a synthesis on a higher level. I think this has happened here: « Le grand mérite de Marot (et De Claudin De Sermisy, j’ajoute) est donc d’avoir donné droit de cite à la chanson. » (Mayer, OL, p. 13 = CM,  p. 67)

In short: the power of his chansons is that they sound familiar, but at the same time have that ‘extra’ which one can never define . The key to their success is that they are conventional and new.[9] Or to quote a musicologist: “All the words that are so good to sing (“cueur, douleur, languir, regretz” etc.), are found there” [as they were in the 15th century songs (put to music by great composers, Ockeghem, Compere, Agricola], “but they are less pretentious and often have a lighter tone, a touch of the straightforwardness of the popular songs. To the popular tradition he brings the coherence and point that the confused anonymous songs sometimes lack. [10] Once more: What makes the work of a  poet – and music – worthwhile is not so much that which distinguishes him from tradition, as we generally believe, or want to believe, but that which connects him to what went before, and which he – having internalised it, appropriated it – transmits to the next generation. It is the same, but different now.

                T.S. Eliot (TI, 1922)

“ We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet's difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. And I do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full maturity.”


Q. How to write a tophit (chanson) ?
A. The
characteristics of a good lyrical text (chanson) from 1450 onwards (until 2011)[12] are

  • The form: 8 or 10 syllables.

  • a caesura after the first four syllables (often dactylic)

  • An ornamented cadence at the end.

  • Topics treated and ‘atmosphere

  •  And of course one needs some able performers ànd - very important: a publisher like...


Pierre Attaingnant

Almost all chansons from Ladolescence (1532) were published first by Pierre Attaingnant, who began his career as a printer with one ecclesial imprint in 1527 and then with one sweep created, occupied and controlled the market with his chansonbooks. In his first book Chansons nouvelles en musique a quatre parties (around Easter 1528) Claudin de Sermisy dominates the scene: He is the composer of 17 of the 31 songs. And placed in front are five of his moving settings of lyrical poems, four of them by Clément Marot, total of 9. Almost a programmatic opening sequence of songs, really showing the lyrical quality and diversity :  Secourez moy (opening Chansons nouvelles of 1528): plaintive longing of the lover; the distress experienced when no answer arrives: “Dont vient cela, Belle, je vous supply, or the celebration of a – at last – positive reply of the loved one: Tant que vivray en aage Florissant. All have the traditional scheme of a chanson, even the last-mentioned, Tant que vivray, although it is often suggested otherwise. It is only with the later chansons and in particular with the Psalms, that Marot revolutionizes poetical form. If you don’t believe me: already in the 1980s Lawrence Bernstein has found a song in the same late 15th C collection of chansons as I used for Amour de Moy, which not only has almost a very similar metrical form, but also entire phrases and images in common with Marot’s text… and last but not least: a very similar melodic pattern: Imitation, emulation, completion.

  • Secourez moy, ma dame, par amours [7x10]

  • Tant que vivray en aage florissant [6x10 / 6x4 / 1x8]

  • Dont vient cela, belle, je vous supply [7x10]

  • Joyssance vous donneray [6x8]

  • Changeons propos, c’est trop chanté d’amours [7x10]

  • J’atens secours de ma seule pensée [4x10]

  • Languir me fais sans t’avoir offensé [4x10]

  • Longtemps y a que je viz en espoir [5x10]

  • J’ay contenté / ma volonté suffisamente [8x4 / 4x8]

To get an impression of the impact and work of Attaingnant, read the monumental monograph on this printer by Daniel Heartz. In a span of two years Attaingnant flooded the market with his successive editions, a total of 15 chanson collections with 468 compositions and - subtracting the reprints - 400 different chansons: an impressively large number. As Peter Woetmannn Christoffersen observes:

“He must have collected a large stock of chansons before his printing press began production in earnest. Once success was assured and his stocks were perhaps depleted, he began publishing sacred music, instrumental music and dances, as well as chansons and motets arranged for the lute (and for voice and lute), and for keyboard instruments. The many arrangements for instruments are to a great extent based on the chansons which had already appeared in the vocal collections; this way he made as much use as possible of his stock of music.”[13]

One has to wait until 1532 to see a new collection of Chansons published by Attaingnant.  In Marot’s case one generally accepts that the texts predate the music but with not too long an interval in between. Heartz refers to documented examples of Marot writing a poem, f.i. the blason du beau tétin (late 1535) and then signals that is put to music by Clément Janequin and published by Attaingnant already in spring 1536.[14] Within half a year. But this example is not automatically valid for all chansons. I even suspect it to be rather exceptional, more a specimen of Attaingnant and Janequin’s ability to capitalize on a trend. Purpose, planning. In the first quarter of the 16th Century things were different. Marot was still the ‘son of’, not the ‘prince des poetes’, and De Sermisy also was only at the beginning of his career. Marot entered the service of Marguerite in 1519, and De Sermisy was a cleric, first as a singer and later as Choir Master of the Royal Chapel. Music, song, dance though was omnipresent, in all layers of society. Look at the contemporary paintings and you can’t miss it. Marot simply played his part as ‘parolier’, as did so many others, often anonymously. Many anonymous texts circulated and were put to music also by more often anonymous musicians than well-known ones. They were copied, adapted transformed, if necessary… The old songs of the past were still sung, the florilegia flourished and musicians intabulated the old, the more learned in counterpoint added voices; two parts, three, and then four. The very learned even combined tunes. All meant to be played, sung.

When Attaingnant began to publish his chansonbooks in 1528, as a good salesman he named them chansons nouvelles but they were not. This was the already popular repertory, until then circulating in manuscripts. This is nowadays – not without fierce discussion – the generally accepted view among musicologists. The novelty of Attaingnant’s books is not their content but the fact that they are printed, to keep the price low in small books, two voices per partbook: containers to possess and to copy on sheets if needed, as in the pictures we will see. It leads to far to go deeper into this matter, but if we take into account not only the printed publications, but also the manuscripts that remain from that era, this becomes almost self-evident: Marot’s chansons should be probably dated closer to 1520 than to 1530. Of course, manuscripts are often hard to date, and much about it remains uncertain. But to dismiss them as entirely irrelevant when drawing up a bibliography and a chronology, is not fair anymore. It was necessary to clear the field and start anew, as Villey and Mayer did.[15] But now it is time to advance. Science has given new tools of analyzing paper, ink, handwriting: palaeography, codicology, and estimations of the place and date can be made with satisfactory precision. The surprise of his research is that f.i.  in  completely analysed manuscript, now in Copenhagen (Cop1848), originating from Lyon, there are 6 three-part chansons in one of the fascicles, copied together, which appear for the first time in print in Attaingnant’s first chansonbooks, among which Secourez moy and Jouyssance by Marot/DeSermisy: the time he copied them in Lyon was probably 1520, and at the latest 1522.[16]

Attaingnant republished, other printers copied and took over and a kind of ‘canon’ of Marot’s chansons is formed when in 1560 in Louvain Pierre Phalèse publishes his ‘septiesme livre’. After its first edition it went through 20 editions in Antwerp and Louvain, by the Phalèse family and heirs, and was also copied by others later on. The last official edition appeared in Amsterdam, edited by Dirk Jansz. Sweelinck in 1644, with still the same corpus of French chansons, among which many by Marot.[17]

I recapitulate (recall): Marot did not write poetry, chansons, with the direct intention that his texts should be put to music. No: a good poem was music. Well recited, and appreciated the Muses were completely satisfied. Of course, no one forbade that a composer, or a phonascus, tried to make explicit the music inside. But it was not necessary. These things don’t change when Marot’s began to work on the texts of the poet par excellence, David, the king-poet. F.i. Psalm 6, although circulating ever since ca. 1530, was not put to music as far as we know before 1542, when this text was published with a melody (Strasbourg melody Geneva melody) to make it suitable for community singing in the churches of Strasbourg and Geneva.... but that is another story


[1] Jean Rollin, Les chansons de Clément Marot (Paris, 1951).

[2] François Lesure, ‘Autour de Clément Marot et des ses musiciens,’ Revue de Musicologie 30 (1951), 109–115.

[3] Annie Coeurdevey, Bibliographie des oeuvres poétiques de Clément Marot mises en musique dans les recueils profanes du XVIe siècle (Paris, 1997).

[4] Ricercar, Programma de recherche en musicologie. Centre d’Etudes Superieures de la Renaissance : (Université Françàis Rabelais de Tours).

[5] Coeurdevey includes some Psalm settings (which Lesure didn’t), but these Psalm compositions are only included in the count if they appeared in secular collections, which is a substantial, but relatively small number and very often it concerns the same Psalms.

[6] “célébrer avec lyrisme”. f.i. in the famous chanson ‘tant que vivray’… the poet professes that he will never stop singing ‘his love’, i.e. not about his love, but sing out his love (in Dutch: bezingen; sing the praises of, like), Conter and chanter are akin.  As in Latin: cantare = celebrate,recite. Marot appears not to have been particularly interested in the music to which his poems were put. This applies to his chansons and his Psalms. For many of his chansons (especially his later ones) no musical setting is known.

[7] Martin menoit son pourceau / Frere Thibault.

[8] Allusions, quotations of titles, mainly to songs present in Jardin de Plaisance (1509) – see PMSmith 127

[9] How conventional? The form: octosyllables or decasyllables with a caesura after the first four syllables (often dactylic) and a ornamented cadence at the end, the established form of the lyric chanson at least since middle 15th Century if not longer (see below). And then the topics treated and the tone: “Most familiar, because of the long and distinguished poetic tradition that they represent, are the courtly profession of amorous fealty and the generally subsequent complainte amoureuse, which gives expression-usually in a highly stylized and conventionalized vocabulary.” (Leeman L. Perkins, ‘Toward a Typology of the "Renaissance" Chanson’, The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 421-447 (there p. 429). For the ‘typography’ of the chanson, see H.M. Brown, The Parisian chanson.

[10] Christoffersen I, p. 225.

[11] Gaston Paris/Auguste Gevaert, Chansons du XV siècle.. (Paris,1875), n° XXVII.

[12] image copied Frank Dobbins, ‘Jacques Moderne's 'Parangon des Chansons': A Bibliography of Music and Poetry at Lyon 1538-1543’, : R.M.A. Research Chronicle, No. 12 (1974), pp. 1-90, there p. 9.

[13] Christoffersen, 217. The chansonniers are: Heartz nos. 2-10, 14, 15, 17-19 and 29; no. 29 is a reprint of no. 5, and no. 9 is a (revised) edition of  no. 2. The tabulature and keyboard reductions: 22-24 (jan./febr. 1531).

[14] Heartz, Pierre Attaingnant, p. 103

[15] P. Villey, ‘Recherches sur la chronologie des oeuvres de Marot’ is the first one to restrain from attributing chansons and rondeauw and elegies to the ‘amours’ of Marot: Isabeau and Anne, as did Lenglet (28 of the chansons) and even in 1951: Rollin.

[16] “Around 1520 a professional copyist in Lyon came across a fascicle containing three-part songs which were current then, he copied them for his own use (a small fascicle). When he a little later got hold of another similar fascicle - containing six three-part songs - he at once copied these also into empty pages in one of his big stock fascicles (the series in Rfasc. 6) and made a note of its contents on the back of the big fascicle. For his business he of course was interested in obtaining the newest music, the most popular, but it was not often he could lay his hands on it. Among the newest and most attractive secular music around 1520 were two songs by Claudin/Marot: Secourez moy and Jouyssance. A little later, probably when the court adjourned to Lyon, he added some of the by then current four-part "Parisian" chansons to his collection (the last entries). Soon he realized that his whole collection of music was completely out-of-date, he had it (450 closely written pages) loosely bound and put it aside or gave to a pupil. It was just our luck that he did not sell it to the fish-monger or used it to light candles with (summary sent to me by Peter Woetman Christoffersen himself finalizing a long correspondence on this topic).

[17] Rudolf Rasch, ‘The editors of the Livre Septième’ Yearbook of the Alamire Foundation 2/1995, 279-306.

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