Introduction to the Database

This database presents a repertoire of monophonic chanson melodies and (where extant) their texts, linked to polyphonic settings based upon them, dating from the early 1460s to about 1550. The period covered opens with the second Escorial chansonnier (E‑E, MS IV.a.24) and the Dijon chansonnier (F‑Dm, MS 517), the first sources to contain a sizeable number of ‘combinative’ songs and quodlibets based upon ostensibly pre-existent material. At the other end, the publication of Attaingnant’s Chansons nouvelles in 1528 and the flourishing of French and German musical prints until about 1550, witness a maturation and systematization of stylistic and formal traits evident earlier, such as clear caesuras at the end of verses, an alternation between homorhythm and free counterpoint and largely syllabic declamation. Above all, the chansons in the 1528 collection show the rise of new compositional approaches in which the systematic borrowing of pre-existing monophonic material is on the wane. Earlier research characterised these features as typical of the so-called ‘Parisian chanson’, though this geographical and stylistic designation is not entirely accurate and is thus avoided here.

On the other hand, the continued popularity of groups of French songs in German speaking lands until about 1550, is testified by their appearance in numerous collections by publishers such as Rhaw and Berg (Montanus) & Neuber, both in their original French and as Latin contrafacta. Also included are of course the numerous mass manuscripts and prints with ordinary cycles based on these melodies.

The presence of borrowed, ‘foreign’ melodic material can only be identified with certainty when the melody is quoted in two or more independent polyphonic compositions or when it is transmitted in the two extant monophonic anthologies (F‑Pn, f. fr. 9346 [Bayeux] and f. fr. 12744). However, our survey also includes melodies that display stylistic and formal features similar to those in the independently attested melodies, even if they appear in only a single extant polyphonic composition, when such features suggest a re-working of pre-existent material. These are characteristics distinguishing this repertory sharply from the formes fixes of the ‘French’ or ‘Franco-Burgundian’ tradition, justifying the adjective rustique favoured by contemporary theorists of poetics like Jean Molinet, and later employed in musical publications.1 However, the term rustique should not be interpreted as a real indication of the origin of these songs. The two extant monophonic chansonniers mentioned above hailed from the world of French royal patrons, and thus rustique monophony should not be assumed to have a popular origin. 2

Most of the earlier manuscripts are of Italian provenance. Here the borrowed melodies are mostly in the tenor, or (less frequently) in the superius. In most cases they are clearly set apart from their polyphonic surroundings by being cast in larger note values (see, for instance, I‑Fn, Banco Rari 229 or V‑CVbav, Capp. Giulia XIII, 27). Later sources, whether French or Italian, especially those produced after Petrucci’s three principal chanson collections, increasingly privilege three- and four-part arrangements characterised by a more homogeneous texture (as in I‑Fn, Magl. XIX, 117, or GB‑Lbl, Harl. 5242). In these cases, the melodic voice is hardly distinguishable, in terms of style, from the other voices, thus foreshadowing one of the main features of the chanson collections printed by Attaingnant from 1528 onwards. Even so, it is usually possible to isolate the original melody on the basis of stylistic features: in this voice, the text is rendered most faithfully, with fewer embellishments and with the tightest interdependence between verse and music. Such features offer the best evidence of an original association between text and melody. Furthermore, in the later sources, the melody is often set in the superius. Even where the text is partially or completely absent, something rarely occurring after the turn of the century, it is often possible to identify the voice that originally bore a text in verse from the configuration of its musical phrases.

The choice of a principal source for each melody has depended upon several factors. Often it is the earliest datable manuscript or print. However, in many cases we have followed a later source where it possesses greater authority for the composer of a particular polyphonic arrangement of a pre-existent melody (e.g., GB‑Cmc 1760 for Févin). When there was a choice between concordant sources, we have usually favoured those that offer the most complete and accurate version of the text, since the musical phrases in this repertoire are so strongly shaped by literary form. Moreover, text may be relevant to identify chansons cued in theatrical plays and farces, or published without music in sixteenth-century anthologies of poetry.

Much as we have striven for thoroughness in considering secular manuscript and printed sources from the relevant period, such an extensive enterprise makes the occurrence of lacunae almost unavoidable. The database should however be seen as a work-in-progress, and suggestions and corrections are always welcome. It is also hoped to improve search by musical incipits.


1 See Brown, 1959, 23.

2 See especially Isabel Kraft, 2009, 35–93.