Calvinism in France, like the early Lutheran Church in the German States, provoked a reassessment of liturgy in musical settings. Simplicity was the watchword, so as to facilitate performance and understanding by the congregation. This led to a general application of homophony, rather than polyphony, often applied to simple, traditional melodies, and written in the vernacular, rather than Latin. As might be expected, much of the effort expended on meeting these demands for religious material produced workmanlike results. An occasional composer rose above these limitations, however, creating early Protestant Gebrauchmusik that was also art.
Claude Le Jeune certainly did so, in his 1564 10 Psalms of David. A Huguenot collection, dedicated to two Calvinists, it demonstrates a wholehearted embrace of Calvin’s statement in the Genevan Psalter that music “has a secret and almost incredible power to move our hearts in one way, or another.” To achieve this, Le Jeune used Goudimel’s largely homophonic motet model. (The latter published 67 psalm settings in eight volumes before 1566.) But where Goudimel quoted as cantus firmus or paraphrased Genevan melodies, Le Jeune chose to create his own. I disagree with Jacques Feuillie’s liner notes that the composer “completely disregards” the “common chant.” Rather, as the opening of Psalms 135 and 88 strikingly demonstrate, Le Jeune deployed sequences of harmonic intervals from the chanson tradition of which he wrote many distinguished examples, in a framework that sustained his own gift for emotive melody. The dactylic rhythms of the French language are transformed into dotted musical cells, providing contrast to more foursquare material; the one-on-one setting of the literal text, as Calvin required, has the side effect of freeing Le Jeune from the repetitive forms of standard verse.
To the average early-music listener, the result might sound like a French equivalent of the declamatory style evolved by the Florentine Camerata. Not surprisingly so. That the latter formed just a few years after Le Jeune joined the Académie de musique et de poésie is not a coincidence.
Artur Thomas, in an ode accompanying the publication of Le Jeune’s 1603 Le Printemps, referred to the composer’s “sweet harmony” and to the “variety and vivacity of his rhythms,” qualities that Allan Atlas, in his far more recent Renaissance Music, heartily seconds: “The meter—if one can speak of it—is extraordinarily fluid,” and the entirety is “the epitome of Gallic wit and grace.” Similar comments can be made about this collection of Calvinist psalm settings, nearly 40 years earlier. Psalm 98 has indeed a rare sweetness, fit for its exalted text, and the vivid, ascending phrase to “Cors & Clairons soyent esclatans” is wittily emphasized by descending two-note repeats on “cors,” madrigalizing them briefly into cors de chasse, or hunting horns. True, the general tone of these works is understandably more serious, but it is still extraordinary how much textural variety Le Jeune can find in a simple homophonic setting through the use of repetition, pauses, apparent changes of key, shifts in interior parts or in the bass, changes to pace, melismatic phrases all the more successful for being rare, etc. Within its self-imposed limits, this is sacred music of a very high order.
The performances are its match. Bruno Boterf, whom I previously reviewed leading the Namur Chamber Choir in sacred music by Henry Du Mont (Ricercar 293), is probably best known for his two decades spent as a member of the Clément Jannequin Ensemble, ending in 2007. He formed Ludus Modalis more recently as a 12-voice ensemble, heard here with seven voices spread across the four vocal divisions (one alto). The balance of voices and their blending is exceptional, as is the group’s subtle emphasis on one part or another to maintain clarity and momentum. Though the texts are only provided in the original French (English Bibles are, after all, ubiquitous, and if you lack for one, try a hotel room), the enunciation is lucid and easy to follow. Rhythms are exact, much as you’d expect. Very occasional accompaniment is provided by Yannick Varlet on harpsichord or organ. It is kept deliberately to a single note-line, and furnishes the only criticism I have of this recording. While the organ discreetly reinforces the lower frequencies, the harpsichord simply vanishes behind the group’s vocal textures. Otherwise, sound is both close and bright.
Occasional selections of Le Jeune’s psalm settings have been recorded in the past, but I know of nothing currently available that offers the entire group of 10. Recommended, for musical and performance excellence. Barry Brenesal