Claudin de Sermisy was a leading French composer of the Renaissance. In the early 16th century, apart from Clément Janequin, Sermisy was one of the most eminent composers of French chansons and of sacred music. His music was essentially inclined towards contemporary Italian styles. He was believed to be associated with the mid-13th-century Sainte-Chapelle, Louis IX’s magnificent palace chapel in 1508 and in 1510 he was selected as a singer in Queen Anne of Brittany’s private chapel. After she expired, Sermisy became a member of the chapel of Louis XII in 1515 and continued in royal service under Francis I. In 1533, he was eventually positioned as an assistant chapel master. Sermisy composed more than half the pieces published in Pierre Attaingnant’s popular compilation of chansons in 1529. He also authored about 200 chansons, more than 20 of which were text of poems written by his counterpart Clément Marot. His compositions were concise and characterized by fresh, rhythmic and oratorical style in which chords chase the accents of speech. Sermisy also published around 78 motets, 11 Magnificat settings and 13 masses, including music for the ‘Holy Week’.
As there is no written evidence relating to his birth, it’s assumed that Sermisy was most probably born either in Picardy, Burgundy or Île-de-France, according to the similarity of his surname prevailing in those places. According to Pierre Ronsard, in his childhood, Sermisy might have studied with Josquin des Prez, but many musicologists discard this assumption. However, at some point of time or another, after he became familiar with music, he grasped some of the older composer's musical thoughts. It is also believed that Josquin was most possibly at the French court during 1501-1503 in order to become a teacher to Sermisy, though even this hypothesis was never proved. Though Sermisy's earlier locations were unknown, but one thing is certain that Sermisy was associated with the Royal Chapel.
Sermisy joined the Royal Chapel of Louis XII as a singer in 1508, where he also worked as a cleric. Interestingly, his birth date is based on the date from which he joined the Royal Chapel, as 18 was considered as the ideal age for such appointments. He went to Italy with Francis I in 1515 and became an influential part of the musical festivities in 1520 organized by Francis I and Henry VIII of England at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, directed by Jean Mouton. Apart from being a singer, he might have started composing music there. In 1532, he composed a ceremonial motet, while he took part in the similar gathering between the kings at Boulogne.
Sermisy was appointed as a canon at Notre-Dame-de-la-Rotonde in Rouen in early 1520s, but he soon quit the position for a similar one in Amiens in 1524. By 1532, he became a music director at the Royal Chapel, still under Francis I, who ruled till 1547. As a music director, his responsibilities included teaching music to the boys of the choir and to hunt for talented singers. In 1533, apart from his position at the Royal Chapel, he also became a canon of the Sainte-Chapelle, requiring him to reside in Paris itself. Thus, he acquired a big house there to protect immigrants from the church in St. Quentin when the Spanish attacked their city in 1559. In 1554, he was also granted a prebend at St. Catherine in Troyes. Based on his earlier biographies and publication dates of his works, it is evident that he had been lively as a composer up to the last years of his life.
Sermisy composed both sacred music and secular music. Amongst his sacred music, 12 finished masses are available, including 100 motets, a Requiem mass, as well as a set of Lamentations and a few magnificats. According to the publication dates, it is apparent that he had a profound curiosity in the sacred genres all through his life and as a result, a loss of interest in secular forms. It is very tricky to get the specific dates on compositions for composers in that era; this is only possible if a composition was specifically done for a particular occasion. Sermisy discarded the prevailing style and adopted clearer textures and brief phrases, a style parallel to the chansons he wrote earlier in his career.
He also experimented with textures in his compositions by modifying polyphonic passages with homorhythmic, chordal ones, similar to the textures in his secular music. Sermisy was also credited with the honor of composing the few polyphonic settings of the Passion found in French music of that time. These polyphonic settings were simple in contrast with his motets and masses and he endeavored to make the words clearly explicable.
Sermisy's chief contribution to music was his 175 mesmerizing chansons. These chansons are akin with those of Janequin, though less programmatic. His compositions were very elegant and sophisticated. Sermisy's chansons share attributes like chordal and syllabic, avoiding the more pretentious polyphony of Netherland composers. Sermisy was fascinated by creating quick recurring notes, granting a buoyancy and rhythmic quality to the textures.
The manuscripts or text Sermisy chose for his compositions were generally from modern poets, such as Clément Marot. In fact, he set many verses written by Marot as compared to any other poet or writer. His favorite topics were drinking, unreciprocated love and nature. Many of his songs were based on the situation of a discontented youthful woman stuck with an unappealing old man, a common feeling during his era. Most of his chansons are targeted for four voices, though he also authored some for three in the beginning of his career, before four-voice writing became the standard. Sermisy's chansons were strongly inspired by the Italian frottola and his composition further aroused the young Italian composers, since his music was reprinted several times in France as well as in other regions of Europe.
Sermisy became extremely popular throughout Western Europe and copies of his music spread across Portugal, Italy, England, Spain and other European regions. Along with several other contemporary composers, Rabelais wrote about him in Gargantua and Pantagruel in Book 4. Sermisy's music was written down several times by performers from France, Germany, Italy and Poland for lute, instruments, viols, organs and other keyboard instruments. Even though Sermisy was a Catholic, many of his tunes were adopted by Protestant musicians in the next generation. For instance, a Lutheran chorale tune (Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit) is created on a chanson composed by Sermisy (Il me suffit de tous mes maulx).
Death And Legacy
He expired on October 13, 1562. He was buried in the lower chapel of the Sainte-Chapelle. Despite the fame accomplished during his life, Claudin's music promptly elapsed after his death. He was rediscovered in twentieth century and his music was acknowledged for its unique traits of stability and grace.