Claudin De Sermisy Biography

(Former composer of the Renaissance)

Born: 1490

Born In: France

Claudin de Sermisy was a noted French composer of the Renaissance regarded as one of the most famous composers of French chansons of the early 16th century and a leading composer of sacred music. He served as a singer in the private chapel of Queen Anne of Brittany, as singer and cleric in the Royal Chapel of Louis XII and thereafter remained in royal service under Francis I. He accompanied Francis I to Italy and thereafter to Balinghem at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Sermisy also served as a canon at Notre-Dame-de-la-Rotonde in Rouen, in Amiens and at the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris; and was granted a prebend at Ste Catherine in Troyes. He wrote sacred and secular music for voices. Surviving works of the composer from the sacred genre includes twelve complete masses, including a Requiem mass, around a hundred motets, a set of Lamentations and some magnificats. He was most celebrated for his chansons, of which there are around 175. His chansons are chordal and syllabic and over half of the works published in French music publisher Pierre Attaingnant’s famous collection of chansons (1529) was by Sermisy. More than twenty texts of poems of French Renaissance poet Clément Marot were set as chansons by the composer. While Sermisy took inspiration from the Italian frottola for his chansons, his music remained influential on contemporary Italian styles, and was reprinted several times in France and other European countries and transcribed for instruments. Several tunes of this faithful Catholic were even appropriated by Protestant musicians.

Quick Facts

Died At Age: 72

Born Country: France

Composers French Men

Died on: October 13, 1562

place of death: Paris, France

Childhood & Early Life

Claudin de Sermisy was born in c. 1490 and although information on his birthplace remains obscure, based on the similarity of his surname, it can be conjectured that he was born either in Picardy, Île-de-France or Burgundy.

According to French poet Pierre Ronsard, Sermisy possibly studied with senior French composer of high Renaissance music Josquin des Prez during his childhood, however several musicologists discard this claim as unreliable. Nevertheless Sermisy was acquainted with the music of Josquin and absorbed some of the musical ideas of the latter. Though not substantiated by any evidence, Josquin was probably at the French court during 1501-03 and in that case a teacher-student relationship between the two would have been possible. While information on life and career of Sermisy remain hazy before 1508, his presence at the Royal Chapel was surely on the cards.

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Sermisy was inducted as a singer in the Royal Chapel of King of France Louis XII in 1508. He also served as a cleric there. Interestingly, the date he joined the royal chapel became the clue to deduce his birth date as eighteen was approximately the right age for such an appointment. He was also listed as a singer in the private chapel of Queen Anne of Brittany in 1510.

He travelled to Italy with King Francis I of France in 1515. He took part in the musical festivities at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, a summit meeting held at Balinghem between Francis I and King Henry VIII of England from June 7 to 24 in 1520. French composer Jean Mouton was probably in charge of the musical production from the French side and Sermisy most likely contributed as a singer. He may have also composed some of the music there. He also wrote a ceremonial motet while participating in the similar meeting between the kings held in 1532 at Boulogne.

During the early 1520s, for some time, Sermisy served as a canon at Notre-Dame-de-la-Rotonde in Rouen. He left the position tentatively on December 10, 1524, and accepted a similar position in Amiens. He was serving as music director of the Royal Chapel by 1532. His responsibilities there included teaching music and taking care of the boys of the choir besides searching talented singers for recruitment. While serving the post at the Royal Chapel, Sermisy also became a canon of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris on September 20, 1533. He thus acquired a large house in Paris where he gave shelter to refugees from the church in St Quentin in 1559 when the Spanish sacked their city. Meanwhile Sermisy was granted a prebend in 1554 at Ste Catherine in Troyes. Although not much detail are available regarding later years of Sermisy, however publication dates of his works suggest that he remained active as a composer till his death.

His compositions include sacred as well as secular music, all of which he wrote for voices. Composition of Sermisy from the sacred genre that are still extant include around a hundred motets, some magnificats, a set of Lamentations, and twelve complete masses of which one is a Requiem mass. Although it is difficult to trace actual dates of compositions of the virtuoso, the publication dates of his works suggest that his interest in the sacred genres only increased with time and that in secular forms declined.

During his late career, Sermisy avoided the prevailing style of polyphony and instead gave preference to clearer textures and short phrases, a style similar to the one he followed while writing his chansons earlier in his career. He also varied the texture of his works by alternating polyphonic passages with homorhythmic, chordal ones, similar to the texture noticed in his secular music.

Few polyphonic settings of the Passion, a musical setting of the Passion of Christ, are found in French music of that period of which two were written by Sermisy. He tried to make the words of these compositions more comprehensible and their musical settings simpler than his masses and motets. He selected the gospels of St. Matthew and St. John for these works and his settings were published in Pierre Attaignant’s 10th volume of Motets.

Although Sermisy composed music in different genres, he was widely recognised and celebrated for his chansons, perhaps his most significant and famous contribution to music literature. Starting from the late 1520s through the next couple of decades, Sermisy and his contemporaries Clément Janequin, Pierre Certon, and Philippe Verdelot composed the so-called Parisian chansons. This genre, which often featured four voices, discarded the formes fixes and were in a more simple and homophonic style.

Sermisy wrote around 175 chansons and although these are more comparable with the chansons of Janequin, these are less programmatic and considered more graceful and polished than the works of Janequin. Chansons of Sermisy are usually chordal and syllabic, sans any display of ostentatious polyphony generally noticed in the works of composers from the Netherlands. He preferred using quick repeated notes that gave a more rhythmic and dance-like quality to the textures. Many of his chansons also featured an initial rhythmic figure comprising of long-short-short (half-quarter-quarter or minim-crotchet-crotchet). This figure became the most distinguishing characteristic of the Italian musical form called canzona later in the century.

Sermisy mostly preferred texts of contemporary poets like Clément Marot for his chansons and used more works of Marot compared to any other composer. Usually subject matter of his chansons included nature, unrequited love and drinking. Some of his compositions also included the topic of a young lady who is unhappy being stuck with an unattractive and unvirile old man, a common sentiment of people during his era. His chansons were mostly for four voices; however some written during his early career were for three voices. Some of his notable chansons include C'est une dure departie, En entrant en ung jardin and Tant que vivray.

Death & Legacy

Sermisy passed away on October 13, 1562, and was interred in the lower chapel of the Sainte-Chapelle.

He became famous not only in France but across western Europe. While influence of frottola, a form of popular Italian secular song, reflects in his works, his compositions on the other hand influenced several Italian composers, as these were often reprinted in France as also in other parts of Europe. Copies of his music are found in several European countries including in England, Spain, Italy and Portugal.

His name finds place in the fourth book of the pentology of novels titled Gargantua and Pantagruel written by French Renaissance writer François Rabelais. Performers from France, Italy, Germany, and Poland transcribed his music several times for instruments such as organ, viols and lute. Tunes of this faithful Catholic composer were also adopted by Protestant musicians in the next generation. One such example is the melody of a Lutheran hymn Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit (What my God wants should always happen) that is based on the 1529 published chanson Il me suffit de tous mes maulx composed by Sermisy.

See the events in life of Claudin De Sermisy in Chronological Order

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