Claude Le Jeune

Claude Le Jeune (ca. 1530-1600) was a Flemish composer active in France. He created a new species of composition, musique mesurée, and was also acclaimed for his numerous settings of the French Psalter.

Born in Valenciennes (now in France, then part of Flanders), Claude Le Jeune spent his earliest years in Flanders and may have traveled thereafter to Venice for a stay with the composer Adrian Willaert. Le Jeune settled in Paris about 1564. Although an avowed Huguenot, he was in charge of planning musical activities at the French court, particularly those attending the marriage of the Duc de Joyeuse in 1581. The following year saw the composer's appointment as maistre des enfans de musique to François d'Anjou, brother of King Henry III. In 1596 Le Jeune was listed as maistre compositeur ordinaire de la musique to King Henry IV and retained this post until his death in Paris about Sept. 26, 1600.

Although much of Le Jeune's music is lost, 659 works have come down to us. They include 67 chansons, 146 airs, 320 psalms, 41 sacred songs, 10 motets, 1 Mass, 1 Magnificat, and 3 instrumental pieces. The last four genres are of little importance: they belong to his early, formative years or inadequately represent the composer's stature or development. Of greater weight are the chansons, airs, and settings of the Huguenot Psalter. The chansons extend from music-oriented, elaborately contrapuntal pieces of the 1550s, through Italianate, text-oriented, chromatic works of the 1560s and 1570s, to a clarified idiom free of "madrigalisms" in the last pieces of the 1580s and 1590s.

Much more significant are the hundred-odd airs in musique mesurée. By adapting classical quantitative meters to French poetry, the poet Jean Antoine de Baïf wrote many lyrics in vers mesurée; these in turn were set by Le Jeune in note-against-note counterpoint. Despite their artificial structure, these strophic songs are among the composer's loveliest inspirations.

Le Jeune turned to the French Psalter as translated by Clément Marot and Théodore de Bèze at least four times in his career, employing the original Genevan tunes for the last three. In the first arrangement (1564) he set 10 of the psalms in motet (imitative) style. His Dodecachordon (1598) was 12 psalms composed as imitative motets in each of the 12 modes. In contrast to these settings were two volumes of psalms, one for three voices (first published 1602-1610) and one for four to six voices (first published 1601). Written in simple note-against-note style, they were probably designed for congregations or choirs of Protestant churches. The version for four to five parts, in particular, was admired throughout Europe and America during the 17th and 18th centuries and established Le Jeune's reputation even at the expense of his larger and more important creations.

Further Reading on Claude Le Jeune

The style of the composer's music is treated in Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance (1954; rev. ed. 1959), and New Oxford History of Music, vol. 4: The Age of Humanism, 1540-1630, edited by Gerald Abraham (1968).