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date: 27 January 2020

Déploration (Fr.).free

  • Sean Hallowell

Originally, a poem in which the passing of an individual is announced and communities to which the departed belongs are called to mourn.

Pioneered by French poets in aristocratic service, the déploration qua literary genre enjoyed a modest lifespan, with eight known works surviving from the 16th century. Longstanding custom, however, recognizes a musical tradition by the same name, one numbering 30 known compositions spanning the late 14th to late 16th centuries. Among composers the déploration ramified from a French mainstream into Spanish, Netherlandish, German, Italian, and English tributaries. Accordingly, déplorations are variably designated in sources by such terms as apotheosis, epicedion, monodia, epitaphium, lamentation, complainte, naenia, madrigale, greghesca, and elegy.

1. Origins and development.

Use of the term “déploration” to denote a musical work in which a composer is commemorated may be traced to Ockeghem (d 1497). This musician, who spent almost a half-century in service to the French royal court, was memorialized by literary counterpart Guillaume Crétin in a poem of 412 lines. A frame-narrative necrology featuring a syncretic cast of characters (among them Orpheus and King David), Crétin’s déploration charges all who held Ockeghem dear with the duty of honoring “celluy qui”—according to Lady Music (another dramatis persona)—“tant a decoré / Mon bruyt et lotz” (63–4). To this end, Crétin urges composers to set particular texts in memoriam. Inter alia, he addresses “Agricolla, Verbonnet, Prioris / Josquin Desprez, Gaspar, Brunel, Compère” and instructs them thus: “Ne parlez plus de joyeux chantz ne ris / Mais composez ung Ne recorderis / Pour lamenter nostre maistre et bon père” (389–93).

No such settings of Ne recorderis are known to survive. Josquin, however, took up Crétin’s call, setting to music words adapted not from the latter’s déploration but from another poem inspired thereby. At one point in the former work, Crétin addresses Burgundian poet Jean Molinet, incredulous at the latter’s lack of response to the loss of Ockeghem. Molinet responded with two poems—one in Latin, the other in French—the latter of which Josquin set with the addition of a cantus firmus adapted from the Missa pro defunctis. This work, Nymphes des bois + Requiem, circulated widely, having been copied (albeit textlessly) into the so-called Medici Codex (1518) and printed by Susato in his Septiesme livre de chansons (1545).

Otherwise devoted exclusively to works by Josquin (d 1521), the Septiesme livre contains three déplorations thereof likely commissioned by Susato from musicians who knew the deplored by reputation only. By so honoring Josquin, these former aimed surely to advance their own reputations, thereby enacting a tributary dynamic—one characterized by the intention to both honor and surpass—constitutive of the déploration tradition ab incepto. Indeed, in the first déploration—one in spirit though not yet in letter—of Machaut (d 1377), poet Eustaches Deschamps apostrophizes the deplored as “mondains dieux d’armonie” then wonders: “Apres voz faiz, qui obtendra le chois / Sur tous faiseurs?” (II: 4–5).

2. Notable features.

True to their retrospective nature, many déplorations employ what were, at the time of their making, outmoded techniques. Cantus firmus composition, for instance, survives here longer than elsewhere, with Regnart’s 1567 déploration of Vaet, Defunctum charites + Requiem (also notably scored for seven voices), the latest example. The solemnity decorum required of such works endows many with an antiquated feel. Relevant in this regard are Augenmusik (as in the all-black notation of Nymphes des bois + Requiem in the Medici Codex), the Phrygian mode (used in Josquin’s déploration of Ockeghem and Heugel’s of Arthopius), and low tessitura (as in Ockeghem’s déploration of Binchois, Mort tu as navré + Miserere).

Also of compositional interest are the canons to be found throughout the déploration tradition which feature prominently in its French exemplars—both Certon’s déploration of Sermisy (d 1562) and Mouton’s of Févin (d 1512) are built around duos in strict imitation. Not to be outdone, in the déploration of Sporer (d 1534), the German composer Heugel presents the cantus firmus—the same used by Ockeghem in the déploration of Binchois—as a three-part canon ornamented by four more voices. In such works, rendering homage to compositional tradition combines with paying tribute to an individual legacy to forge a sui generis musical rite of passage.

In some déplorations, such tributes take the form of emulating the style or mannerisms of the composer deplored (e.g. Armes amours / O flour des flours, wherein Andrieu imitates a passage from Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame). In others, they strike a distinctly agonistic tone. This is especially so in Nymphes des bois + Requiem which Josquin scores cleflessly, evoking Ockeghem’s tour de force Missa cuisvis toni, a melodic citation of which opens the déploration. Such symbolic citations were not atypical—Ockeghem’s déploration of Binchois opens with a melody adapted from the former’s own Missa pro defunctis.

3. Historical significance.

Déplorations appeared frequently in print during the 16th century, both as stand-alone works and in dedicated anthologies. Susato’s Septiesme livre with its threefold déploration of Josquin has already been mentioned. German musicians commemorated Othmayr (d 1553) with seven déplorations (the most honoring any composer of the tradition), six of which were published by Berg and Neuber in a single volume. Similarly, Willaert (d 1562) was deplored by five different composers, two of whose works were published in a commemorative edition by Gardano.

And yet, despite such mundane concerns, the ultimate lodestar for composers who upheld the déploration tradition was otherworldly. This is evident in the hallmark trait of every déploration—its pledge of fealty to a musical dynasty stretching back to time immemorial. The mythological figures called upon by poets of the déploration tradition to mourn the loss of servants to Musica personified thus answer not as inanimate symbols but as vital members of a perennial community.


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