Janequin on Broadway? Certainly! Why-Ever Not? 

Guest post written by Rolf Norsen, stage director, dramatist and author of Clément Janequin: French Composer at the Dawn of Music Publishing.

It is perhaps no great mystery why a theater person like myself would be drawn to the works of Clément Janequin. He is, after all, theatrical to a fault, with his chirping birds, barking dogs, befuddled munks, charging stallions and a whole gallery of cackling ladies pilloring their respective husbands in the town square. 

It is perhaps less obvious why a dedicated man of the theater felt the necessity (and had the temerity) to abandon the relative safety of temperamental actors, whimsical audiences and petulant critics for the imminent dangers of archival impenetrability, paleographic perversity and academic idiosyncrasy.  

A clue about this can perhaps be traced back to some of my efforts as a dramatist, in working with plays about historical figures – like the libretto I wrote for Glenn Erik Haugland’s opera about Norwegian authors Hulda and Arne Garborg, or the open-air show I wrote about Norwegian women’s rights pioneer Sara Oust. When working with historical figures, much of what gets presented will of necessity be invented – none of us were around in 1801 when Sara told the sheriff to sod off, and he in his wisdom found it appropriate only to record that she had done so, and not what she actually said. Thus, putting the historical Sara on stage means putting words in Sara’s mouth. But in doing so, I really do want the words I put in Sara’s mouth to be not just possible, and not just plausible, but preferably eminently probable! And there’s the rub – how to know the difference? The answer? Research. Lots of research! No-stone-unturned-in-depth-and-never-give-up research! 

So now you see the connection. A convinced quartet singer from almost the cradle, I inevitably discovered Janequin and got hooked, at which point I wanted to know, no, I needed to know: who was this guy and what was he trying to do and why did he write the way he did? Where did he put the twist in this chanson? How much theatricality should we add to make this stuff shine? That much? Wow! Maybe there is a shot at Broadway? Or better yet, thousands of local Broadways, wherever telling good stories in four-part harmony is on the table! 

Happily, I am, in all this, helped by my not entirely misspent youth. Before I fell in with that rowdy crowd who are not buried in hallowed ground (theater people), much of my early life was in fact spent in the choir loft, even so far as a degree in choral conducting with Olaf Christiansen and advanced degrees in music with Marc Honegger and Alejandro Planchart. So I am not entirely unacquainted with footnotes, hemidemisemiquavers and Willi Apel, and yes, there are footnotes, and scholarly quibbles with Willi and others, and turgid bits of hefty analysis. 

But at the end of the day, helping folks to have fun making music was the goal. It says as much in the book’s preface: The absolutely optimal employment of the volume will be one where time after time it is thrust to one side by singers eager to try out yet another of Clément Janequin’s vocal adventures. 

ROLF NORSEN is a choral conductor, stage director, and dramatist based in Norway and Italy. He is the author of several plays (in Norwegian) two opera librettos and I Manoscritti Musicali del Duomo del Castelfranco Veneto.

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