Psalms - intro

Polyphonic Psalms
Psalms for Lute
Psalm 137

Musical settings of Marots Psalms


For recordings, scores and images, click here ||  en français

Marot’s Psalm versifications were picked up by sixteenth-century professional musicians, composers who made settings to it, even before they were printed officially (as happened to his chansons). Also: these musicians did not wait until a melody was proposed for the texts in Strasbourg or Geneva (which happened partially in 1539, 1541 and 1543). They simply took the text as it was and ‘made explicit the music sleeping inside the words’. It is only after 1545 (Pierre Certon) that polyphonic settings were published based on the Geneva melodies. For these settings by Loys (or Louis) Bourgeois, Claude Goudimel etc.. I refer to other internetsites where recordings abound.

Examples of these partitions can be found at my website dedicated to Psalms set to Music

ASIDE: The story about Francis's court composers competing with Charles's court composers in making music for Marot's Psalms in 1540 - Charles V passed through France on his way to Gent, and Marot is supposed to have offered him a copy of this Trente Pseaulmes - should be discarded as a propaganda legend. It's only source is a letter postdating the supposed events by 20 years (the so called 'Villemadon Letter'), which very well fits in the propaganda battle around the completion and publication of the complete Huguenot Psalter in 1562 (when this letter was published). What should alarm us as well is that there is not any contemporary reference to these happenings, although the journey of Charles V might well be the best covered event of the first half of the sixteenth century, both in official and in unofficial (private journals) documents. For this see Dick Wursten, Did Clément Marot really offer his Trente Pseaulmes to the Emperor Charles V in January 1540. Also alarming is that the first musical settings of Marot's Psalms made by a composer who can be linked to the French Court, dates from 1545/6 (Pierre Certon) and they are based on Geneva church melodies. Concerning the history and melodies of the Geneva Psalter (and Psalters of other places, generally referred to as the Huguenot Psalter), see Pierre Pidoux's work of reference (or my webpage dedicated to the man and is book).

Ps. 137: Estans assis aux rives acquatiques de Babylon plourions melancoliques…

That is the first one that caught the attention of a certain Abel, an otherwise unknown musician. he made a polyphonic setting of the entire text in three parts (4vv), which was published in Lyon in 1540.


Ps. 130: Du fons de ma pensée, au fond de mes ennuys...

This is the famous penitential Psalm, De profundis clamavi… (ps. 130). Enormously expressive in Latin, well known, and now available in the vernacular: not a cripple rhyming adaption from the original, but a true poem in French. Benedictus Appenzeller's version was published in 1542 in Antwerp. Appenzeller was court-composer of Mary of Hungary, whose court-chaplain, Piere Alexandre, supervised the first publication of versified French Psalms (mostly by Marot) in 1540 (printed by De Gois in Antwerp - no melodies, a 'tune' is suggested for the non-Marot texts: contrafacts).

His choice and example is followed by a plethora of composers, the first being: Gentian in 1544 (Lyon) and Pierre de Manchicourt in 1545 (Antwerp). In both cases it is not exactly the text as published by E. Roffet in 1541. They may have used a manuscript version, or one of the clandestine editions that appeared before the official. By the way, musicians were renowned for their sloppiness in dealing with texts. Even in 1564 Orlandus Lassus still use the ‘imperfect text’ of psalm 130 for his composition. I have gathered the first four musical settings of the Psalms. There may have been more, esp. in manuscript, but the harvest is already impressive since three out of these four are made by top composers of the time: Appenzeller, Manchicourt, Gentian.

  1. 1540 : Abel (unknown whether a real name, or a pseudonym):  ps. 137: Estans assis (Jacques Moderne, Parangon des chansons, siziesme livre, Lyon)[1]

  2. 1542 : Benedictus Appenzeller : Ps 130 : Du fons de ma pensée (Loys/Buus, chansons a 4 parties, Antwerpen)[2]

  3. 1544 : Gentian : Ps 130 : De fons de ma pensée (Jacques Moderne, le difficile des chansons, deuxiesme livre, Lyon)[3]

  4. 1545 : Pierre de Manchicourt : Ps 130 : Du fond de ma pensée (Tylman Susato, neufiesme livre, Antwerpen) [4]


Telling: the first ones were not in any way linked to the French court, but – if a court connection has to be the case – then they rather seem to have connections with the Habsburg court of the Netherlands (Appenzeller) and the Bishop of Tournai (Manchicourt).[5]


[1] Le parangon des chansons. Sixiesme livre : contenant xxv chansons nouvelles au singulier prouffit & delectation des musiciens. BM Music collections, K.10.a.9.(6)

[2] Superius [Contratenor/Ttenor/Bassus] Des chansons a quattre parties, composez par M. Benedictus: M. de la Chapelle de Madame la Regente, Douagiere de Honguerie. Appenzeller was court composer of Mary of Hungary. The print is very neat but oldfashioned (not the Attaingnant technique, but printed in two separate runs): BM Music Collections, K.4.f.5

[3] Le difficile des chansons. Second livre contenant xxxvi. Chansons nouvelles a quatre parties en quatre livres de la composition de plusieurs Maistres.  Of the four partbooks only three survive: Superius & Tenor are in the Bayerische Staatsbib; Altus in BnF (Fonds Goujet, Chantilly). On the occasion of the 14th C.A. Mayer memorial lecture, the lost Bassus was reconstructed/added by Willem Ceuleers.

[4] Le Neufiesme Livre des Chansons a quatre parties, auquel sont contenues Vingt et Neuf Chansons nouvelles, convuenables tant a la Voix comme aux Instrumentz. Composées par Maistre Pier de Manchicourt. Manchicourt had just become Choir Master in the cathedral of Tournai.: BM Music Collections, K.3.a.9

[5] One should be careful using geographical origins as style markers: What is Flemish? what is French? What is Italian?  Ockeghem was the court composer of Louis XII, Josquin worked mostly in Italy, and the Spanish emperor Charles V was born in Gent.