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Claude LE JEUNE (1528/30 - 1600)
Mon Dieu me paist
Claude GOUDIMEL (c1505-1572) / Claude LE JEUNE
Psalm 134: Or sus serviteurs du Seigneur [2:20]
Psalm 23: Mon Dieu me paist [1:10]
Psalm 23: Mon Dieu me paist [7:05]
Loys BOURGEOIS (1510/15-1559)
Psalm 45: Propos exquis [1:01]
Psalm 45: Propos exquis [19:00]
Psalm 76: C'est un Judée [0:55]
Psalm 76: C'est un Judée [12:56]
Psalm 46: Dés qu'adversité [11:30]
Le Cantique de Simeon [1:23]
The Choir of St Catherine's College, Cambridge/Edward Wickham
rec. 2017, Chapel of St Catherine's College, Cambridge
Texts and translations included

The commemoration of the Reformation of 1517 took place last year. Part of the celebrations of this event were performances of music connected to it. Obviously, as 1517 was the year in which Martin Luther published his 95 theses, most attention has been given to the music which came into existence in Germany and other Lutheran parts of Europe. However, some performers also paid attention to the Calvinist Reformation, initiated by John Calvin. Its main influence in music is the so-called Huguenot or Genevan Psalter. This collection of Psalms is still used in those parts of the world where Calvinist thinking left its mark, such as the Netherlands, Switzerland and among communities of former Calvinist immigrants in northern America and Australia.

With his Huelgas Ensemble Paul Van Nevel devoted a disc to “The Ear of the Huguenots” (review). His programme included music by several composers who lived in the time of the Reformation, and were either its supporters or its opponents. Among the former was Claude Le Jeune, one of the major composers in France in the late renaissance. The present disc is largely devoted to his arrangements of Psalms from the Genevan Psalter.

Le Jeune was born in Valenciennes, then part of the Imperial Low Countries, where he may also have received his first musical education. Otherwise nothing is known about his formative years. In 1552 four chansons from his pen were included in anthologies which were published in Leuven. The Dix Pseaumes de David were his second publication, printed in Paris in 1564. It was dedicated to François de la Noue and Charles de Téligny, two Huguenots who acted as his patrons. In his preface he doesn’t hide his Calvinist convictions, referring to the “dark and distressing times seen during the past troubles”. Here he undoubtedly refers to the massacre of Protestants worshipping at Vassy in 1 March 1562, an event which is mentioned by Tom Hamilton in his booklet essay on the religious conflicts in France during the second half of the 16th century. Le Jeune expressed his wish to “praise and give thanks through some works of his art” and stated that he couldn’t think of “a more worthy manner of serving this end than certain psalms of the divine poet and prophet David”. The collection ends with a Dialogue a scept on a text by the Huguenot theologian Théodore de Bèze.

Whereas in his Dix Pseaumes de David Le Jeune chose the versifications by De Bèze but ignored the melodies of the Genevan Psalter, the settings of the twelve psalms in his collection Dodecacorde, which was published in 1598 in La Rochelle, are based on those tunes. The texts are from the pen of De Bèze and of Clément Marot, another poet who was responsible for the versifications of the Psalms included in the Huguenot Psalter. They are set for two to seven voices; the psalm melody moves from one voice to the other within a psalm, but is mostly in either soprano or tenor, and sung in long note-values.

They are different from the rather simple harmonizations of, for instance, Claude Goudimel, some of which are included here as introductions to the settings by Le Jeune. The latter was strongly influenced by the theories of the poet Jean-Antoine de Baïf, who had developed a new poetic style, called vers mesurés à l’antique, based – as the term suggests – on the model of the classical antiquity. In this style “word stress and syllable length were conscientiously reproduced in passages of musical declamation”, as Edward Wickham states in his liner-notes. He sees a similarity between the use of the psalm melodies in Le Jeune’s psalm settings and the incorporation of a cantus firmus in the Catholic sacred music of his time. “But in no other respect does this music resemble the sacred polyphony of Le Jeune’s Catholic musical contemporaries. The style is much more that of the Italian madrigal and the French chanson of the late-sixteenth century (...)”. The influence of the Italian madrigal has given food to speculations that Le Jeune may have travelled to Italy in the early stages of his career, but there is no documentary evidence of this.

The influences of madrigal and chanson manifest themselves in Le Jeune's treatment of the text. Sometimes the entry of the psalm tune is delayed in order to give the other voices the opportunity to dwell on some parts of the text and to depict them. Wickham gives several examples in his liner-notes. As a result there is much more differentiation within a single psalm setting than one might expect in a strophic piece based on a chorale melody which always remains the same. This differentiation sometimes also concerns the form: in Psalm 45 (Propos exquis), for instance, one of the stanzas is strictly homophonic, whereas all the others are set polyphonically.

Where were these pieces performed in Le Jeune's time and the decades after their publication? Because of their sophisticated character they were certainly not intended for worship. One may assume that they were sung in the intimacy of homes of Protestants from the higher echelons of society, who were musically and literally educated and may even have had their own musicians to perform such pieces. However, the political situation also prevented public performances of music based on the Huguenot Psalter. Tom Hamilton refers to the Edict of Nantes, signed by King Henry IV in 1598, “which reprised the terms of previous edicts in creating a legal framework for religious toleration, allowing the Protestants the privilege of worship and protection at designated sites across France”. But, he adds, “toleration here did not mean ‘tolerance’ in the modern, post-Enlightenment sense of the term. Protestants did not have equal rights.”

From that perspective the performance by a mixed choir of 27 voices is historically unfounded. Such a choir is probably larger than any vocal ensemble Le Jeune and his contemporaries may have ever seen or heard. Musically such a large group is also unsatisfying as it compromises the intelligibility of the text. Moreover, the psalm tunes are very hard to follow if they are in one of the lower voices. Only in a few cases is the psalm tune in the upper voice.

That said, I greatly appreciate this recording of four Psalms from Le Jeune’s collection. So far his Dodecacorde has been largely ignored, which is hard to understand considering the quality of these settings. The Choir of St Catherine’s College is undoubtedly a fine ensemble, and the singing is excellent throughout. I also applaud Wickham’s decision to use historical pronunciation. The inclusion of the tunes, mostly in simple harmonizations, is also most welcome: it helps to identify the psalm tunes, which most music lovers are not familiar with, and also demonstrates the intrinsic quality and beauty of the melodies of the Genevan Psalter.

This may not be the ideal interpretation of Le Jeune’s psalms, but I strongly urge anyone who wants to expand his knowledge of late renaissance music to add this disc to his collection. Let’s hope more of this part of the repertoire will be performed and recorded in the years to come.

Johan van Veen



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