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Books, Readers, and the Chanson in Sixteenth-Century Europe

Kate van Orden

Publication Date - July 2015

ISBN: 9780199360642

344 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

Retail Price to Students: $68.00

The first music history written from the perspective of print culture


Ephemeral, fragile, often left unbound, sixteenth-century songbooks led fleeting lives in the pockets of singers and on the music desks of instrumentalists. Constantly in action, they were forever being used up, replaced, or abandoned as ways of reading changed. As such they document the acts of early musicians and the practices of everyday life at the unseen margins of elite society.

Materialities is a cultural history of song on the page. It addresses a series of central questions concerning the audiences for written music by concentrating on the first genre to be commercialized by music printers: the French chanson. Scholars have long stressed that chansons represent the most broadly disseminated polyphony of the sixteenth century, but Materialities is the first book to account for the cultural reach of the chanson across a considerable cross-section of European society.

Musicologist Kate van Orden brings extensive primary research and new analytical models to bear in this remarkable history of songbooks, music literacy, and social transformation during the first century of music printing. By tracking chansons into private libraries and schoolrooms and putting chansonniers into dialogue with catechisms, civility manuals, and chapbooks, Materialities charts the social distribution of songbooks, the gradual moralization of song, and the ways children learned their letters and notes. Its fresh conclusions revise several common assumptions about the value early moderns attributed to printed music, the levels of literacy required to perform polyphony, and the way musicians did or did not "read" their songbooks.

With musical perspectives that can invigorate studies of print culture and the history of reading, Materialities is an essential guide for musicologists working with original sources and historians of the book interested in the vocal performances that operated alongside print.


  • The first music history written from the perspective of print culture
  • Offers new perspectives on the consumption of printed music during the Renaissance
  • Considers the provenance and uniqueness of individual printed music books

About the Author(s)

Kate van Orden specializes in cultural history. Her books include Music, Discipline, and Arms in Early Modern France (2005), which won the Lewis Lockwood Award from the American Musicological Society, the edited volume, Music and the Cultures of Print (2000), and Music, Authorship, and the Book in the First Century of Print (2014). She performs on historical bassoons and has recorded for Sony, Virgin Classics, Glossa, Teldec, and Harmonia Mundi. She is a professor of music at Harvard University.


"The study is characteristic of Kate van Orden's subtle, erudite negotiations between literary history and music history. It is full of insights relevant not just to musicologists but to anyone interested in the history of books in the early modern period. It navigates impressively between reflections likely to engage literary historians and explanations of musical material made accessible, with exemplary clarity and without simplification, to non-musicians. The examples, musical as well as visual and literary, are well chosen and analysed."--H-France

From its image on the jacket cover to its endorsements on the back, Kate van Orden's Materialities promises 'to have resonance well beyond the fields of musicology and French Cultural History' ( Jennifer Richards). As a companion to her 2014 Music, Authorship, and the Book in the First Century of Print, Van Orden has produced erudite material for scholars wishing to know more about the production of music books, how they were read and used in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Over the past decade or so, material culture has become a subsidiary discipline of Renaissance studies, particularly in art history and Italian language and literature. Van Orden's work breaks new ground in the field of musicology." --Renaissance Quarterly

Table of Contents

    List of Illustrations
    1- Introduction: Livres de chansons
    What Is a Book of Music? Some Bibliographic Basics
    Forms and Formats
    Serial Publication
    Unbound Parts and Binder's Volumes
    Book History, Music Bibliography, and the Chanson
    2- Printers and Booksellers
    Partbooks as Scripts for Performance
    Distribution en blanc
    Music Sales and Some Evidence of Stock Bindings
    3- Collectors and Libraries
    Music in Private Collections
    Music Collections Small and Large
    Survival Rates
    Books in the Cabinet
    Chansonniers and Chapbooks of Poetry
    4- Singing and Literacy
    5- Latin Primers
    Ave Maria and the ABCs
    The Catechists and the Canons
    Motets and Broad Readership
    6- Civilities and Chansons
    Learning to Read in French
    The Caractères de Civilité for Music of Robert Granjon
    Polite Speech and Its Texts
    Trophées de Musique
    Duo Arrangements and Déchiffrage
    7- A New Generation of Musical Civilities: The Quatrains de Pybrac
    Pibrac's Quatrains and Moral Restraint
    Pibrac, the Psalms, and the Business of Music Printing
    Postscript- Cultures of Music

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