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Saturday morning quote #44: Mignonne allons

March 24, 2012

“He on his learned Lute
such verse doth play,
As Phoebus should thereto
his fingers lay.”

-Essays of Montaigne, Second Booke, ch xxxiv  (John Florio’s translation)

As most readers of this blog know, our specialty is performing music from the 16th century for voice and lute.  We are blessed with a surviving historical repertory for this combination that is quite extensive, much of which is very high quality music that needs nothing more to appeal to our 21st century ears than understanding in interpretation and sensitivity in performance.

But the more we live with our chosen repertory, the more we realize that the surviving written scores only reveal the tip of the iceberg.  There is abundant evidence that demonstrates the art of songwriting in the 16th century was much the same phenomenon it is today.  But both the literary and musical materials were significantly more sophisticated then.  This may seem counter-intuitive if we consider historical development as a linear progression of increasingly greater, more detailed and more elaborate knowledge and technology. But is the availability and use of technology truly an indicator that literature and music of 21st-century is more sophisticated?  I think not.

When comparing what survives from the 16th century with what we see today, I would propose that our collective use of and dependence upon technology has resulted in less sophistication in literary and musical arts.  One might argue that the half a millennium of accumulated literary exemplars and the extended harmonic language available to composers today is more sophisticated.  But I would answer with the questions: Is is any more convincing?  Does it more effectively stir our passions?  Who can say?

Nevertheless, we as performers always strive to meld our understanding of music of the 16th century with musical conventions of a more timeless nature; interpreting historical music as though it were newly written and using the materials and devices available to 16th century composers.

One of our most popular numbers is our setting of a wonderful poem by Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585), ‘Mignonne allons voir si la rose,’ from his Ode à Cassandre.  While there is a very effective four-voice setting by Guillaume Costeley (1531 – 1606), our source for the chanson is Recueil de chansons en forme de voix de ville by Jehan Chardavoine (1576), where it appears as a single unharmonized melody line. In the absence of a harmonized accompaniment, others who have performed and recorded the chanson have used a simple drone or doubling of the melody on an instrument, an effective treatment of the haunting melody.

But we felt there was something more to it.

Our unique version emerged at the time we were researching the genesis of the French air de cour on one quiet candlelit evening when we were living in a log cabin without electricity in a remote area of the Siskiyou Mountains. Tapping into our understanding of historical performance practice and our practical musical skills, our arrangement emerged from singing and playing what was in our hearts and fingers when it was otherwise too dark to see written music.

It turns out that Adrian Le Roy first used the term airs de cour to describe his settings of the poetry of Ronsard and others in his Livre d’airs de cour (1571). In his settings of Ronsard’s poetry, Le Roy frequently employed dance-like harmonizations of recognizable grounds (familiar sets of chord changes), and we discovered that the tune from Chardavoine works well with minor adjustments to Le Roy’s Passemeze ground (1568, f.17v). Since LeRoy set several other poems by Ronsard in a similar manner, we feel our arrangement is both historically justifiable and eminently listenable.  You can find it on our CD Divine Amarillis.

Mignonne allons voir si la rose

Mignonne, allons voir si la rose
Qui ce matin avoit disclose
Sa robe de pourpre au soleil
A poinct perdu ceste vespree
Les plis de sa robe pourpree.
Et son teinct au votre pareil.

Las! Voyez comme en peu d’espace,
Mignonne, elle a dessus la place,
Helas! ses beautes laisse choir!
Ha vrayment marastre est nature.
Puis qu’une telle fleur ne dure
Que du matin jusques au soir.

Donc, si vous me croyez, Mignonne,
Tandis que vostre aage fleuronne
En sa plus verde nouveaute,
Cueillez, cueillez vostre jeunesse:
Comme a ceste fleur la vieillesse
Fera ternir vostre beute.

-Pierre de Ronsard

Let us go, my dear
Let us go, my dear, and see whether the rose
Which this morning uncovered
Its purple garment to the sun
Has now at evening
Lost any of the folds of that garment,
Or any of its color that resembles your own

But see, alas! How in so brief a time,
My dear, the rose has let fall
Its beauties upon the ground.
Nature is truly a wicked stepmother
If such a flower lasts only
From morning till night.

So then, my dear, if you believe me:
While your time of life is in bloom
In its freshest green,
Go and harvest your youth;
For as with this flower, old age
Will wither your beauty.

  1. For as with this flower, old age… Old age what? Looks like we lost the last part of the post!

  2. Beautiful! No doubt the tune was originally conceived to be sung to a ground. Compare the much less sophisticated 3 chords most pop and folk tunes use.

  3. wolfgang w. permalink

    dear donna, dear ron,
    thanks a lot for this song. it is always a pleasure to hear your version and another pleasure to sing and play it!
    ilona and wolfgang

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