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Louis Bourgeois (Composer)

Born: c1510-1515 - Paris, France
Died: 1559

The French composer and theorist, Louis [Loys, Loïs] Bourgeois [Bourgeoy, Bourgeoys, Bourgoys, Bourjois] is chiefly remembered for his contribution to the monophonic Calvinist Psalter in which he supervised, with others (including Guillaume Franc and Pierre Davantes), the adaptation of popular chansons and old Latin hymns as well as composing new melodies for the new metrical French translations of Clément Marot and Théodore de Bèze. He also published harmonizations of these psalm melodies in simple syllabic homophony for four voices and rather more elaborate versions for four voices or instruments. As the author of Le droict chemin de musique he adapted the traditional solmization system by giving the letter names of each note a new definition consistently following the soft–natural–hard hexachord order: thus C sol fa ut became C sol ut fa, G sol re ut became re sol ut etc.


Louis Bourgeois first appears as the composer of three four-voice chansons, published in Lyons by Moderne. On 14 July 1545 his name appears in the records of the Geneva council as a singer paid 60 florins a year to perform the new psalms and to teach the choristers at St Pierre. From December 1545 he was paid 40 florins to fulfil similar functions at the church of St Gervais, and thus received the full annual salary of 100 florins that had been accorded to his predecessor Guillaume Franc in 1543–1544. In April 1546, in collaboration with the city's preachers, he drew up a table announcing the psalms to be sung each Sunday, which was to be printed and posted on the church doors. In 1547 the Beringen brothers of Lyons published two collections of Bourgeois' four-voice settings of Marot’s psalms. In the same year he married, and on 24 May was granted Genevan citizenship; until November 1549 he lived in a house, provided by the city, which served as a choir school attached to St Pierre.

In April 1550 the council rewarded Louis Bourgeois for a ‘certaine feuille pour apprendre à chanter’, and in May Calvin authorized him to print a short music treatise at his own expense. On September 5, 1550 he was granted two months’ leave, but he was back in Geneva by the following January, requesting remuneration for ‘improving the psalm tunes’: these improvements may have been reflected in the 83 psalms translated by Marot (49) and Bèze (34) printed with melodies in Geneva by Jean Crespin in 1551 and reissued every year until 1554. At all events on 3 December 1551 Bourgeois was imprisoned for having, without a licence, ‘changed the tunes of some printed psalms’, an action troubling those who had learnt the old tunes that had already been printed. He was released the following day after Calvin's personal intercession, but the controversy continued: the council complained further that the faithful were disorientated by the new melodies, and ordered Crespin to burn the prefatory epistle to the reader in which Bourgeois claimed that not to sing was commination. In July 1552 a minister from Lausanne warned the Geneva council that his town might not accept Bourgeois' changes to the tunes of the old psalms by Marot or his settings of the more recent psalm translations of Bèze. The frustrated composer had also suffered from financial difficulties through the reductions in salaries from May 1551 paid to Genevan functionaries, and after being granted three months' leave in August 1552, to visit Lyons and Paris to publish his psalm settings, he did not return but requested a further eight-week extension. The council refused and terminated his employment. In May 1553 Bourgeois’ wife was paid five florins to join her husband in Lyons where, the following year, Beringen printed a revised and augmented edition of Bourgeois' first book of four-voice psalms. Around the same time the composer wrote a scathing attack on the ignorance of the publisher and musician Simon Gorlier, invoking the names of Layolle, Jambe de Fer, Roussel and other maîtres de chapelle to support his contention that it was advantageous to a good musician to study mathematics. In 1557 he was described as ‘maître musicien’ living in Lyons, but by May 1560 he had moved to Paris and his daughter Suzanne was baptized in the Catholic church of St Côme. Two months earlier Nicolas Du Chemin had printed Si je vivois deux cens mille ans, the first secular chanson by Bourgeois to appear in over 20 years.


The popularity of Louis Bourgeois' psalm settings persisted after his death, for Antoine Du Verdier (La bibliothèque d'Antoine Du Verdier, Lyons, 1585) mentioned Quatre-vingt-trois psaulmes de David (Paris, 1561). This volume, printed by Antoine Le Clerc, is now lost but was probably a revised version of the Lyons edition of 1554, expanded to include five-, six- and eight-voice pieces. Du Verdier explained that the psalm melody was in the tenor so that the amateur singer could join in at the unison or octave while the other parts were more elaborate, a scheme that epitomizes Bourgeois' role as a popularizing pedagogue, attempting to reconcile professional (and Catholic) polyphony with congregational (and Calvinist) monody. The meeting-point was homophony, illustrated by the 50 four-voice psalm settings ‘à voix de contrepoinct égal consonante au verbe’, published in Lyons by the Beringen brothers in 1547. The book’s dedicatory epistle faithfully echoes Calvin’s attitude to music, expressing disdain for ‘dissolute chansons’; yet it attempted to justify polyphony, or at least the addition of note-against-note harmony. The epistle also explains, somewhat apologetically, that a second volume is freer: this refers to Le premier livre des pseaulmes … en diversité de musique, also published by the Beringens in 1547. Of the 24 settings only three use the simple homophonic method of retaining the cantus firmus unaltered; 13 introduce paraphrase or parody techniques and eight completely abandon the orthodox Genevan melodies.

As maître des enfants at Geneva, Louis Bourgeois had to train choristers to lead congregational singing rather than to entertain a silent audience. However, his missionary zeal for music proved stronger than that for Calvinism and his Le droict chemin (Geneva and Lyons, 1550) was the first didactic manual in French on singing and sight-reading. Though indebted to Glarean, Gaffurius, Sebald Heyden, Frosch, Listenius, Ornithoparchus and others, the book showed considerable simplification in theory and practice, introduced the concept of solfège and abandoned the archaic Guidonian hand. It contains clear explanations and demonstrations of tactus, proportion, syncopation and even of the convention later known as notes inégales.

The Protestant administration in Switzerland did not generally favour instrumental music, mainly because of its ‘lascivious’ connection with dancing and secular entertainment. But Bourgeois was eager to establish its acceptability and insisted that the psalms of 1547, 1554 and 1561 were most suitable for instruments; moreover, according to the preface of Le droict chemin, he intended to write a book on instrumental performance.

Louis Bourgeois' early chansons comprise a courtly épigramme, Si par faveur, set in the manner of Sermisy, an erotic anecdote, Ung soir bien tard, in the more animated syllabic style of Janequin and a curiously late and extended example of a complete rondeau cinquain, Ce moys de may, with the entire text (including rentrements) underlaid. Here, as in many of the psalms, he showed a conservative predilection for modal harmony, but a freer and more adventurous attitude in his rhythm and in his preference for superius melodies over tenor ones.

Louis Bourgeois' precise contribution to the compilation, revision and composition of the orthodox melodies of the Huguenot Psalter (which evolved between 1539 and 1562) is difficult to assess, but documentary evidence in Genevan archives underlines his creative involvement in the 1551 version, now lost.

In creating his chorale/Psalm melody for the Geneva Psalm 42 “Ainsi que la biche rée” in his collection of Psalms in “Pseaumes octante trios de David” [Gene, 1551], Louis Bourgeois took a secular song “Ne l’oseray je dire” contained in “Manuscrit de Bayeux” (circa 1510) and transformed it into a sacred chorale/Psalm melody. This chorale melody Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele was used by J.S. Bach in many of his cantatas.


Source: Grove Music Online, © Oxford University Press 2005 (Author: Frank Dobbins)
Contributed by
Thomas Braatz (September 2005)

Chorale Melodies used in Bach’s Vocal Works





Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele



Genevan Psalter > Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir (not verified)


Mon Dieu preste moy l'aureille




Freu dich sehr = melody of ps. 42 in the Geneva Psalter
Composer of this melody = Louis (or Loys) Bourgeois.
First appeared in Geneva, Psaumes Octantetrois de David (83 Psalms of David) 1551.
[whether this melody is really based on a chanson, as you say – quoting Frank Dobbins, I doubt: the myth that the geneva Psalmtunes are based on chansons seems to be ineradicable]

Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir = melody of ps. 134 in the Geneva Psalter.
Composer of this melody = Louis (or Loys) Bourgeois.
First appeared in Geneva, Psaumes Octantetrois de David (83 Psalms of David) 1551.
[curious and complicating aspect: This tune is used in the ENGLISH Psalter for Psalm 100, and thus is known until today as ‘The Old Hundredth”

For this one you have to use the German text by Bach first:
Herr, nicht schicke deine Rache = melody of Ps. 86 in the Geneva Psalter (1543?).
Composer of this melody is unknown (but probably Guillaume Franc, the cantor of Geneva who preceded Louis Bourgeois).
The first appearance of this melody is in the Strasbourg Psalter of 1545, but the melody must have been present in the now lost 1543 edition of the Geneva Psalter. Bourgeois only amended (emended?) the melody afterwards.
Mon Dieu preste moy l'aureille = the French text of Psalm 86
The reference to Clément Janequin’s 4vv version of 1559 is a little gratuitous, since Janequin is only one of many who composed 2-3-4-6-8 voice music versions of the melodies of the Geneva Psalter. The first was Pierre Certon/Antoine MOrnable (1546), the most famous Claude Goudimel and Louis Bourgeois himself.

The German text ‘Herr, nicht schicke deine Rache” is a poetic transposition of Psalm 6, by
Martin Opitz (1637). He indeed used the melody of Ps. 86 (modernized).
BTW: it is much nicer in the original version.

Contributed by
Dick Wursten (November 22, 2011)

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