Goudimel’s Spare Music

Claude Goudimel (1514?-1572). Cheerful he wasn't(Photo: Louvre)
Claude Goudimel (1514?-1572). Cheerful he wasn't(Photo: Louvre)

I had a favorite LP growing up. (An LP is a long-playing record. Some of you will have to ask your parents.) The Boston Courts and Chapels of Renaissance France*. A lot of sanctity and plenty of nooky.

It was from this record, long out of print, wore out two copies, unavailable on CD, that I first heard the music of Claude Goudimel.

We think he was born around 1520. He was killed in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacres that overtook France in August of 1572. The Catholic nobility had begun shooting on crowds of Huguenots outside the Louvre in Paris-the violence spread between Catholics and Protestants. It was a blood bath.

Whatever his faith, Goudimel was a theologian, composer and music theorist famous in his lifetime.  His operatic death (see Meyerbeer, Les Huguenots if you have five hours to spare) would guarantee him a footnote in the history books. But as Monteverdi later reacted against the extravagances of music in his time, so did Goudimel write us spare settings with very close harmonies. Monteverdi wanted to express the word. Goudimel was expressing spirituality


was first among the Huguenot composers to insist that music must be sung by all. He was writing for communal worship and amateurs in the best sense. His anti-Catholic stance grew out of the separation for a Rome considered extravagant and overly secular. (The Pope had grandchildren, to say the least.) But if you must go from sacred to spare, Goudimel’ s music will soothe any spiritual journey.