Biographical note

Louis Bourgeois

(b Paris, c1510–15; d1559). The article in my Grove's [Frank Dobbins] is outdated. So I compiled a new one, based on it...

French composer and music theorist. He is chiefly remembered for his contribution to the Calvinist Psalter for which he composed a large amount of melodies (for the new Psalms of Théodore de Bèze - 1551 onwards). He also revised the melodies of his predecessor, Guillaume Franc, who had supplied the melodies for the Psalms of Marot  in earlier editions of this hymnbook. These were almost all new melodies, only some 'inherited from the Strasbourg Psalter 1539. NB: no popular tunes, a 19th century idea, completely obsolete). In 1547 he published harmonizations of these psalm melodies in simple syllabic homophony for four voices (Pseaulmes cinquante...) and more elaborate versions for four voices or instruments (Le premier livre des Pseaulmes...), sometimes citing the melody, sometimes completely free, as a 'Psalm motet in French'. Some examples in the catalogue. As the author of Le droict chemin de musique he adapted the traditional solmization system. From a 1554 augmented and revised edition only the bassus partbook survived.


Bourgeois first appears as the composer of chansons in Lyons: 5e livre du Parangon des chansons (Jacques Moderne, 1539). On 14 July 1545 his name appears in the records of the Geneva council as a 'cantor' to perform the new Psalms and to teach the choristers at St Pierre (who were the 'precantors' in Church). 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 (see below for the full titles). 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. On 5 September 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 concern a number of melodies for the 49 Psalms (composed by Guillaume Franc). They were published together with the first new Psalms (texts by Bèze) in 1551 (Geneva (Jean Crespin): 83 Psalms. This 'revision' was not well received by the people. Bourgeois was imprisoned for having, 'without a licence changed the tunes of some printed psalms’. [In the  preface Bourgeois explains explicitly what  changes he made and why - a copy of this edition was rediscovered in 1973. Read the full text of this very instructive preface from 1551 ] Bourgeois was released the following day after Calvin's personal intercession. The  composer  suffered  financial difficulties and the working relationship further deteriorated. He went to Lyons and Paris to publish his psalm settings. In May 1553 Bourgeois’ wife was paid five florins to join her husband in Lyons where, the following year, the Beringen brothers (Lyons) printed a revised and augmented edition of Bourgeois' first book of four-voice psalms. 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 (1560), the first secular chanson by Bourgeois to appear in over 20 years.

Works (Psalms)

  • Pseaulmes cinquante de David … mis en musique ... à quatre parties, à voix de contrepoinct égal consonante au verbe (Lyon : Godefroy & Marcelin Beringen, 1547)
  • Le Premier livre des pseaulmes de David contenant XXIIII pseaulmes ... en diversité de musique, à sçavoir, familiere, ou vaudeville ; aultres plus musicales, et aultres à voix pareilles, bien convenables aux instrumentz (Lyon : Godefroy & Marcelin Beringen, 1547)
  • Pseaulmes LXXXIII de David ... dont quelques-uns paravant imprimés ont esté reveus, & les autres de nouveau mis en musique familiere bien consonante aux instrumentz musicaulz, entre lesquels vous en avez XXXIIII à voix pareilles, le tout à quatre parties... (Lyon : Godefroy Beringen, 1554. (only the partbook Bassus is conserved)

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The Musician 

Bourgeois, the Geneva cantor and 'inventeur des mélodies' was a professional musician and an able composer of polyphonic music. Capable of much more than a simple 4vv setting.

Just listen to the two examples below.

Psalm 38

Las! En ta fureur aiguë..
This less known penitential Psalm (set to music by Bourgeois) is sung by the Ensemble Clément Janequin, dr. Dominique Visse. A motet (1547), no reference to the Genevan melody. [A scan of the score in the catalogue]. Also one of Marot's finest poems.

CD: Psaumes et chansons de la Réforme, Ensemble Clément Janequin, HMC 901672

Psalm 130

Du fond de ma pensée.
A not too difficult, but still effective and expressive (imitative counterpoint) setting of this Psalm, sung by the Ensemble Lucidarium.

CD: Le droict chemin, Lucidarium. ED13126/HM87