What constitutes popular song? This seems an unlikely question to raise in connection with chansonniers copied in the Loire Valley during the later decades of the fifteenth century. But in fact it was a special preoccupation with France's popular musical heritage that led to the discovery in the nineteenth century of the largest two such manuscripts——the Laborde and Dijon Chansonniers. A government-sponsored search for materials emblematic of national identity was directly responsible, in 1857, for bringing the Laborde Chansonnier to light. Although this manuscript was deemed ““unable to qualify for the distinction of popularity,”” when the Dijon Chansonnier emerged——at approximately the same time——there was a scholarly consensus regarding its popular contents.
Since ancient popular songs were believed to represent the indigenous heritage of the French people, the ““Frenchness”” of the songs unearthed was of paramount importance. But as many of the composers found in the Loire Valley chansonniers were born in areas under Burgundian control, their Frenchness was not self-evident.
The earliest explorations of the formes fixes chanson repertory were made as part of the search for the true songs of the people. Later scholars rejected the idea that polyphonic art songs, composed by known individuals, could be part of a popular song tradition. But in focusing on the composers in these manuscripts, rather than the artifacts themselves, they divorced this repertory from its historical context. In the 1920s, a group of scholars working in Paris offered a broader approach, one that considered the manuscripts as art objects in their own right. The pioneering work of these scholars suggested a type of inquiry that remains relevant today.
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