Susanne un jour


Musical settings of texts narrating the story of Susanna and the elders were among of the most popular tunes of the late Renaissance, above all in France. In particular the poem, Susanne un jour, by Guillaume Guéroult provided the text for at least 30 chansons by more than 20 different composers in addition to the most famous setting by Orlando di Lasso, and it provided the inspiration for songs in Dutch, German and English as well. The chanson by Lasso was subsequently converted into numerous instrumental versions across the breadth of Europe and over a span of several decades. These settings, as well as instrumental arrangements of vocal versions by other composers, demonstrate a wide variety of compositional techniques and styles. As a memorial to the late Suzanne Bloch, one of the founders and a past president of the Lute Society of America, we are endeavoring to collect here copies of or links to all of the 16th and 17th century songs and instrumental reductions based on that theme. Visitors to this page are invited to supply missing historical versions or to compose new settings and provide them through this medium to the lute-playing community and fellow lovers of Early Music.

Table of Contents

The Story

The events are recorded in the Greek additions to the Old Testament Book of Daniel; these additions are accepted as canonical by Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, but not by Protestants. In the Greek Septuagint, Latin Vulgate and Roman Catholic Bibles this material constitutes chapter 13 of Daniel. Most Protestants separate the material out as the Book of Susanna in the Apocrypha. In rabbinic Judaism, the story of Susanna was not received into the canon of Holy Scripture. Here is a synopsis:

The Jewish people had been exiled to Babylon, but their captors allowed them to retain their customs and laws. Two elders who had been appointed judges met to adjudicate disputes in a spacious and pleasant home, where Susanna lived with her husband and children. One day, the two licentious elders spied on Susanna bathing in her garden. Inflamed with lust, they tried to coerce her to lie with them, but the virtuous beauty said she would rather die than offend the Lord by committing adultery.

Infuriated, the elders claimed that they had seen Susanna lying with a young man in her garden. She was being led to the execution ground when the Holy Spirit inspired the young prophet Daniel to suggest that the elders be questioned separately. What sort of tree were Susanna and her lover lying under? When one named a mastic tree and the other an oak, Susanna was vindicated and the elders were dragged to execution.

The Poem

The poem first appeared in print in 1548 as the text of a chanson in the collection, Premier livre de chansons spirituelles, par Guillaume Gueroult, mises en musique à 4 parties par Didier Lupi second & aultres (Lyon, Beringen brothers, GIF, 528 KB). That original compilation was reprinted, with revisions, by du Chemin in Paris in 1559 and 1568. Guéroult also printed the poem in a different collection, Premier livre des Pseaumes, Cantiques et Chansons spirituelles: traduictz & composees, bonne partie par G. Gueroult, which appeared in Geneva in 1554 (GIF, 333 KB). This English translation is adapted from the one appearing in Nicholas Yonge’s Musica Transalpina, 1588.

Susanne un jour d'amour solicitée
Par deux viellardz, convoitans sa beauté,  
Fust en son coeur triste et desconfortée,
Voyant l’effort fait à sa chasteté.
Elle leur dict, Si par desloyauté
De ce corps mien vous avez jouissance,
C’est fait de moy. Si ie fay resistance,
Vous me ferez mourir en deshonneur.
Mais j’aime mieux périr en innocence,
Que d’offenser par peché le Seigneur.
Susanna faire, sometimes of love requested
By two old men whome her sweet looks allur'd
Was in her heart full sad & sore molested
Seeing the force her chastitie endur’d.
To them she said, if I by craft procur’d
Doe yield to you my body to abuse it,
I kill my soule, & if I do refuse it,
You will mee judge to death reproachfully.
But better tis in innocence to choose it,
Than by my fault t’offend my God on high.

Chansons and other vocal settings

The first musical setting of Guéroult’s poem, published in the 1548 Premier livre... (see above), seems to have been composed by Didier Lupi second.

Orlando di Lasso and a host of other composers followed, usually employing the tenor of the Lupi setting as a basis in some way. Lasso’s chanson is for five voices in the Dorian mode transposed to G and was published three separate times in 1560:

He used the tenor of Lupi’s chanson as a cantus firmus, but lengthened and adapted it so that Lasso's version ends up a third longer. The music of the first two lines of the poem (A: mm. 1 - 14) is repeated for the third and fourth lines (mm. 14 - 28), ending in a cadence on the tonic with a raised third. This sets off the new music (B) which portrays Susanne’s response to the elders in the last six lines. Another cadence on G comes at the break in the middle of the seventh line, “C’est fait de moy. Si je fay résistance/[this is done to me. If I resist].” At that point Lassus halts the music with a rest in all voices, and then underscores the words “If I resist” with homophony that moves to a cadence on the relative major.

A recording of the Lassus chanson performed by the Hilliard Ensemble under Paul Hillier is included in a 1984 EMI collection entitled Lassus, Motets and Chansons, available as a re-release on Virgin Veritas, 7243 5 61166 2 7 (1994).

A modern edition of the chanson by Orlando di Lasso, in PDF format:

Vocal settings by Claude le Jeune and Mithou (Thomas Champion) were also arranged into versions for lute.

A three-part chanson setting by Jean de Castro was published in 1569 in Louvain by Pierre Phalèse the elder in the Receuil des Fleurs prodvictes de la divine mvsiqve a trois parties. It was reprinted in 1582 in Antwerp by Pierre Phalèse the younger and Jean Bellère in the collection, Chansons, Madrigaux et Motetz a trois parties par M. Iean de Castro. The musical settings in the two prints are essentially the same and almost error-free, but there are quite a few inconsistencies in the text orthography and punctuation, both between the prints and among the parts of each individual print.

A modern edition of the Jean de Castro chanson in PDF format:

Original publications of the French chansons are catalogued in the Programme Ricercar of the Centre d’Études Supérieurs de la Renaissance.  Some of the listings include printed and/or manuscript concordances.

Transcriptions for Lute

A brief comparative study of some of the better-known lute arrangements of the Lasso chanson may be found in an article, “Intabulations of Orlande de Lassus’ Chanson Susanne un jour” by Caroline Usher, Christine Ballman and Ronn McFarlane, in the Lute Society of America Quarterly XXXVII No. 1, pp. 18 – 29.

—— • ——
—— • ——
—— • ——

Other Instrumental Versions

Two cittern arrangements of the Lassus chanson have survived. Over a dozen versions of it for keyboard are known, from prints and manuscript sources originating in Italy, Germany, England and the Iberian peninsula, with some of the prints also suggesting suitability for harp. It appears six times in the Italian diminution manuals; Giovanni Bassano and Orazio Bassani provide one version each, while Girolamo dalla Casa and Francesco Rognoni each gloss it twice.

MIDI Files


—— • ——

Acknowledgements:  We are particularly grateful to Christine Ballman for the use of material from her dissertation, Les Oeuvres de Lassus mises en tablature pour le luth. Catalogue, transcriptions, analyse, 2002, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. We appreciate also the contributions of Doug Towne, Mathias Roesel and Göran Crona to this page.

—— • ——
Last updated 25 October AD 2015 – DFH.