Le Jeune was one of the leading French composers of his day, and one of the most unusual figures in Renaissance music. He was born in Valenciennes, and soon became a major figure in Parisian intellectual circles. He was a confirmed Huguenot, and as such often forced to change locations quickly, as in the Paris uprising of 1589. He was also a prominent member of the Academy of Antoine de Baif, dedicated to the reform of music and poetry in the manner of "musique mesuree a l'antique." However, Le Jeune's was not entirely a fringe position: he was awarded the posts "master composer" and later "Master of the King's Music" by Henry IV, and also enjoyed the patronage of such nobles as William of Orange and the Duke of Anjou. In keeping with his time, Le Jeune was a man of many interests, and these are reflected in his compositions.
Le Jeune's surviving output (much of it published during and shortly after his lifetime) is substantial: numerous secular chansons, a huge number of Protestant psalm settings, a dozen or so Latin motets, a Magnificat, a mass, and three instrumental fantasias (landmarks in the genre). His musical style employs a wide variety of resources, including archaic contrapuntal practices such as isorhythm, melismatic hocket, mensural complexities, and canon. Added to these antiquarian concerns are madrigalian features of word painting, Italian ideas on double choir writing and advanced harmony, and most conspicuously the "musique mesuree." This last aspect consists of setting poetic texts with rhythmic values based on the individual syllabic content of the words, and represents a retreat from the advance of barred notation; such an approach would have likely died an even quicker death had it not been for Le Jeune's considerable compositional talents. Such devices are found in abundance in his secular works, but also make an entrance in his sacred music. Somehow, Le Jeune manages to synthesize these various resources into a style of great depth and subtlety, making him one of the most gifted composers of his age.
Le Jeune's sacred music consists mainly of his more than three hundred Huguenot psalms, but also includes fine Latin settings. That, as a Protestant, he would have undertaken these compositions probably reflects not only his historical concerns, but his humanitarian concerns as well. His Magnificat and motets are among his most ambitious, varied and effective works. They make use of all the compositional techniques mentioned above, resulting in an amazing synthesis of the divergent styles of Franco-Flemish polyphony and Italian text setting, as well as a profoundly erudite depth of feeling and spirituality. Le Jeune's large "Missa ad Placitum" is one of the most substantial examples of the period, and unusual for being freely composed. It maintains Le Jeune's typical density, while indulging in various vocal combinations and subtle inter-connections between crossing lines; the handling of large-scale form is especially impressive, often involving carefully prepared climaxes in homophonic declamations. The tumultuous times in which he lived prevented Le Jeune from gaining much acclaim - his complicated style disappeared shortly after his death - but his music is currently being rediscovered, showing us some of the most compelling combinations of old-fashioned and novel ideas in the history of Western music. ~ Todd McComb (6/94)