Among the great composers of his age (for example, Isaac, Josquin, Taverner, Willaert, Morales), Clément Janequin looms as something of a sport, a master storyteller, an audacious joker, a lover of the bawdy anecdote, an imperishable tone poet, a keen observer who turned street cries to music through the medium of the chanson.
While his contemporaries practiced flowing contrapuntal austerities and exquisite charm, Janequin's onomatopoeic glees are alive with a sensation of the actual that lends him a close kinship to his great contemporary, François Rabelais, and has kept his music in performance from his time to now. Ezra Pound traced Janequin's art to a sensibility born with troubadour poet Arnaut Daniel, embodying so vivid a line that the famous Chant des oiseaux in Gerhart Münch's transcription for solo violin (reproduced as the body of Pound's Canto LXXV) retained the geste "not of one bird but of many." And yet, despite the enormous international avidity for his work, his life is sparsely documented and remains largely conjecture. He may have been a pupil of Josquin's as his work is grounded in masterly contrapuntal technique. From 1505 he was known to have been in the service of Lancelot de Fau, a well-appointed man-of-affairs who became Bishop of Luçon in 1515, and who seems to have retained Janequin until his death in 1523. In that year, Janequin is found in the service of Jean de Foix, Bishop of Bordeaux, who employed him in a number of minor and poorly remunerative clerical posts, which establish his admission to the priesthood. Janequin's work is known to have circulated in manuscript as early as 1520, while the four volumes of chansons issued by Paris publisher Pierre Attaingnant in the 1530s spread his fame across Europe. One of Janequin's most remarkable, effective, and popular chansons, Guerre, was composed to celebrate Francis I's victory over the Swiss at the Battle of Marignan in 1515. That monarch's passage through Bordeaux in 1530 was marked by the almost equally tumultuous Chantons, sonnons trompettes. In 1532 he appears in Angers among a circle in thrall to Clément Marot, whose verses Janequin set. In 1548 he is inscribed as a student of the university at Angers, probably as a prerequisite to further promotion, and in 1549 as a student of the university of Paris. In the 1550s he entered the service of Henri II as chanter ordinaire du roi and, at last, compositeur ordinaire du roi.