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"Since music is a language with some meaning at least for the immense majority of mankind... and since it is the only language with the contradictory attributes of being at once intelligible and untranslatable, the musical creator is a being comparable to the gods, and music itself the supreme mystery of the science of man, a mystery that all the various disciplines come up against and which holds the key to their progress."

Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908), French anthropologist.

The term French Music is used here in its broadest cultural sense to include all geographical areas within the influence of the French language and some composers of non-French origin who worked in France.

The earliest French influence on Western music is found in the plainsong of the Christian Church. It is believed that Gregorian chant as it is known today is an 8th- or 9th-century Gallican interpretation of Roman chant, but it is difficult to distinguish the Gallican ornamentation from its Roman basis. pianistIt has been suggested that the basic idea of the trope (an interpolation in a preexistent chant) is Gallican and that the surviving body of medieval tropes and sequences had a French influence.

During the later Middle Ages France led in the development of European music in all its forms. Some of the earliest manuscripts containing organum (the earliest form of polyphony) are found from the 10th century in Chartres, Montpellier, Fleury, Tours, and other French cities. Especially important was the group of musicians active during the 10th and 11th centuries at the Abbey of St. Martial in Limoges. In the late 12th century a brilliant group of composers emerged who were associated with the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. The most notable of these were Leonin and Perotin. From this group came some of the earliest motets as well as a number of theoretical treatises on music.

Medieval secular music in France consisted almost entirely of the songs of the troubadours and trouveres, poet-musicians who flourished from the late 11th until the 13th century. Among them was the famous Adam de la Halle. They created such musical forms as the lai and the ballade (setting of a poem with the refrain at the end of each stanza). Active during the same period were the jongleurs, roving minstrels who performed the courtly love lyrics of the troubadours.

"Good music is very close to primitive language."

Denis Diderot (1713-84), French philosopher.

The music of the 14th century took its name, Ars Nova, from a treatise by Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361), who codified an improved system of musical notation. Vitry is credited by some scholars with the invention of the isorhythmic motet, one of the most important musical forms of the century. French horn playerGuillaume de Machaut (c.1300-1377), master of all 14th-century forms and the leading poet of his time, brought the medieval motet to its highest peak.

With the beginning of the Renaissance style in the 15th century, the center of musical activity shifted from Paris to Burgundy, then a separate state. Active there were Guillaume Dufay, Gilles Binchois, and the Englishman John Dunstable; all wrote in a new, expressive style. The chief musical forms of this period were the motet--now little resembling its medieval ancestor--and the cyclic mass.

By the late 15th century musical supremacy was taken over by Flemish musicians; never again was French music to dominate as it had during the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, many French composers were active during the Renaissance--for example, Jean Mouton (c.1475-1522) and Pierre Certon (c.1510-72)--but their music was overshadowed by that of the Flemish and Italians. The most important French contribution to the Renaissance was the chanson, a secular, polyphonic song, usually light in style. It was later adapted by the Italians into the keyboard canzona.

"I think no woman I have had ever gave me so sweet a moment, or at so light a price, as the moment I owe to a newly heard musical phrase."

Stendhal (1783-1842), French author.

The Reformation in France took the form of Calvinism, which allowed only the singing in unison of metrical French translations of the Psalms. The tunes composed by Louis Bourgeois (c.1510-c.1561) and others went with the Calvinist Psalter to Scotland and found their way into English hymnody where several still exist. Polyphonic settings of the Psalter tunes were composed for nonliturgical use by Claude Goudimel (c.1505-72) and Claude Le Jeune (1528-1600), but they had little impact on church music in general.

The 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were a time of Italian and German dominance in music. Opera was the ruling 17th-century form, and French composers wrote operas of a uniquely French type. Beginning with Balthasar de Beaujoyeux's Ballet comique de la reine (1580), French composers combined elements of opera, ballet, and spoken drama in a form sometimes called opera-ballet. The arias were simple and songlike, in contrast to the long, florid arias of Italian music, and the influence of Italian recitative is slight. guitaristThe foremost French operas in the 17th century were those of Jean Baptiste Lully and in the 18th century those of Jean Philippe Rameau. Ballet, spoken dialogue, and the absence of the Italian-style recitative-aria remained characteristic of French opera comique through the 19th century.

French harpsichord music of the baroque period was of high quality. It consisted mostly of suites of dance movements and short character pieces (often with descriptive titles) rather than the longer preludes and fugues, toccatas, and fantasias cultivated by the Germans. Representative composers were Jacques Champion de Chambonnieres, Louis Couperin, Francois Couperin, (see Couperin, family), and Rameau. All, but especially Francois Couperin, influenced the development of keyboard fingering and technique. Rameau also wrote theoretical treatises, and his theory of harmony has influenced the teaching of the subject to the present day. He was the first to introduce the clarinet into the orchestra, and it was adopted by the composers of the Mannheim school and by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Francois Joseph Gossec became the pioneer composer of symphonies in France. The period from about 1750 to 1850 was a fallow one in French music.

The turmoil of the Revolution and the Napoleonic wars did not encourage artistic activity. Nevertheless, during this time the Paris Conservatory and the national Opera were established. In the early 19th century, Paris was a center for musicians from other countries, such as Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt. Music by French composers consisted mostly of inferior operas or empty, virtuosic salon pieces. A notable exception were the works of Hector Berlioz, the greatest of the French Romantics, who expanded the orchestra and whose grand style influenced Richard Wagner.

"Before I compose a piece, I walk around it several times, accompanied by myself."

Erik Satie (1866-1925), French composer, pianist.

The late 19th century saw an increase of quality in French music. Camille Saint-Saens worked for the establishment of a French instrumental style based on the classical tradition, and Cesar Franck helped restore the quality of French organ and church music. The works of Georges Bizet, Charles Gounod, and Jules Massenet brought a new spontaneity and color to French opera. Impressionism, as seen in the music of Claude Debussy and the early works of Maurice Ravel, blossomed toward the end of the century. violinistThe movement, inspired by the work of French impressionist painters and poets, was anti-German and anti-Romantic in that it attempted to give music a more improvisatory character with subtle and understated coloristic effects. The body of "art songs" produced by Debussy, Ravel, Gabriel Faure, Henri Duparc, and others is outstanding.

Between the two world wars, French music--such as the later work of Albert Roussel--was often written in "neo-classical" style: it was direct, simple, and accessible. Erik Satie was a major composer of the time, as were several of the group of young musicians who gathered around him and were known as "Les Six": Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey.

The eclectic aspect of contemporary French music, which uses serialism, electronic music, and aleatory techniques, as well as Oriental and other non-Western modes, is largely due to the influence of composer Olivier Messiaen, who taught many of the major postwar composers, most notably Pierre Boulez.

William Hays, Associate Professor of Organ, Westminster Choir College, Princeton, N.J.
Source: 1997 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia v.9.0.1
Bibliography: Anthony, James R., French Baroque Music (1974; repr. 1981); Barzun, Jacques, Berlioz and His Century: An Introduction to the Age of Romanticism (1962; repr. 1982); Cazeaux, Isabelle, French Music in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries (1975); Cooper, Martin, French Music from the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Faure (1970); Cowart, Georgia, and Buelow, George J., eds., French Musical Thought, 1600-1800 (1989); Harding, James, The Ox on the Roof: Scenes from Musical Life in Paris in the Twenties (1972); Hillery, David, Music and Poetry in France from Baudelaire to Mallarme (1980); Locke, Arthur W., Music and the Romantic Movement in France (1920; repr. 1972); Myers, Rollo, Modern French Music from Faure to Boulez (1971; repr. 1984); Rosenberg, Samuel, and Tischler, Hans, eds., Chanter M'estuet: Songs of the Trouveres (1981); Rostand, Claude, French Music Today (1955; repr. 1973).

Music Links:

French Music Database
Anthony Patrick Lee has assembled a useful collection of resources on French music, including an interesting list of songs which were adapted from French to English (or vice versa) by popular recording artists.

Le Guide de Musique Online
An extensive database of all things musical in France, including Artists, Concerts & Festivals, Music E-zines, Schools & Instruction, and dozens more categories.

Jazz France
Derek Erb hosts this site on all aspects of jazz entertainment throughout France: concerts, festivals, clubs, TV and radio shows, magazines and more. (Visitors cannot turn off the endless loop music file on the entrance page, however, which can become annoying!)

WebRing: Groupes Rock Français
Jean-François Michaud offers a number of links to French rock groups.

Translate this page into French
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