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. It 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
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. Guillaume 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
"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. The 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.
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. The 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
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
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).