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An Interesting and Brief History of the Evolution of French Music

A Brief History of the Evolution of French Music
Ranked among the top 5 music industries in the world, French music has entranced and entertained many over the centuries. Some of the most famous musicians and artists have originated from France.
Gaurav Athavale
Last Updated: Aug 6, 2017
Fast Fact
One of the earliest known French songs is the 'Le Carillon de Vendôme', which was composed during the 15th century. It has been named after the town of Vendôme, and describes some matters involving the Treaty of Troyes, wherein the French King Charles VII got control of a few cities like Vendôme, Orleans, Bourges, etc.
Originating during the medieval period, French music consists of a myriad varieties and sub-types, ranging from traditional folk to opera, and classical to electronic. The troubadours brought a lot of development regarding song composition; they were originally poets who sang in the Occitan language, and the songs revolved mainly around love and chivalry. During the beginning of the 13th century, a composition type called 'motet' was developed by the minstrel musicians who played during their long travels. Subsequently, other styles began to emerge slowly, like the Ars Subtilior and Ars Nova, which quickly became famous.

The Notre Dame School, which was located in Paris during the early 12th and 13th centuries, was a contributing factor for much of the oldest known French music notations. French music underwent a major change during the Renaissance period, most notably between the 15th and 18th centuries. During this period, the region of Burgundy was a hub of musical activities, and this gave rise to the Burgundian and Franco-Flemish styles of compositions. The following sections elaborate on the different kinds of French music and their evolution.
Timeline of the Different Types of French Music
Medieval Era Music
In the 13th century, Pérotin and Léonin were two musicians from the Notre Dame School. They came up with a book called Magnus Liber Organi, which recorded most of the composition styles and various other aspects related to the music of that time. Instruments like the flute, lute, vielle, etc., were used extensively during this period. In this era, the composition style was very simple, and it started growing gradually as its influence began to spread to other European regions. The notes and words were usually written on parchment papers, and the song contents referred to war, love, chivalry, etc. The song structures were predictable, and they created a base for the development of the other types of music in the latter centuries. The following styles became famous during this era.
Characterized by distinct musical portions with words, the motet style originated mainly from the Notre Dame School, and consisted of a fixed rhythm of the associated songs. Over the years, the rhythm pattern began changing, and was repeated in a cyclic manner. Some of the most popular musicians who played motets were Philippe de Vitry, Johannes Ciconia, Petrus de Cruce, etc.
Medieval troubadour
Although the beginning of the troubadours is controversial, it is said that they first originated from France around the 12th century, and then spread across the world subsequently. The first known songs that were composed by a troubadour belonged to Guilhèm de Peitieus, who also was the Duke IX of Aquitaine. A female troubadour was called a trobairitz.
Ars Nova, Ars Antiqua, and Ars Subtilior
Ars Nova originated after the spread of the troubadours around the 14th century, and it changed the entire scenario of rhythm playing in the French regions. Compared to it, Ars Antiqua had a similar structure, which was popular in the earlier years of the thirteenth century, but also had the addition of repeated rhythm sequences. As the notations became more and more complex, another form arose, called Ars Subtilor. It paved the way for the Renaissance style of music.
Renaissance Era Music
At the beginning of the 15th century, a major change took place all over Europe, which not only affected music, but also had its effects on architecture, lifestyle, art, literature, etc. Regarding music, numerous forms arose from the preexisting ones, and hence, this period is rightly termed as 'rebirth'. As several controversies regarding religion and faith happened during these times, they also had an impact on the relevant musical compositions. During this period, so great was the transformation, that the earlier styles slowly decreased in their popularity, though they were still present substantially. With a change in structure, the thought process behind writing songs also transformed dramatically, which influenced Renaissance cultures of the other regions as well. The following styles became famous during this era.
Renaissance Motet
With an absence of beat and the presence of intermittent changing notations, the Renaissance motet was quite dissimilar to the original one that developed from the Notre Dame School. Another version called 'madrigals' was considered to be sacred in a few aspects, unlike the previous styles. Some famous artists who composed such motets in that era were Alexander Agricola, Gilles de Binche, Antoine Busnois, etc.
This type contributed greatly to French music, and it quickly became popular due to its peculiar song opening and unique singing methods. Mostly, about two or four musicians sang a chanson, and instrument playing was rarely present. The music style spread fast across to Italy and even Greece, where it was changed accordingly to the respective traditions. Popular artists included Clèment Janequin and Claudin de Sermisy.
Burgundian Music
Originating from the Burgundy school, this style of music has deep ties to the era before the Renaissance years. With the beginning of the 15 century, the secular and old form of music slowly changed, and hence, the development of Burgundian compositions remains an important phase of transformation. Famous artists included Johannes Tapissier, Jean Cousin, Pierre Fontaine, etc.
Female opera singer
Towards the end of this era, a genre called Opera began in the late 17th century. Jean-Baptiste Lully, who was an Italian musician, is called the Father of the French Opera, as his efforts to make it successful in this music style became a reality, after many changes and experimentation of the earlier opera formats. After he died, other composers took up the mantle of developing this form of music and art.
Baroque Era Music
Following the Renaissance period, the Baroque music style fast became popular, and for the first time in the history of French music, tonal variations and related changes were accepted on a large-scale basis. The name Baroque has Portuguese origins; the meaning of 'barroco' is 'different-shaped pearl'. It was also incorporated into other genres, like opera and sonata, and this era saw several changes regarding instrument use and the kind of compositions made. The Baroque style greatly influenced French classical music. Two significant transformations were seen during this period: the change in motet compositions and the emergence of another genre called Air de Cour.
Baroque Motets
The methodology of composing motets underwent fast changes during the Baroque period, and soon, two main types were recognized and widely practiced: 'petits motets' and 'grand motets'. In the former, figured bass or thorough bass was used as an accompaniment, whereas, in the latter, several instruments were used, which often lead to the formation of an orchestra. Jean-Baptiste Lully made a lot of such compositions, which considerably differed from the previous styles.
Air de Cour
This was a secular composition style made popular during the latter years of the Renaissance period and the beginning years of the Baroque era. Air de Cour was played a lot in the royal French court. The predominance of the lute instrument along with more than two people on vocals was a characteristic of this genre. Famous artists who played the Air de Cour include Le Roy, Nicolas de la Grotte, Jean de Cambefort, etc.
Latter Periods and Music Genres
The Baroque Era ended with the success of Air de Cour and the French Opera, but times had changed a lot. The society experienced a lot of transformations, and a need for a change in musical compositions was felt. The next era began with the dominance of classical and folk music, and finally the emergence of modern styles of the 20th and 21st century. Throughout the developments, the essence of the original patterns was retained in many compositions. The following genres became famous during this era.
Classical and Romantic Music
Classical music
At the beginning of the 18th century, Baroque compositions changed into simpler instrumental types, which ultimately paved the way for classical varieties. The latter genre became quite popular in the second half of this century, with a domination of sonatas and symphonies. The 19th century was an extension of classical music, and was characterized by new influences and ideas, like piano notations coupled with several other instrument changes. This was called the Romantic musical era.
Traditional and Folk Music
Traditional music
French folk music is an example of the revival of this country's culture, and this is followed after the dominance of classical styles. Several sub-types emerged, and the famous ones include: Music of Auvergne, Music of Brittany, Music of Corsica, Music of Gascony, Music of Limousin, etc. All of these are named after their respective places of origin. Folk compositions became popular with tourists, resulting in a boost for development regarding traditional musical elements.
Modern Music
Group of young musicians
At the turn of the 20th century, modern elements evolved, and in the present era, French music is very famous all over the world. Apart from retaining the traditional composition sense, modern genres like pop, heavy metal, rock, hip-hop, electronic music, disco, etc., have also evolved a lot, especially in the late 20th and the current 21st century. Some famous artists from France include the metal band Gojira, electronic and DJ artists like Daft Punk and David Guetta, the rock band Magma, besides many others.
The music of France has come a long way right from its beginnings that date back to the 10th century. This can be clearly seen from the difference between modern musical compositions, especially the electronic, pop, and rock elements, to the oldest ones like chanson, Renaissance motets, and troubadour types.