Music history of France
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The earliest known French song is Le Carillon de Vendôme, dating from the early 1400s.
Some of the earliest manuscripts with polyphony are organum from 10th century French cities like Chartres and Tours. A group of musicians from the Abbey of St. Martial in Limoges are especially important, as are the 12th century Parisian composers from whence came the earliest motets. Secular music in medieval France was dominated by troubadours, jongleurs and trouveres, who were poets and musicians known for creating forms like the ballade (forme fixe) and lai. The most famous was Adam de la Halle.
Notre Dame school
The Notre Dame school was a style of polyphonic organum that flourished at Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral between about 1170 to 1250. The only composers whose names have survived to the present are Léonin and Pérotin. These two are believed to have written the Magnus Liber, a comprehensive book of organum.
The motet evolved from the Notre Dame school when upper-register voices were added to discant sections, usually strophic interludes, in a longer sequence of organum. Usually the discant representing a strophic sequence in Latin which was sung as a descant over a cantus firmus, which typically was a Gregorian chant fragment with different words from the descant. The motet took a definite rhythm from the words of the verse, and as such appeared as a brief rhythmic interlude in the middle of the longer, more chantlike organum.
In the 12th century, traveling noblemen and musicians called troubadours began traveling southern France. Inspired by the Code of Chivalry, troubadours composed and performed vernacular songs (in contrast to the older tradition, dating back to the 10th century, of goliards. Provence was the region with the most troubadours, but the practice soon spread north and aristocrats like Adam de la Halle became the first trouvères. Contemporaneous with the troubadours was the rise of the trouvères, another itinerant class of musicians, who used the langue d'oil, while the troubadours used langue d'oc. This period ended abruptly with the Albigensian Crusade, which decimated southern France.
Ars Nova and Ars Subtilior
Two of the major developments in music in the 14th century occurred on France. The first was the ars nova, the new, predominantly secular music which began with the publication of the Roman de Fauvel, and culminated in the rondeaux, ballades, lais, virelais, motets, and single surviving mass of Guillaume de Machaut, who died in 1370. Philippe de Vitry, also a representative of the ars nova, invented an improved system of musical notation and may have been the first composer of the isorhythmic motet. The other important development was the extremely complex and sophisticated art of secular song which flourished in Avignon at the very end of the 14th century (see ars subtilior).
The move of the center of musical activity from Paris to Burgundy defines the beginning of the musical Renaissance in France. The political instability under weak kings, and continued dismemberment and acquisition of territory by the English during the Hundred Years' War all contributed to moving musicians east.
French musical domination of Europe ended during the Renaissance, and Flemish and Italian musicians became more important. Later French composers of the Renaissance include Nicolas Gombert, Pierre de La Rue, Pierre de Manchicourt, Claude Goudimel, Pierre Certon, Jean Mouton, Claudin de Sermisy, and Clément Janequin. The French chanson became popular during this time, and was exported to Italy as the canzona.
The motet was known from the Medieval era, but after about 1463, it evolved into an utterly distinct form. The cascading, passing chords created by the interplay between multiple voices, and the absence of a strong or obvious beat, are the features that distinguish medieval and Renaissance vocal styles. Instead, the Renaissance motet is a short polyphonic musical setting in imitative counterpoint, for chorus, of a religious text not specifically connected to the liturgy of a given day, and therefore suitable for use in any service. The texts of antiphons were frequently used as motet texts. This is the sort of composition that is most familiarly named by the name of "motet," and the Renaissance period marked the flowering of the form.
The chanson encompasses a wide array of forms and styles of secular song, through a period of almost three hundred years. The first important composer of chansons was Guillaume de Machaut, with later figures in the genre including Johannes Ockeghem and Josquin des Prez. Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois wrote so-called Burgundian chansons, which were somewhat simpler in style, while Claudin de Sermisy and Clément Janequin were composers of so-called Parisian chansons which abandoned the formes fixes (as Josquin had also done) and were in a simpler, more homophonic style (many of these Parisian works were published by Pierre Attaingnant). Later composers, such as Orlando de Lassus, were influenced by the Italian madrigal.
Composers who worked at the courts of the Dukes of Burgundy are known collectively as the Burgundian School; some of the principal names associated with this school are Guillaume Dufay, Gilles Binchois, Hayne van Ghizeghem and Antoine Busnois. They wrote vernacular secular music in a clear, simple, melodic style, principally rondeaux, but also Latin sacred music, such as motets and cantus firmus masses.
With the arrival of Calvinism, music was relatively simple, at least in the parts of France subject to Calvinist influence. In strictly Calvinist areas, the only musical expression allowed was singing of French translations of the Psalms, for instance those written by Goudimel (who was killed in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572). Starting with the 17th century, Italian and German opera was the most influential form of music, though French opera composers like Balthasar de Beaujoyeaux, Jean Philippe Rameau and Jean Baptiste Lully made a distinctive national style characterized by dance rhythms, spoken dialogue and a lack of Italian recitative arias.
The Baroque period saw a flourishing of harpsichord music. Influential composers included Jacques Champion de Chambonnières, Louis Couperin, François Couperin. Jean Philippe Rameau, a prominent opera composer, wrote an influential treatise on musical theory, especially in the subject of harmony; he also introduced the clarinet into his orchestras.
Air de cour
In the late Renaissance and early Baroque period, approximately from 1570 to 1650 and peaking from 1610 and 1635, a type of popular secular vocal music called air de cour spread throughout France. Though airs de cour originally used only one voice with lute accompaniment, they grew to incorporate four to five voices by the end of the 16th century. Halfway through the 17th century, they switched back again to a single voice.