A chanson is in general any lyric
Lyrics are a set of words that make up a song. The writer of lyrics is a lyricist or lyrist. The meaning of lyrics can either be explicit or implicit. Some lyrics are abstract, almost unintelligible, and, in such cases, their explication emphasizes form, articulation, meter, and symmetry of...

-driven French song, usually polyphonic and secular. A singer specialising in chansons is known as a "chanteur" (male) or "chanteuse" (female); a collection of chansons, especially from the late Middle Ages
Late Middle Ages
The Late Middle Ages was the period of European history generally comprising the 14th to the 16th century . The Late Middle Ages followed the High Middle Ages and preceded the onset of the early modern era ....

 and Renaissance
The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not...

, is also known as a chansonnier
A chansonnier is a manuscript or printed book which contains a collection of chansons, or polyphonic and monophonic settings of songs, hence literally "song-books," although some manuscripts are so called even though they preserve the text but not the music A chansonnier is a manuscript or...


Chanson de geste

The earliest chansons were the epic poems performed to simple monophonic
In music, monophony is the simplest of textures, consisting of melody without accompanying harmony. This may be realized as just one note at a time, or with the same note duplicated at the octave . If the entire melody is sung by two voices or a choir with an interval between the notes or in...

 melodies by a professional class of jongleurs or ménestrels
A minstrel was a medieval European bard who performed songs whose lyrics told stories of distant places or of existing or imaginary historical events. Although minstrels created their own tales, often they would memorize and embellish the works of others. Frequently they were retained by royalty...

. These usually recounted the famous deeds (geste) of past heroes, legendary and semi-historical. The Song of Roland is the most famous of these, but in general the chansons de geste are studied as literature since very little of their music survives.

Chanson courtoise

The chanson courtoise or grand chant was an early form of monophonic chanson, the chief lyric poetic genre of the trouvère
Trouvère , sometimes spelled trouveur , is the Northern French form of the word trobador . It refers to poet-composers who were roughly contemporary with and influenced by the troubadours but who composed their works in the northern dialects of France...

s. It was an adaptation to Old French
Old French
Old French was the Romance dialect continuum spoken in territories that span roughly the northern half of modern France and parts of modern Belgium and Switzerland from the 9th century to the 14th century...

 of the Occitan canso
Canso (song)
The canso is a song style used by the troubadours. It consists of three parts. The first stanza is the exordium, where the composer explains his purpose. The main body of the song occurs in the following stanzas, and usually draw out a variety of relationships with the exordium. The canso can end...

. It was practised in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Thematically, as its name implies, it was a song of courtly love
Courtly love
Courtly love was a medieval European conception of nobly and chivalrously expressing love and admiration. Generally, courtly love was secret and between members of the nobility. It was also generally not practiced between husband and wife....

, written usually by a man to his noble lover. Some later chansons were polyphonic and some had refrain
A refrain is the line or lines that are repeated in music or in verse; the "chorus" of a song...

s and were called chansons avec des refrains. A Crusade song
Crusade song
A Crusade song is any vernacular lyric poem about the Crusades. Crusade songs were popular in the High Middle Ages: 106 survive in Occitan, forty in Old French, thirty in Middle High German, two in Italian, and one in Old Castilian. The study of the Crusade song, which may be considered a genre of...

 was known as a chanson de croisade.

Burgundian chanson

In its typical specialised usage, the word chanson refers to a polyphonic French song of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Early chansons tended to be in one of the formes fixes
Formes fixes
A Forme fixé is any one of three fourteenth and fifteenth centuries French poetic forms, the ballade, rondeau and virelai...

Ballade (musical form)
A ballade refers to a one-movement musical piece with lyrical and dramatic narrative qualities.- Medieval ballades :The term ballade was used to describe one type of musical setting of French poetry common in the 14th and 15th centuries...

, rondeau
Rondeau (poetry)
This article is about the poetry form. For other uses, see Rondeau.A rondeau is a form of French poetry with 15 lines written on two rhymes, as well as a corresponding musical form developed to set this characteristic verse structure...

 or virelai
A virelai is a form of medieval French verse used often in poetry and music. It is one of the three formes fixes and was one of the most common verse forms set to music in Europe from the late thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries.A virelai is similar to a rondeau...

 (formerly the chanson baladée)—though some composers later set popular poetry in a variety of forms. The earliest chansons were for two, three or four voices, with first three becoming the norm, expanding to four voices by the sixteenth century. Sometimes, the singers were accompanied by instruments
Musical instrument
A musical instrument is a device created or adapted for the purpose of making musical sounds. In principle, any object that produces sound can serve as a musical instrument—it is through purpose that the object becomes a musical instrument. The history of musical instruments dates back to the...


The first important composer of chansons was Guillaume de Machaut
Guillaume de Machaut
Guillaume de Machaut was a Medieval French poet and composer. He is one of the earliest composers on whom significant biographical information is available....

, who composed three-voice works in the formes fixes during the 14th century. Guillaume Dufay
Guillaume Dufay
Guillaume Dufay was a Franco-Flemish composer of the early Renaissance. As the central figure in the Burgundian School, he was the most famous and influential composer in Europe in the mid-15th century.-Early life:From the evidence of his will, he was probably born in Beersel, in the vicinity of...

 and Gilles Binchois
Gilles Binchois
Gilles de Binche , also known as Gilles de Bins , was a Franco-Flemish composer, one of the earliest members of the Burgundian School, and one of the three most famous composers of the early 15th century...

, who wrote so-called Burgundian chansons (because they were from the area known as Burgundy), were the most important chanson composers of the next generation (c. 1420-1470). Their chansons while somewhat simple in style, are also generally in three voices with a structural tenor.

Parisian chanson

Later 15th- and early 16th-century figures in the genre included Johannes Ockeghem
Johannes Ockeghem
Johannes Ockeghem was the most famous composer of the Franco-Flemish School in the last half of the 15th century, and is often considered the most...

 and Josquin des Prez
Josquin Des Prez
Josquin des Prez [Josquin Lebloitte dit Desprez] , often referred to simply as Josquin, was a Franco-Flemish composer of the Renaissance...

, whose works cease to be constrained by
formes fixes and begin to feature a similar pervading imitation to that found in contemporary motet
In classical music, motet is a word that is applied to a number of highly varied choral musical compositions.-Etymology:The name comes either from the Latin movere, or a Latinized version of Old French mot, "word" or "verbal utterance." The Medieval Latin for "motet" is motectum, and the Italian...

s and liturgical music. At mid-century, Claudin de Sermisy
Claudin de Sermisy
Claudin de Sermisy was a French composer of the Renaissance. Along with Clément Janequin he was one of the most renowned composers of French chansons in the early 16th century; in addition he was a significant composer of sacred music...

 and Clément Janequin
Clément Janequin
Clément Janequin was a French composer of the Renaissance. He was one of the most famous composers of popular chansons of the entire Renaissance, and along with Claudin de Sermisy, was hugely influential in the development of the Parisian chanson, especially the programmatic type...

 were composers of so-called Parisian
chansons, which also abandoned the formes fixes and were in a simpler, more homophonic style, sometimes featuring music that was meant to be evocative of certain imagery. Many of these Parisian works were published by Pierre Attaingnant
Pierre Attaingnant
Pierre Attaingnant was a French music printer, active in Paris.-Life:Attaingnant is considered to be first large-scale publisher of single-impression movable type for music-printing, thus making it possible to print faster and cheaper than predecessors such as Ottaviano Petrucci...

. Composers of their generation, as well as later composers, such as Orlando de Lassus, were influenced by the Italian madrigal
Madrigal (music)
A madrigal is a secular vocal music composition, usually a partsong, of the Renaissance and early Baroque eras. Traditionally, polyphonic madrigals are unaccompanied; the number of voices varies from two to eight, and most frequently from three to six....

. Many early instrumental works were ornamented variations (diminutions) on chansons, with this genre becoming the canzone
Literally "song" in Italian, a canzone is an Italian or Provençal song or ballad. It is also used to describe a type of lyric which resembles a madrigal...

, a progenitor of the sonata.

The first book of sheet music printed from movable type was Harmonice Musices Odhecaton
Harmonice Musices Odhecaton
The Harmonice Musices Odhecaton was an anthology of secular songs published by Ottaviano Petrucci in 1501 in Venice...

, a collection of ninety-six chansons by many composers, published in Venice in 1501 by Ottaviano Petrucci
Ottaviano Petrucci
Ottaviano Petrucci was an Italian printer. His Harmonice Musices Odhecaton, a collection of chansons printed in 1501, is commonly misidentified as the first book of sheet music printed from movable type. Actually that distinction belongs to the Roman printer Ulrich Han's Missale Romanum of 1476...


Modern chanson

French solo song developed in the late 16th century, probably from the aforementioned Parisian works. During the 17th century, the air de cour
Air de cour
The Air de cour was a popular type of secular vocal music in France in the very late Renaissance and early Baroque period, from about 1570 until around 1650...

, chanson pour boire
Chanson pour boire
Chanson pour boire is a term for a French drinking song, frequently coupled with chanson pour danser . It was used in from about 1627–1670...

and other like genres, generally accompanied by lute or keyboard, flourished, with contributions by such composers as Antoine Boesset
Antoine Boësset
Antoine Boësset,Antoine Boesset or Anthoine de Boesset , sieur de Villedieu, was the superintendent of music at the Ancien Regime French court and a composer of secular music, particularly airs de cour. He and his father-in-law Pierre Guédron dominated the court's musical life for the first half...

, Denis Gaultier
Denis Gaultier
Denis Gaultier was a French lutenist and composer. He was a cousin of Ennemond Gaultier.-Life:...

, Michel Lambert
Michel Lambert
Michel Lambert was a French singing master, theorbist and composer.Lambert was born at Champigny-sur-Veude, France. He received his musical education as an altar boy at the Chapel of Gaston d'Orléans. He studied also with Pierre de Nyert in Paris. Since 1636, he was known as a singing teacher...

 and Michel-Richard de Lalande.

During the 18th century, vocal music in France was dominated by Opera
Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery, and costumes and sometimes includes dance...

, but solo song underwent a renaissance in the 19th century, first with salon
Salon music
Salon music was a popular music genre in Europe during the 19th century. It was usually written for solo piano in the romantic style, and often performed by the composer at events known as "Salons". Salon compositions are usually fairly short and often focus on virtuoso pianistic display or...

 melodies, but by mid-century with highly sophisticated works influenced by the German Lied
is a German word literally meaning "song", usually used to describe romantic songs setting German poems of reasonably high literary aspirations, especially during the nineteenth century, beginning with Carl Loewe, Heinrich Marschner, and Franz Schubert and culminating with Hugo Wolf...

er which had been introduced into the country. Louis Niedermeyer
Louis Niedermeyer
Abraham Louis Niedermeyer was a composer chiefly of church music but also of a few operas, and a teacher who took over the Ecole Choron, duly renamed École Niedermeyer, a school for the study and practice of church music, where several eminent French musicians studied including Gabriel Fauré and...

, under the particular spell of Schubert
Franz Schubert
Franz Peter Schubert was an Austrian composer.Although he died at an early age, Schubert was tremendously prolific. He wrote some 600 Lieder, nine symphonies , liturgical music, operas, some incidental music, and a large body of chamber and solo piano music...

, was a pivotal figure in this movement, followed by Édouard Lalo
Édouard Lalo
Édouard-Victoire-Antoine Lalo was a French composer.-Biography:Lalo was born in Lille , in northernmost France. He attended that city's music conservatory in his youth. Then, beginning at age 16, Lalo studied at the Paris Conservatoire under Berlioz's old enemy François Antoine Habeneck...

, Felicien David and many others.

Another offshoot of chanson called chanson réaliste
Chanson réaliste
Chanson réaliste, or realist song, refers to a style of music performed in France primarily from the 1880s until the end of World War II...

(realist song), was a popular musical genre in France, primarily from the 1880s until the end of World War II. Born of the cafés-concerts
Café chantant is a type of musical establishment associated with the belle époque in France. Although there is much overlap of definition with cabaret, music hall, vaudeville, etc. the café chantant was originally an outdoor café where small groups of performers performed popular music for the...

 and cabarets of the Montmartre
Montmartre is a hill which is 130 metres high, giving its name to the surrounding district, in the north of Paris in the 18th arrondissement, a part of the Right Bank. Montmartre is primarily known for the white-domed Basilica of the Sacré Cœur on its summit and as a nightclub district...

 district of Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

 and influenced by literary realism and the naturalist movements in literature and theatre, chanson réaliste was a musical style which was mainly performed by women and dealt with the lives of Paris's poor and working class. Some of the more well-known performers of the genre include Damia
Marie-Louise Damien
Marie-Louise Damien was a French singer and actress better known by the stage name Damia.-Robert Hollard:...

, Fréhel
Fréhel was a French singer and actress.-Biography:Born in Paris, France to a poor and dysfunctional Breton family, Marguerite Boulc'h was a child left to a life on the streets in the dark side of Paris...

 and Édith Piaf
Édith Piaf
Édith Piaf , born Édith Giovanna Gassion, was a French singer and cultural icon who became widely regarded as France's greatest popular singer. Her singing reflected her life, with her specialty being ballads...


Later 19th-century composers of French song, called either mélodie
Mélodie refers to French art songs of the mid-19th century to the present; it is the French equivalent of the German Lied. It is distinguished from a chanson, which is a folk or popular song.-Nature of the mélodie:...

 or chanson, included Ernest Chausson
Ernest Chausson
Amédée-Ernest Chausson was a French romantic composer who died just as his career was beginning to flourish.-Life:Ernest Chausson was born in Paris into a prosperous bourgeois family...

, Emmanuel Chabrier
Emmanuel Chabrier
Emmanuel Chabrier was a French Romantic composer and pianist. Although known primarily for two of his orchestral works, España and Joyeuse marche, he left an important corpus of operas , songs, and piano music as well...

, Gabriel Fauré
Gabriel Fauré
Gabriel Urbain Fauré was a French composer, organist, pianist and teacher. He was one of the foremost French composers of his generation, and his musical style influenced many 20th century composers...

 and Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy
Claude-Achille Debussy was a French composer. Along with Maurice Ravel, he was one of the most prominent figures working within the field of impressionist music, though he himself intensely disliked the term when applied to his compositions...

, while many 20th-century French composers have continued this strong tradition.

Chanson today

In France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 today "chanson" typically refers to the music of singers such as Charles Trenet
Charles Trenet
Charles Trenet was a French singer and songwriter, most famous for his recordings from the late 1930s until the mid-1950s, though his career continued through the 1990s...

, Jacques Brel
Jacques Brel
Jacques Brel was a Belgian singer-songwriter who composed and performed literate, thoughtful, and theatrical songs that generated a large, devoted following in France initially, and later throughout the world. He was widely considered a master of the modern chanson...

, Jean Ferrat
Jean Ferrat
Jean Ferrat was a French singer-songwriter and poet. He specialized in singing poetry, particularly that of Louis Aragon.-Biography:...

, Georges Brassens
Georges Brassens
Georges Brassens , 22 October 1921 – 29 October 1981), was a French singer-songwriter and poet.Brassens was born in Sète, a town in southern France near Montpellier...

, Édith Piaf
Édith Piaf
Édith Piaf , born Édith Giovanna Gassion, was a French singer and cultural icon who became widely regarded as France's greatest popular singer. Her singing reflected her life, with her specialty being ballads...

, Charles Aznavour
Charles Aznavour
Charles Aznavour, OC is an Armenian-French singer, songwriter, actor, public activist and diplomat. Besides being one of France's most popular and enduring singers, he is also one of the best-known singers in the world...

, Barbara, Serge Reggiani
Serge Reggiani
Serge Reggiani was an Italian-born French singer and actor. He was born in Reggio Emilia, Italy and moved to France with his parents at the age of eight...

, Léo Ferré
Léo Ferré
Léo Ferré was a Franco-Monegasque poet, composer, singer and musician.Born in Monaco, Ferré mixed love and melancholy with moral anarchy, lyricism with slang, rhyming verse with prose monologues...

, Mireille Mathieu
Mireille Mathieu
Mireille Mathieu is a French chanteuse, and pop singer. Hailed in the French press as the successor to Édith Piaf, she has achieved great commercial success, recording over 1200 songs in nine different languages, with more than 120 million records sold worldwide.-Childhood to early...

 and Serge Gainsbourg
Serge Gainsbourg
Serge Gainsbourg, born Lucien Ginsburg was a French singer-songwriter, actor and director. Gainsbourg's extremely varied musical style and individuality make him difficult to categorize...

. Chanson can be distinguished from the rest of French "pop" music by following the rhythms of French language, rather than those of English.

External links

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