Any lyric composition set to French words; more specifically, a French polyphonic song of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. In a general sense the word ‘chanson’ refers to a wide variety of compositions: the monophonic songs of the Middle Ages (see Troubadours, trouvères); court songs of the late 16th and 17th centuries ( see Air de cour); popular songs of thestreets, cafés and music halls in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries (see Chanson pour boire; Vaudeville; Pastourelle; Bergerette (ii); Brunette); art songs of the 19th and 20th centuries (Mélodie); as well as to folksongs (‘chanson populaire’ or ‘chant folklorique’). The term is sometimes used in its more specific sense to refer only to those 15th- and 16th-century polyphonic songs that do not set poemsin one of the formes fixes (see Rondeau (i); Virelai; Ballade (i)), but in this article it is taken in a somewhat broader context to mean any polyphonic song with French text written from about the time of Machaut to the end of the 16th century.
1. Origins to about 1430.
2. 1430 to about 1525.
3. 1525 to the mid-16th century.
4. The second half of the 16th century.
HOWARD MAYERBROWN/DAVID FALLOWS (1–2), HOWARD MAYER BROWN/RICHARD FREEDMAN (3–4), NIGEL WILKINS/DAVID FALLOWS (bibliography to 1450), HOWARD MAYER BROWN/DAVID FALLOWS, RICHARD FREEDMAN (bibliography after 1450)
1. Origins to about 1430.
Extensive collections of monophonic songs by trouvères and troubadours survive from the 13th century, and secular songs sometimes appear in one of the upper parts of a13th-century motet, combined with other texts in French or Latin and set over a tenor derived from plainchant (or, rarely, from a song or dance). But polyphonic compositions in which all the voices sing the same lyrical poem (or where the top line, intended to be sung, is accompanied by one or two newly invented subordinate lines) are extremely rare before the middle of the 14th century. Guillaume deMachaut is the earliest musician to have written an extensive collection of polyphonic songs; he can legitimately be called the first important composer of polyphonic chansons.
But a few polyphonic songs survive from the late 13th and early 14th centuries: a number of three-voice rondeaux, including 16 composed by Adam de la Halle, one by Jehannot de L’Escurel and two in the so-called Picardroll (F-Pn Pic.67), dating from the early 14th century. In addition, the late 13th-century manuscript F-Pn fr.12786 contains on ff.77–82 a group of 35 poems (mostly rondeaux) with spaces that can only have been intended to contain polyphonic music of the kind found in Adam de la Halle’s chansons. Apel also proposed that three songs in the Leiden fragments (NL-Lu BPL 2720, ed. in Apel, 1972, iii,nos.285–7, and Van Biezen and Gumbert, 1985, nos.L9–11) could be from the first quarter of the century, though their context in a Flemish manuscript of around 1400 could be otherwise construed. Most of these songs were written in a style closely resembling that of the conductus. The music moves in lightly decorated note-against-note counterpoint; most of the pieces were notated in score with the textbeneath the lowest voice. In some or all of these chansons, the lowest or middle voice seems to be the most important melodically; for example, the middle voice of Jehannot’s A vous, douce debonaire, appears elsewhere in the manuscript of his works as an independent melody supplied with the complete poetic text (the polyphonic version has only the refrain). This could suggest that these earliestchanson composers may well have set about making polyphonic versions of originally monophonic melodies.
Besides the two polyphonic rondeaux, the Picard roll also contains two chaces, that is, three-part canons, complete with onomatopoeic effects, that set hunting poems in the manner of an Italian caccia (although most cacce consist of a two-part canon over a third non-canonic supporting line)....