Open main menu

CHANSON. The French chanson, derived from the Latin cantio, cantionem, is a little poem of which the stanzas or symmetrical divisions are called 'couplets.' Being intended for singing, the couplets are generally in a flowing rhythm, and written in an easy, natural, simple, yet lively style. As a rule, each couplet concludes with a repetition of one or two lines constituting the 'refrain'; but the refrain is sometimes separate, and precedes or follows the couplet, in which case it may be a distich or quatrain, or even a stanza, of different rhythm to the rest of the song. The history of the chanson would involve a review of the whole history of France, political, literary, and social. Suffice it to say here that all modern songs may be classed under four heads—the 'chanson historique'; the 'chanson de métier'; the 'chanson d'amour'; and the 'chanson bachique'; four divisions which may be traced in the ancient poets.

1. The historical songs may be subdivided into four classes, sacred, military, national, and satirical. The sacred songs include the 'cantique,' the 'noël,' or Christmas carol, the 'hymne,' and also the 'complainte,' or lament, and the 'chanson de solennités politiques,' composed to celebrate an accession to the throne, or other public event. The 'cantatas' performed on state occasions by other nations took their origin from these 'chansons de solennités.' The national songs of France are entirely modern. [See Vive Henri IV; Marseillaise; Départ Chant du, La Parisienne, &c.]

2. The 'chansons de métier,' like the 'chansons militaires,' were originally merely cries. (Kastner, 'Les Voix de Paris.') Of all the popular songs, these professional chansons are the fewest in number, and the least interesting both as regards words and music.

3. On the other hand, the 'chansons d'amour' are innumerable and well worth studying. In them the French poets exhausted all the resources of rhythm. The 'lai,' an elegiac song, accompanied by the rote, harp, or vielle (hurdy-gurdy); the 'virelai,' turning entirely on two rhymes; the 'descort,' in which the melody, and sometimes the idiom changed with each couplet; the 'aubade,' the 'chant royal,' the 'ballade,' the 'brunette,' the 'rondeau,' and the 'triolet,' are all forms of the 'chanson amoureuse,' which was the precursor of the modern 'romance.'

4. The 'chansons bachiques' are also remarkable for variety of rhythm, and many of them have all the ease and flexibility ot the 'couplets de facture' of the best vaudeville writers. In some songs the words are more important, in others the music. Hence arose a distinction between the 'note' or air, and the 'chanson' or words. The old chansons have a very distinctive character; so much so that it is easy to infer the time and place of their origin from their rhythm and style. The popular melodies of a country where the inhabitants live at ease, and sing merely for amusement, have as, a rule nothing in common with those of a people whose aim is to perpetuate the memory of the past. The songs too of those who live in the plains are monotonous and spiritless; whilst those of mountaineers are naturally picturesque, impressive, and even sublime. It is not only the influence of climate which leaves its mark on the songs of a people; the spirit of the age has a great effect, as we may see if we remark how the chansons of France have drawn their inspiration mainly from two sources—church music, and the 'chansons de chasse.' Even in its songs, the influence of the two privileged classes, the clergy and the nobility, was felt by the people. Without pursuing this subject further, we will merely remark that the name 'chansons populaires' should be applied only to songs of which the author of both words and music is unknown.

It is also important to distinguish between the anonymous chanson, transmitted by tradition, and the 'chanson musicale,' by which last we mean songs that were noted down from the first, and composed with some attention to the rules of art. Such are those of the Châtelain de Coucy, composed at the end of the 12th century, and justly considered most curious and instructive relics in the history of music. (Michel et Perne, 'Chansons du Châtelain de Coucy,' Paris, 1830). Of a similar kind, and worthy of special mention, are the songs of Adam de la Halle, of which some are in three parts. (Coussemaker, 'Adam de la Halle,' Paris, 1872). True these first attempts at harmony are rude, and very different from the 'Inventions Musicales' of Clement Jannequin, and the songs for one or more voices by the great masters of the madrigal school; but the chanson of the middle ages was nevertheless the parent of the ariette in the early French operas-comique, and of the modern couplet; while the 'chanson musicale' in several parts is the foundation of choral music with or without accompaniment. By some of the great Flemish musicians the word chanson was extended to mean psalms and other sacred pieces. It is much to be regretted that the French, who are so rich in literary collections of songs, should have at present no anthology of 'chansons musicales' in notation, where might be seen not only 'Belle Erembor' and 'l'Enfant-Gerard,' anonymous compositions of the 12th century, but the best works of the troubadours Adenez, Charles d'Anjou, Blondel, Gace Brulés, Colin Muset, Thibault IV, Comte de Champagne, and of the Norman and Picard trouvères of the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. One great obstacle to such a work lies in the fact that the chansons of the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries were so often altered in transcribing. It is however much to be hoped that some musician of taste and erudition will before long place within our reach the 'chansons d 'amour,' and the 'chansons à boire,' which have been the delight of the French from the middle ages downwards.

The best works on the subject at present are:—'Histoire littéraire de la France,' vol. 23; 'Les Poëtes français' (Crépet, Paris, 4 vols.); Du Mersan's 'Chants et Chansons populaires de la France' (Paris, 1848, 3 vols.), with accompaniments by Colet, not in the style of the chansons; Coussemaker's 'Chants populaires des Flamands de France' (Ghent, 1856); Champfleury and Wekerlin's 'Chansons populaires des provinces de France' (Paris, 1860); Gagneur's 'Chansons populaires du Canada' (Quebec, 1865); Landelle's 'Chansons maritimes' (Paris, 1865); Nisard's 'Des Chansons populaires' (Paris, 1867). Capelle's 'La Clé du Caveau' (4th ed. Paris, 1872); and Verrimat's 'Rondes et Chansons populaires illustrées' (Paris, 1876). In the last two works the songs are not always correctly given.

[ G. C. ]