French music during the Medieval and Renaissance period is one of my favorite genres I remember studying in music history class in college. Amazingly, I retained something from those 8am classes. French traveling musicians such as troubadours and other traveling musicians added much to the development of French folk music, namely the idea of the motet. Baroque composers, such as Louis Couperin, François Couperin, Jacques Champion de Chambonnières, Claude Le Jeune, and Jean Philippe Rameau were influential at introducing new practices with harmony. The clarinet was also becoming popular as an orchestral instrument during this time. (The song below is "Revecy venir du printans" by Claude Le Jeune. It was one of my favorites in college.)
The Romantic era is one of my favorite periods of music (and literature). I love that iTunes Radio has a station of just Romantic Era music. I used to listen to it all the time when I was at a job I couldn’t stand in order to attempt to block out the people I didn’t like. French composers such as Georges Bizet, Jules Massenet, Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, and Erik Satie were some of the biggest names in France during this time. Their influence spread far beyond France and even past Europe. Twentieth century composers built on the foundations of the Romantic period and merged it with modern genres such as serialism and the use of computers, electronic instruments, and non-instruments. Albert Roussel, Pierre Boulez, and Olivier Messiaen are two composers of this era. Since the late 1970s, French composers began experimenting with computer-assisted composition, called “spectral music.” Look, I had to listen to and study a lot of these new and avant-garde styles when I was in college. And I’ll just say this about it: I found I’m quite a fan of tonality. I tried to be open minded, but some of this stuff is junk. (There is a lot of good contemporary music out there as well, but you can only stretch the limits of what music is so far before it makes me want to jab a fork in my ear.) The piece below is Maurice Ravel's "Piano Concerto in G." My high school marching band did portions of this piece my last year. It's a little long, but one of my favorite pieces.
Twentieth century folk music has become a popular genre in France, and each region has its own contributions and variations. The valse-musette (or French waltz) with its characteristic accordion accompaniment was popular in the Paris area and fairly iconic when it comes to French music. The soundtrack for the movie Amélie, written by Yann Tiersen, is a perfect example of this. The western provinces tend to promote more ballad-singing, dance songs, and fiddle music. The eastern province of Brittany has a lot of Celtic tradition to their culture. One traditional song type is a call-and-response mixed with a ballad. Bagpipes, bombards, and drums make up most of the instrumentation here. Central France also uses bagpipes, but they also make use of the hurdy-gurdy, a type of string instrument turned with a wheel with several drone strings. The Basque Country of southern France is most known for its ttun-ttun and xirula styles of folk music. Choral and band music alike are commonly performed there as well.
Dance has a long tradition and generally falls into two categories: formal (or court) dancing and folk dancing. And each region has its own variations of dances as well. Forlane, Menuet, Musette, Bouree, Gavotte, Farandole, Rondeau, Rigaudon, Valse Musette, Marchoise, Belle Danse, and Sarabande are also common types of dances, and if you study classical music, you’ll recognize many of these dance types in musical titles as well. Music and dance often go hand-in-hand. This is an example of a Bouree.
Patricia Kaas is a French singer who is one of the top names of current cabaret singers. The style seems like a cross between other French folk styles, but also incorporates musical theatre and jazz traditions into the music. Cabaret music tends to use a lot of acoustic guitar, piano, and accordion as well as other instruments.
I’ve been a fan of Carla Bruni for years. I first saw her on one of those daytime news/entertainment shows when she first married former French president Nicolas Sarkozy. She’s actually Italian born but has lived in France since she was a child. Her alto voice has a slightly raspy quality that seems to match the acoustic bluesy guitar accompaniment. I was happy to learn that she put out another album last year called Little French Songs that I really like.
I’ve come across several pop singers, mostly female. Like a lot of American pop music, it seems highly dependent on electronic music. But I’m kind of a fan of that kind of music. Mylène Farmer is one singer that I like. However, Zazie has a dominant rock feel to her music and equally as good.
There are a lot of French rock bands as well. Trust is a band who has a late 1980s/early 1990s feel to their music. I kind of like it in a retrorock kind of way. Another band that I liked is Noir Désir. Their music is more on the punk edge of rock, but in some songs, they also use sung speech (it’s not quite rap, but not quite singing either). There are also a number of metal bands as well, if you need something harder.
France is known for its electronic and techno DJs/producers/musicians. David Guetta is one of the most well known in this area. I listened to the album Nothing But the Beat 2.0, and I have to say, there are a lot of catchy songs on there. He has a lot of collaboration with many big names in the industry. Another well-known musical group –and much older– is Daft Punk. My husband is much more of a fan of their music, but I did listen to most of their new album Random Access Memories, and I like what I heard. They also composed the soundtrack to the movie Tron: Legacy (2010). I’ve been a fan of Phoenix for several years now. Their song 1901 was used in a Cadillac commercial. I just discovered M83 – all I can say is why didn’t I know about this sooner? It’s great music to listen to while working. Modjo is another good one to chill out to.
Hip-hop and R&B are also huge in France as well, especially coming out of some of the former French colonies in Africa and other regions in the Caribbean. Some of the popular names that I listened to are MC Solaar, Booba (yes, really), Kenza Farah, Sefyu, Indila, and many more.
Up next: the food