The French word for song, hence the counterpart of the German "Lied."  However, while the "lied" has generally been cultivated by professional musicians, the chanson is usually of a more popular nature.  The virtual nonexistence of French art songs in the 18th and 19th centuries is in striking contrast to earlier periods.  In fact, the early history of the chanson is more ancient, fertile, and musically important than that of any other nation's song literature.

12th - 14th Centuries

The 12th and 13th centuries were the era of the troubadours and trouveres, whose melodies constitute an unparalleled treasure of early secular song.  The 14th century saw the rise of accompanied songs under Machaut and his successors.  These songs are usually in three parts (one vocal and two instrumental) and invariably in one of the formes fixes.

Early 15th Century

There developed in the Burgundian school of the 15th century (Dufay, Binchois, Ockeghem, Busnois) a new style of singular charm and beauty that may well be regarded as the artistic culmination of early French song.  These composers cultivated mostly the rondeau and virelai, less frequently the ballade.  A large number of such songs exist in the various 15th-century Chansonniers.


The last quarter of the 15th century marked the beginning of a new development characterized by:
  • the abandonment of the formes fixes
  • a change from three- to four- to five-part writing
  • from triple to duple meter
  • and the adoption of imitative counterpoint as the basic principle of style.
  • This is the type to which the term "chanson" specifically refers in historical studies.  It prevailed throughout the 16th century.
    Specifically, the term "chanson" (polyphonic French chanson) is used for the 15th- and 16th-century compositions that are not cast in one of the formes fixes but either are through-composed or (later) employ other repeat forms.  Many of the chansons are composed in the imitative style of the contemporary motet but with such modifications as were required by the different purpose and text: With Janequin, Sermisy, Certon, and numerous later composers, the chanson changed from Flemish to typically French, from reserved dignity to nimble elegance and frivolity.  The popularity of this new chanson is evident from a vast number of contemporary publications as well as the many hundreds of arrangements that fill the German and Italian lute and keyboard books of the 16th century.  Pierre Attaingnant alone printed 70 collections, containing chansons between 1528 and 1549.

    With the early 17th century and the rise of the monodic style, the polyphonic chanson disappeared and, strangely enough, the creative activity in the field of art song ceased abruptly.

    Composers and Examples

    Early 15th Century Renaissance