French Music: Artists & Genres

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

From classical symphonies to Edith Piaf, French music is rich and diverse. In this lesson, we explore the music from France and learn about the different genres that have developed there. We also examine some of its most influential artists.

French Music

France has a rich cultural tradition. It is the birthplace of several artistic and social movements and is home to a diverse musical tradition. If you've listened to the opera Carmen, a song by Édith Piaf, or a bagpiper's band from Brittany, you've heard a bit of France's rich musical repertoire.

French music refers to the traditional, folk, and contemporary music genres that have developed in France. These range from medieval classical music to contemporary street hip-hop and include famous genres like chanson and influential composers such as Georges Bizet.

Other French-speaking areas like Quebec, some African nations, islands of the Pacific and neighboring Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg also produce music in French. However, despite some common grounds, there are significant cultural and historical differences. So when they are grouped together with the music of France, they are commonly referred to as francophone music.

Artists and Genres of French Music

Most people in France enjoy listening to local music and feel pride in the nation's musical tradition. There are many music festivals throughout the year, meant to promote the work of local artists and most provinces still keep traditional forms of folk music.

Classical

French classical music spans from its earliest known pieces of the 10th century to more recent compositions. It combines the music from several musical instruments in complex symphonies. Sometimes, lyrics are also present.

French classical music first gained popularity among the nobility and wealthy families. It was, however, during the Romantic era of the 19th century, when this genre gained much more exposure. Great composers of the time created famous pieces that gained international recognition and are still admired. Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy were some of them.

French philharmonic orchestra Quesnoy sur Deule
Philharmonic orchestra

Opera

Operas originated in Italy but arrived in France during the 17th century. They soon gained popularity among the Parisian elite. Operas combine lyric singing with an instrumental background and theatrical representations.

Beautiful theaters were built in Paris and other major cities to house opera performances. During the 19th century, French opera gained international recognition and great composers like Georges Bizet created masterpieces that are still appreciated worldwide. Carmen is among his best-known pieces.

Breton Folk Music

The French region of Brittany has strong Celtic influences, including in its music. Breton folk music often combines vocal singing with traditional instruments like harps, bagpipes, accordions, violins, and organs. These songs are often religious hymns, ballads about sailing, or love and instrumental pieces.

In the last decades of the 20th century, Breton music regained popularity, and folk music became very popular in regional festivals and celebrations. Most towns and villages have local bagads, or pipe bands who perform folk music.

Breton bagad playing at a festival
Breton bagad

Corsican Folk Music

The French island of Corsica has a unique musical tradition. During medieval times, it suffered from the struggle between Christians and Moors (Muslims who arrived from Northern Africa), and the conflict became a popular theme in folk music.

Corsican folk music often features choral singing in a style known as polyphony. It combines several melodies that are sung at the same time by the different performers. Folk music is present on many occasions, especially in religious services like processions and funerals.

Cabaret

Cabaret is a musical form of entertainment that combines music, dance, and theatrical performance. The audience usually eats and drinks while enjoying the show. It started in the 16th century and boomed during the French Belle Époque (a time of peace and prosperity between 1871 and 1914), especially in the Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre.

The Moulin Rouge in Paris is probably the best-known cabaret venue. It opened in 1889 and has immortalized cabaret shows and the can-can dance, which features women wearing big skirts and raising their legs up high.

Can-can dancers, late 19th century
Can-can dancers

Chanson

Chanson means 'song' in French, but it is also a music genre that became popular in the 1940s and 50s. It features very emotional tones, deep lyrics, and usually an orchestra that provides the musical background. It remains popular in modern France.

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