See how classical music has developed in France from the time of the monasteries.
From plainchant to Boléro, France has a rich musical heritage, explains Sandra Haurant
The roots of early classical music in France are intertwined with the sacred chants in the Catholic church. Within the stone walls of churches and abbeys, one-voice or monophonic chants dominated, and were gradually joined by multi-voice or polyphonic chants. Over time, these distinctive musical styles spread into secular music.
Around the 12th century, a number of musical schools took shape, including one based around Notre-dame cathedral in Paris. Although the composers are for the most part unknown, the school produced the earliest repertory of polyphonic or multi-part music to reach international renown.
In the 15th century, a group of composers maintained by the powerful Dukes of Burgundy helped to develop several new styles. This musical Renaissance in Europe was helped by the advent of printing, which changed the ways in which musicians accessed compositions.
Music in France saw a shift toward a style that emulated Greek tragedies, giving way, by the 17th century, to the influence of Italian opera, as France moved into its Baroque period. Indeed, Franco-italian composer, instrumentalist and dancer Jean-baptiste Lully (born Giovanni Battista Lulli), who worked in the court of Louis XIV, is credited as the founder of French opera.
Lully collaborated with the writer Molière on innovative musical theatre projects, including the comédie-ballet Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, a play incorporating music and dance. However, after an apparent falling-out, Lully returned to writing operas. Molière went on to work with another leading light in French Baroque music, MarcAntoine Charpentier, who composed the music for Le Malade Imaginaire.
In the midst of the French Revolution, music was also changing. The government combined the École Royale de Chant with the Institut National de Musique to create the Conservatoire de Musique in 1795, which remains a major force in the musical world as the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris.
The Conservatoire has an illustrious list of alumni including Georges Bizet, Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré. Bizet’s opera Carmen premiered in 1875 to an indifferent reception, and the composer died the same year, aged just 36, little knowing the worldwide fame it would come to enjoy.
Debussy was to have a huge influence on French classical music in the 20th century, with a groundbreaking style of composition that seemed to align itself with the work of the Impressionist painters – although he was not keen on using the term to describe his work.
Fellow Conservatoire student Maurice Ravel was similarly linked with musical Impressionism but also rejected the term. Ravel is best-known for the 15-minute Boléro (1928), but the composer considered it one of his least important works, describing it as an “experiment in a special and limited direction”.
The experimental baton was picked up by composers such as Olivier Messiaen and his student Pierre Boulez. Messiaen created richly complex compositions heavily influenced by Catholic theology and birdsong.
Boulez led a revolution in contemporary music, particularly through his leadership of the IRCAM research centre in Paris, with its study of electronic techniques.
ABOVE: The composer Claude Debussy pushed musical boundaries at the turn of the 20th century