The formes fixes (singular forme fixe, “fixed form”) are the three fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries French poetic forms: the ballade, rondeau and virelai. Each was also a musical form, generally a chanson, and all consisted of a complex pattern of repetition of verses and a refrain with musical content in two main sections.
All three forms can be found in thirteenth-century sources but a fifteenth-century source gives Philippe de Vitry as their first composer while the first comprehensive repertory of these forms was written by Guillaume de Machaut. The formes fixes stopped being used in music around the end of the fifteenth century, although their influence continued (in poetry they, especially the rondeau, continued to be used).
Sometimes forms from other countries and periods are referred to as formes fixes. These include the Italian fourteenth century madrigal and later ballata and barzelletta, the German bar form, Spanish 13th century cantiga, and the later canción, and villancico.
Ballade (forme fixe)
The ballade (/bəˈlɑːd/; not to be confused with the ballad) is a form of medieval and Renaissance French poetry as well as the corresponding musical chanson form. It was one of the three formes fixes (the other two were the rondeau and the virelai) and one of the verse forms in France most commonly set to music between the late 13th and the 15th centuries.
The ballade as a verse form typically consists of three eight-line stanzas, each with a consistent metre and a particular rhyme scheme. The last line in the stanza is a refrain. The stanzas are often followed by a four-line concluding stanza (an envoi) usually addressed to a prince. The rhyme scheme is therefore usually ‘ababbcbC ababbcbC ababbcbC bcbC’, where the capital ‘C’ is a refrain.
The many different rhyming words that are needed (the ‘b’ rhyme needs at least fourteen words) makes the form more difficult for English than for French poets. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in the form. It was revived in the 19th century by English-language poets including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne. Other notable English-language ballade writers are Andrew Lang and G. K. Chesterton (below). A humorous example is Wendy Cope‘s ‘Proverbial Ballade’.
The musical form of a ballade stanza is a bar form (AAB), with a first, repeated musical section (stollen) setting the two initial pairs of verses (rhymes “ab–ab”), and the second section (abgesang) setting the remaining lines including the refrain verse (“bcbC”). The two statements of the “A” section often have different endings, known as “ouvert” and “clos” respectively, with the harmony of the “ouvert” ending leading back to the beginning and that of the “clos” ending leading forward into the “B” section. In many ballades, the final part of the “B” section may reintroduce melodic material referring back to the end of the “A” part, a feature known as “musical rhyme” (or, in German, Rücklaufballade). An alternative form employed by Machaut, known as ballade duplex or balladelle, has the B part also divided into two repetitions, with the refrain line sung as part of the repetition.♯cite_note-1">
A famous exception to the normal form is “Se la face ay pale” by Guillaume Dufay, where the entire stanza is through-composed, i.e. without a repetition between the two “A” sections.
Notable writers of ballades
Guillaume de Machaut wrote 42 ballades set to music. A few of them set two or even three poems to music simultaneously, with different texts sung in different voices. Most of the others have a single texted voice with either one or two untexted (instrumental) accompanying voices. One of the most notable writers of ballades in the 15th century was François Villon.
There are many easy-to-identify variations to the ballade. It is in many ways similar to the ode and chant royal.
Some ballades have five stanzas.
A seven-line ballade, or ballade royal, consists of four stanzas of rhyme royal, all using the same three rhymes, all ending in a refrain, without an envoi.
A ballade supreme has ten-line stanzas rhyming ababbccdcD, with the envoi ccdcD or ccdccD. An example is Ballade des Pendus by François Villon.
There are instances of a double ballade and double-refrain ballade.
Guillaume de Machaut – Amours me fait desirer
Rondeau (forme fixe)
A rondeau (plural rondeaux) is a form of medieval and Renaissance French poetry, as well as the corresponding musical chanson form. Together with the ballade and the virelai it was considered one of the three formes fixes, and one of the verse forms in France most commonly set to music between the late 13th and the 15th centuries. It is structured around a fixed pattern of repetition of material involving a refrain. The rondeau is believed to have originated in dance songs involving alternating singing of the refrain elements by a group and of the other lines by a soloist.♯cite_note-Enc.Univ-1"> The term “Rondeau” is today used both in a wider sense, covering several older variants of the form – which are sometimes distinguished as the triolet and rondel – and in a narrower sense referring to a 15-line variant which developed from these forms in the 15th and 16th centuries.♯cite_note-2"> The rondeau is unrelated with the much later instrumental dance form that shares the same name in French baroque music, which is an instance of what is more commonly called the rondo form in classical music.
A virelai is a form of medieval French verse used often in poetry and music. It is one of the three formes fixes (the others were the ballade and the rondeau) and was one of the most common verse forms set to music in Europe from the late thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries.
One of the most famous composers of virelai is Guillaume de Machaut (1300–1377), who also wrote his own verse; 33 separate compositions in the form survive by him. Other composers of virelai include Jehannot de l’Escurel, one of the earliest (d. 1304), and Guillaume Dufay (c.1400–1474), one of the latest.
By the mid-15th century, the form had become largely divorced from music, and numerous examples of this form (including the ballade and the rondeau) were written, which were either not intended to be set to music, or for which the music has not survived.
A virelai with only a single stanza is also known as a bergerette.
Medieval Virelai Music & Song – XIII th & XIV th Century – E, Dame Jolie & Douce Dame Jolie
A chanson is in general any lyric-driven French song, usually polyphonic and secular. A singer specializing in chansons is known as a “chanteur” (male) or “chanteuse” (female); a collection of chansons, especially from the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, is also known as a chansonnier.
Josquin Desprez (ca.1440-1521) Chansons
00:00 – La plus des plus – violes 01:23 – Cueurs désolez – cantus et violes 03:08 – Cueur langoreulx – 2 voix et violes 05:09 – El grillo – 4 voix et luth 06:47 – Vous l’arez s’il vous plaist – 3 voix et violes
Chanson de geste
The earliest chansons were the epic poems performed to simple monophonic melodies by a professional class of jongleurs or ménestrels. These usually recounted the famous deeds (geste) of past heroes, legendary and semi-historical. The Song of Roland is the most famous of these, but in general the chansons de geste are studied as literature since very little of their music survives.
The chanson courtoise or grand chant was an early form of monophonic chanson, the chief lyric poetic genre of the trouvères. It was an adaptation to Old French of the Occitan canso. It was practised in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Thematically, as its name implies, it was a song of courtly love, written usually by a man to his noble lover. Some later chansons were polyphonic and some had refrains and were called chansons avec des refrains. A Crusade song was known as a chanson de croisade.
In its typical specialized usage, the word chanson refers to a polyphonic French song of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Early chansons tended to be in one of the formes fixes—ballade, rondeau or virelai (formerly the chanson baladée)—though some composers later set popular poetry in a variety of forms. The earliest chansons were for two, three or four voices, with first three becoming the norm, expanding to four voices by the sixteenth century. Sometimes, the singers were accompanied by instruments.
The first important composer of chansons was Guillaume de Machaut, who composed three-voice works in the formes fixes during the 14th century. Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois, who wrote so-called Burgundian chansons (because they were from the area known as Burgundy), were the most important chanson composers of the next generation (c. 1420-1470). Their chansons, while somewhat simple in style, are also generally in three voices with a structural tenor. Musicologist David Fallows includes the Burgundian repertoire in A Catalogue of Polyphonic Songs 1415-1480. These works are typically still 3 voices, with an active upper voice (discantus) pitched above two lower voices (tenor and altus) usually sharing the same range.
Later 15th- and early 16th-century figures in the genre included Johannes Ockeghem and Josquin des Prez, whose works cease to be constrained by formes fixes and begin to feature a pervading imitation (all voices sharing material and moving at similar speeds), similar to that found in contemporary motets and liturgical music. The first book of music printed from movable type was Harmonice Musices Odhecaton, a collection of ninety-six chansons by many composers, published in Venice in 1501 by Ottaviano Petrucci.
Beginning in the late 1520s through mid- century, Claudin de Sermisy and Clément Janequin were composers of so-called Parisian chansons, which also abandoned the formes fixes, often featured four voices, and were in a simpler, more homophonic style. This genre sometimes featured music that was meant to be evocative of certain imagery such as birds or the marketplace. Many of these Parisian works were published by Pierre Attaingnant. Composers of their generation, as well as later composers, such as Orlando de Lassus, were influenced by the Italian madrigal. Many early instrumental works were ornamented variations (diminutions) on chansons, with this genre becoming the canzone, a progenitor of the sonata.
French solo song developed in the late 16th century, probably from the aforementioned Parisian works. During the 17th century, the air de cour, chanson pour boire and other like genres, generally accompanied by lute or keyboard, flourished, with contributions by such composers as Antoine Boesset, Denis Gaultier, Michel Lambert and Michel-Richard de Lalande.
During the 18th century, vocal music in France was dominated by Opera, but solo song underwent a renaissance in the 19th century, first with salon melodies, but by mid-century with highly sophisticated works influenced by the German Lieder which had been introduced into the country. Louis Niedermeyer, under the particular spell of Schubert, was a pivotal figure in this movement, followed by Édouard Lalo, Felicien David and many others.
Another offshoot of chanson called chanson réaliste (realist song), was a popular musical genre in France, primarily from the 1880s until the end of World War II. Born of the cafés-concerts and cabarets of the Montmartre district of Paris and influenced by literary realism and the naturalist movements in literature and theatre, chanson réaliste was a musical style which was mainly performed by women and dealt with the lives of Paris’s poor and working class. Among the better-known performers of the genre are Damia, Fréhel, and Édith Piaf.
Later 19th-century composers of French art songs, known as mélodie and not chanson, included Ernest Chausson, Emmanuel Chabrier, Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy, while many 20th-century and current French composers have continued this strong tradition.
In France today “chanson” typically refers to the music of singers such as Charles Trenet, Guy Béart, Jacques Brel, Jean Ferrat, Georges Brassens, Édith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Barbara, Dalida, Serge Reggiani, Léo Ferré, Mireille Mathieu and Serge Gainsbourg and more recently Mano Solo, Dominique A, Matthieu Chedid, Benjamin Biolay, Jean-Louis Murat, Miossec, Mathieu Boogaerts, Daniel Darc, Vincent Delerm, Maurane, Zaz, Bénabar, Christina Goh, Renan Luce, Olivia Ruiz. Chanson can be distinguished from the rest of French “pop” music by following the rhythms of French language, rather than those of English and a higher standard for lyrics.