During the early Christian era of the Middle Ages, sacred monophonic (only one voice) chant was the dominant form of music, followed by a sacred polyphonic (multi-voices) organum. By the thirteenth century, another polyphonic style called the motet became popular. During the Ars Nova era of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the trend towards writing polyphonic music extended to non-Church music. In the fifteenth century, more secular music emerged, such as the French chanson.

In the late sixteenth-century, composers attempted to recreate Greek drama using a style called monody. In the seventeenth century, Italian opera styles such as opera seria, opera buffa were very important. This Italian opera was taken up in France, where Lully developed a French national opera style. In the seventeenth century, instrumental music developed a great deal, and vocal music was usually accompanied by a written bassline called the basso continuo. Instrumental works included keyboard suites, which were based on dance suites, sonatas, organ music, and music for small groups (trio sonatas) or orchestra (e.g., sinfonias and concerto grossos). Baroque music from the eighteenth century moved towards a simpler, lighter style of instrumental music. Later in the eighteenth century, the Classical style dominated, with the main forms being sonatas, symphonies, and string quartets.

The nineteenth century is often called the Romantic era. During this era, the symphony developed, and a new style of music called “program music” (music that tells a story) developed. Other types of music that became important in the nineteenth century were grand opera, small pieces for piano; piano sonatas, often with the exploration of new harmonic or tonal ideas. In the late Romantic era, the Austro-German tradition of Wagner dominated musical composition. Composers began exploring different, looser approaches to tonality (the key-centered-ness of a piece of music). During this era, French composers such as Debussy and Ravel developed a style called Impressionism, which emphasized tone “colours”, and which used chords purely for their sound (as opposed to for their harmonic role).

During the twentieth-century, composers took many different paths. Some composers looked backwards to the light, elegant Classical works, with the Neoclassicism of the Russian-French composer Stravinsky. Austro-German composers such as Schoenberg and Berg and used a tortured, dramatic style called Expressionism. The French composer Boulez abandoned the entire tonal (key-centered) tradition of Western music with a style called Serialism. Other composers explored electronic music (Stockhausen); chance-based or random (aleatoric) music and indeterminacy (Cage); and minimalism (Reich, Glass).

French Classical Music – Great French Composers

1 – Berlioz – Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, H. 76
2 – Debussy – Sonata for Cello and Piano
3 – Ravel – Sonatine
4 – Debussy – Violin Sonata in G minor, L. 140
5 – Fauré – Élégie, Op. 24
6 – Offenbach – I. Orpheus in the underworld
7 – Berlioz – The Damnation of Faust Op. 24 – Hungarian March
8 – Rameau – Gavotte and variations

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