France Mainland

Source: Jean-Jacques Castéret

Fance Mainland

Multipart Singing in France

Multipart singing appears in southern mainland France, in four points located in the state periphery, zones of mountain and Piedmont.


  • The most northern is Savoy (2 French departments “Savoie” close to the Italian multipart tradition of valley of Aosta)
  • Old Nice County (1 department close to Ligurian - Italian - multipart singing)


  • A West to East geographical continuum with northern Basque country - Basque language -, Béarn and Bigorre - Occitan language - (2 departments)
  • In the high Aude valley (near Carcassonne): 3 villages like Espéraza

In these regions the soloist performance exists but public performances are generally in multipart singing apart from the dances in the Pyrenees (No information for Alps).

Here, multipart singing presents singers in numerus apertus (Lortat-Jacob) and on the musical level, a melodic-horizontal type behaviour (I. Macchiarella). Process is multipart and simultaneous, homorythmic and for a large part, parallel.

However, at the rhythmic level, this collective performance, and above all numerus apertus singing, doesn't present classical rhythmic scheme, but asymmetric beats, complex asymmetric rhythmic segments …

This multipart singing is constructed on the cantus firmus or cantus prius factus by the creation of one high voice and one lower voice.
However, performance is not always three parts. The core is always in two parts with the higher and the lower parts whatever the number of singers may be. For example, one can find fifteen singers producing only two parts.

In the Pyrenees, according to the local discussion and the analysis, the difference comes from the combination of several parameters:

  • the capacity to create a third voice
  • the vocal quality. There are few low voices in this region

However there is no absolute specialization of voices. In fact, certain singers will sing a particular part but can, at any moment, that is even during a performance, and in an unplanned fashion, follow another part.

Another parameter:

  • the necessity to have enough good singers to assure the other voices in their tone and firmness.
  • A melody line of cantus that allows the high and low simultaneous voice accompaniments. In order to obtain three distinct and vertically complementary parts. The bass doubling at in octave lower than the high is not ordinarily used.

In fact the multipart singing is built musically according to strict rules, it uses four models (two polyphonic prototypes: parallelism and drone):

  • Model 1: Parallelism in the high part in thirds. An exception with the second degree that often presents third or fourth. Not as a single variation but as a system, in all French (and often European) multipart.
  • Model 2: Parallelism in the bass part in thirds except the first two notes of the scale, accompanied respectively in sixth (or octave) and fifth. To be found in Béarn, Bigorre, Basque country and Savoie. The Basque country uses sometimes a strict parallel bass model, too.
  • Model 3: A low drone on the first degree of the scale. This appears in Nice County and in the small gascon village of Came (near Béarn and Basque country border).
  • Model 4: A high drone on the fifth degree. This can be found (or is known for the moment) in Béarn.

From the physical point of view, harmonics appears. The singers knows vocal fusion and I can say that they aim at it. In Béarn singers speak about votz deus anjos: voice of angels.

This tradition presents only 4 multipart models but it is necessary to understand these models or prototypes for they are, according to the definition of the semiologist Jean Molino: The “ pure” forms explicit or implicit, from which the sung realisations can be more or less distant. The interest lies in unravelling the way in which multipart models form. In any case we cannot apprehend the model without looking at the conditions of a performance.

Performances in Béarn show a multipart variation and, may be, a sense in this variation.

For example in a table context, the multipart singing starts only with two parts. Here the number of singers is variable; usually three or four. The higher pitched part in a third. This part is varied also using, commonly, fourths and fifths, sometimes sixth, according to the “degrees” of the scale. In another context, the same singers on the same song, present another multipart process. For example in a “social over-excitement” context, the great voices, seems to prefer high drone to parallelism thirds and melodic variation.

The realisation of multipart models and the structuring of vocal parts seem to follow a sense; the vocal tension parallel to either the number of singers or the consummation of alcohol.

In all the regions, singers use the same basic vocabulary with the same general meaning. However, at a particular level, the same word can sometimes have a different meaning.

For the hight part: the high or first part; and for the lower one: the bass. For the cantus, they say song, tune and in Savoie first.
For the third voice, drone or parallel, they sometimes say contra-bass (double bass) or contra-alta. In Savoie, the high voice as third part: la piülta (the cheep voice).

In the Basque country the same meaning appears with many very interesting developments. The high part can be called too mehetik. Singers translate this term as the thin voice or the slim voice: “the thin voice which goes upwards”. Also, some singers associate mehetik with forcing the voice and the pride of what wants to be distinguished.
Besides, in Basque language, a too much dominant high-pitched voice, which breaks the balance with the other voices, or the voices that are too strained, close to a cry, diversely appreciated and accepted according to the context are called basatik; literally “by the wild”, or “that comes from the wild”. So, in the Basque country metalanguage - but this representation is the same in Béarn - places clearly the polyphonic construction in a dialectic nature/culture.

The similarity between multipart singing forms in France, moreover parallelism similarities (like the bass one), without geographical continuum (between the Alps and the Pyrenees), seem to prove the existence of an old common model. However, multipart oral practice is old in these countries, dating from before the XIXth century. But, this model may come from a writing practice, may be the Renaissance faux-bourdon with its sixth consonance. The Church may have been the common mediator in the past even if free multipart improvisation by the church congregation (farmer/herders) has been generally prohibited - or just tolerated - by the priests for, at least, eighty years (Pyrenees).

However, old popular manuscripts in Béarn (XIXth c.) and Nice County (XVIIIth c. in Valley of Vesubie), theoretical treaties, show similarities or identity with oral tradition. In addition, the two French departments of Savoy are close to the now Italian Valley of Aosta, where the popular word faux-bourdon means multipart singing (E. Lagnier).

Also, the identity of cadences in Corsica and mainland France, gives an idea as for the circulation of multipart singing forms in southern Europe and Mediterranean.