The song cycle was a late-developing, but exceedingly fruitful, genre in France. This study outlines the origins and development of the French song cycle from its early roots in a style based on the German song cycles of the first half of the nineteenth century, especially those of Robert Schumann, to the death of one of its primary practitioners, Gabriel Fauré.
The works discussed begin with Poème d'avril (1866) by Jules Massenet, with an aside to Hector Berlioz's Les Nuits d'été, and end with Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (1937) by Maurice Ravel. Gabriel Fauré wrote seven song cycles spanning the period under consideration. Three of his cycles are in the early style, three are in the late style, and one combines traits from both styles. The early style is marked by its dependence on musical links to provide the unification of the cycle. These links are often accomplished by the return of material from the beginning of the cycle at its end. The late style differs from the early style in that its unity resides in the text, not in the music.
There are a large number of cycles and possible cycles from the period under study and continuing on into the twentieth century, most of which are unpublished or are otherwise difficult to obtain. The genre also undergoes another profound shift in the 1910s and 1920s where the use of an instrumental ensemble or orchestra begins to supplant the solo piano as the accompanimental medium of choice for songs. The material and methodology presented here provide a starting point from which to begin to reassess this neglected genre.