In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Air de Cour

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Notation
  • Audience, Patronage, Venue
  • Discography

Music Air de Cour
Michael Bane
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0192


The air de cour (courtly song) is a genre of secular vocal music produced in France during the late 16th and first half of the 17th century. The term first appeared in a collection of twenty-two solo vocal pieces with lute accompaniment published in Paris in 1571 by Adrian Le Roy. Le Roy stated that the origins of the new genre lay in the courtly appropriation of a popular vocal form, the vaudeville, and contrasted its lightness and simplicity with the “arduous” chansons of Orlande de Lassus. These and subsequent airs de cour are marked by brief, usually bipartite forms, limited vocal ranges, homophonic textures, strophic texts, syllabic text settings, and the elevated, serious tone of poetry. Unlike Le Roy’s airs, however, most 16th-century examples are for four or five voices without lute accompaniment. Some also exhibit rhythmic features suggestive of musique mesurée à l’antique. The genre peaked in both production and popularity during the reign of Louis XIII (1610–1643). Many of the era’s preeminent composers contributed to the genre, including Pierre Guédron, Antoine Boësset, and Étienne Moulinié. Airs de cour of the 17th century appeared in three forms, all published by the Ballard firm: four- or five-voice polyphony; arrangements of polyphonic airs de cour for solo voice with lute or guitar accompaniment (the most popular form); and solo voice without accompaniment of any kind. The poetic texts of airs de cour are usually anonymous, and they most often treat themes of love with a limited and precious vocabulary then current among courtly circles. A number of 17th-century editors also produced sacred parodies of popular airs de cour. Amateur musicians were the primary audience of airs de cour, but professional singers performed them as well, often with improvised ornaments and diminutions. Around mid-century the air de cour began to lose ground to new vocal genres in France, in particular the air sérieux, which featured more regular meters and basso continuo accompaniment intended for theorbo or harpsichord. Despite its disappearance from French music publishing, the reserved melodies, conservative harmony, and poetic language forged in the air de cour continued to undergird French vocal music throughout the 17th century and into the 18th. This bibliography limits itself to the air de cour proper, excluding both the air sérieux and the minor vocal genres (such as the chanson à boire, chanson à danser, and récit de ballet) contemporaneous with the air de cour.

General Overviews

Two monographs are dedicated to the genre: Durosoir 1991, the most thoroughgoing introduction to the air de cour available, and Brooks 2000, an excellent study of the 16th-century air de cour and its cultural context. Le Cocq 1996–1997 concentrates on airs with lute accompaniment, while Gérold 1921 is a dated but still useful survey of the genre set in a broader discussion of 17th-century vocal music in France. Anthony 1997 and Baron 2001 both offer summaries of the genre’s history, development, and primary texts.

  • Anthony, James R. “The Air de Cour and Related Genres.” In French Baroque Music from Beaujoyeulx to Rameau: Revised and Expanded Edition. By James R. Anthony, 407–421. Portland, OR: Amadeus, 1997.

    Survey of the genre outlining its important composers, publications, and musical characteristics; also states its relation to subsequent vocal genres, including the air sérieux.

  • Baron, John H. “Air de cour.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2d ed. Vol. 1. Edited by Stanley Sadie, 256–258. New York: Grove, 2001.

    Concise summary of topic, with brief discussion of some of the most important primary sources.

  • Brooks, Jeanice. Courtly Song in Late Sixteenth-Century France. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

    Important study of the early air de cour and its performance at the French court 1559–1589. Focuses on the intersections of the genre and the economic and social lives of courtiers, for whom song played an important role in constructions of courtly identity.

  • Durosoir, Georgie. L’air de cour en France 1571–1655. Liège, Belgium: Mardaga, 1991.

    Thorough survey of the genre with a focus on the polyphonic compositions of Pierre Guédron, Antoine Boësset, and Etienne Moulinié. Discusses social and cultural context, music printing, and performance practice, among other topics. Includes anthology of representative airs de cour in appendix.

  • Gérold, Théodore. L’art du chant en France au XVIIe siècle. Strasbourg, France: Publications de la Faculté des Lettres de l’Université de Strasbourg, 1921.

    Early survey of secular song in 17th-century France; mostly dedicated to the air de cour. First two parts trace the development of the genre over the century; final part examines the teaching and performance of song, including ornamentation and pronunciation. Dated but still useful.

  • Le Cocq, Jonathan. “French Lute-Song, 1529–1643.” 2 vol. PhD diss., University of Oxford, 1996–1997.

    Excellent study of French-texted solo songs with lute or guitar accompaniment. Covers all years in which the air de cour flourished. Discusses genre’s development, primary publications, foreign sources, performance practice, and form and style. Volume 2 contains musical examples, facsimiles, and transcriptions.

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