À la claire fontaine is a traditional French song that comes from an anonymous poem written between the 15th and 18th centuries.
This children's song, very popular in France, has also been a favourite in New France/Quebec since the 18th century.
The story of the song
The origin of the song is not precisely known.
It seems that the song appeared as early as 1604 when the first permanent French settlement was established in Canada.
According to the Canadian ethnomusicologist Marius Barbeau (1883-1969), the song was composed by a juggler in the 15th or 16th century.
James Huston (1820-1854), a Canadian journalist, wrote that "the tune and lyrics appear to have been composed by an early Canadian traveller."
It was not a nursery rhyme
A la claire fontaine shares a characteristic with another famous children's song, "Au clair de la lune".
Both songs have their origin in an adult theme. In the case of "A la claire fontaine", it is about lost love.
Thus, the song is about a lover who is bathing in a fountain, hears a nightingale singing and thinks of her lover whom she lost long ago after she failed to give him a rosebud. The nightingale's heart laughs but hers cries.
A song dear to French Canadians
The song also has a hidden political meaning of resistance to the British invasion of Quebec.
It was sung by French Canadians as a sign of resistance. The rose represented the British, the clear fountain the St. Lawrence River, and the chorus "Je t'aime depuis longtemps, je ne t'oublierai jamais" (I love you for a long time, I'll never forget you) was intended for France and the French territory of Quebec.
In the nineteenth century, this song was known to have been sung by Canadian patriots during the Troubles of 1837-1838 in Lower Canada.
In 1878, the Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal adopted a national tune for French Canadians: À la claire fontaine.
Excerpts of the verses were also used by 20th-century French-Canadian novelists and poets, including Louis Hémon (Maria Chapdelaine, 1914) and Alfred Desrochers (À l'ombre de l'Orford, 1929).
There are many versions of the music and lyrics. Thus, the versions known in France, Belgium and Switzerland vary from those known in Canada.
Click here to read the oldest lyrics known to the song.
A la claire fontaine
Lyrics, music, free download... let's learn more about the popular song:
The lyrics in French
The original song of A la claire fontaine has 5 verses and a chorus. The first verse and the chorus are the best known parts of the song.
À la claire fontaine
M’en allant promener
J’ai trouvé l’eau si belle
Que je m’y suis baigné
Il y a longtemps que je t’aime,
Jamais je ne t’oublierai
Sous les feuilles d’un chêne,
Je me suis fait sécher.
Sur la plus haute branche,
Un rossignol chantait.
Chante, rossignol, chante,
Toi qui as le cœur gai.
Tu as le cœur à rire…
Moi je l’ai à pleurer.
J'ai perdu mon amie
Sans l'avoir mérité.
Pour un bouquet de roses
Que je lui refusai…
Je voudrais que la rose
Fût encore au rosier,
Et que ma douce amie
Fût encore à m'aimer.
Translation of the lyrics into English
Here is an approximative translation into English:
At the clear fountain
As I went for a walk
I found the water so beautiful
That I bathed in it
I have loved you for a long time,
I'll never forget you
Under the leaves of an oak tree,
I dried myself.
On the highest branch,
A nightingale sang.
Sing, nightingale, sing,
You who have a cheerful heart.
You have a heart to laugh...
I have it to cry.
I lost my lover
Without having deserved it.
For a bunch of roses
That I refused her...
I wish the rose
Was still in the rosebush,
And that my sweet lover
Was still loving me.
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Adaptations of the song
The Argentinean singer Jairo sang the song in Spanish, under the title La Clara Fuente, in his album Liberté (1978).
French singer Claude François sang an adaptation, C'est pour vous que je chante, released in 1979.