What are the lyrics to French nursery rhyme ‘Frère Jacques’, and who was he?

16 November 2023, 16:15

'Frère Jacques' is a popular French nursery rhyme
'Frère Jacques' is a popular French nursery rhyme. Picture: Alamy

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

We unpack the origins and history of the world-famous French nursery rhyme, also known in English as ‘Brother John’.

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‘Frère Jacques’ is a popular French nursery rhyme, known in English as ‘Brother John’ or ‘Brother Jack’.

You would usually hear it sung in a round, a type of canon where different phrases in the melody coincide but sound harmoniously together.

It is thought ‘Frère Jacques’ is about a friar who has overslept and is being urged to wake up and sound the bell for the ‘Matins’.

‘Sonnez les Matins!’ has been mistakenly translated in the past to ‘Morning bells are ringing’. In fact, ‘Matins’ refers to the midnight or early morning prayers traditionally announced by a monk – as opposed to ‘morning’, the English translation of the French word ‘matin’.

Read more: Who wrote Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and what are the lullaby’s lyrics?

'Frère Jacques' is thought to be about a lazy monk
'Frère Jacques' is thought to be about a lazy monk. Picture: Alamy

Who wrote ‘Frère Jacques’?

The earliest version of the nursery rhyme dates to around 1780, but it is unclear who wrote the words and music.

There is some evidence, found by musicologist Sylvie Bouissou, that French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau composed the music. A manuscript at the French National Library that contains ‘Frère Jacques’ amongst other songs has Rameau listed as an author.

Jean-Philippe Rameau, Frère Jacques

Did Mahler include ‘Frère Jacques’ in his Symphony No.1?

Gustav Mahler used ‘Frère Jacques’ as the basis for the third movement of his Symphony No.1, to depict a procession of animals attending a hunter’s funeral.

The German composer set the tune in the rather more haunting key of F minor, a shift from the original major key. Mahler’s version, which is also slightly syncopated, passes the melody from the strings, to the brass, to the woodwind, all playing in a round to the ominous pianissimo pound of the timpani drum.

Leonard Bernstein: Mahler - Symphony No. 1, III: Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu shchleppen [3/4]

What are the lyrics to ‘Frère Jacques’?

Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Din, din, don. Din, din, don.

English translation:

Brother Jacques, Brother Jacques,
Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?
Sound the Matins! Sound the Matins!
Ding, ding, dong. Ding, ding, dong.

Traditional English lyrics:

Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?
Brother John, Brother John,
Morning bells are ringing! Morning bells are ringing!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.