Much of the cycle was composed in the summers of 1892 and 1893 while Fauré was staying in Bougival, as the guest of the banker Sigismond Bardac and his wife, the soprano Emma Bardac. Fauré was in love with her (although she later married Claude Debussy). Fauré wrote later that the cycle was his most spontaneous creation, with Bardac singing the newly composed material for him each day. The final song, "L'hiver a cessé", was completed in February 1894, and the cycle was published by Hamelle that year, with a dedication to Emma Bardac.
In a 1902 interview conducted by Louis Aguettant for Le Courrier musical, Fauré enumerated five main musical themes which recur throughout the cycle until they appear together in the final song, "L'hiver a cessé". One of these themes was taken from his earlier mélodie "Lydia", Op. 4, No. 2 (c. 1870); Fauré stated that he associated this theme with a singer, possibly meaning Emma Bardac.