25 greatest French composers of all time
Daniel Jaffé explores the lives and works of France's greatest ever composers
If the music is immediately appealing, and uses instrumental colour sensitively in an atmospheric or painterly (rather than expressive) manner, the chances are you are hearing a piece by a French composer. They will rarely attempt to storm the heavens in the manner of Beethoven and Mahler (Berlioz is an obvious exception). Indeed, if any French musician shows an interest in the Austro-German tradition, they tend to prefer the pre-Romantics, particularly the suave and understated expressiveness of Mozart, and the playfulness and wit of his colleague Haydn.
Yet a good century before those two composers appeared, French music was the most prestigious in Europe, adorning the court of Louis XIV, the so-called ‘Sun King’, who came to the throne aged four in 1643, and reigned until his death in 1715 (making him to date the longest reigning monarch in history). It was at Louis XIV’s behest that the palace and gardens of Versailles were built: there, an Italian composer Jean-Baptiste Lully reigned over all Royal Opera productions and jealously guarded his privileges. We will start with the great, unambiguously French composers who were contemporaries of Lully’s, who managed to survive even under his shadow.
The best French composers ever
Marin Marais (1656-1728)
It is only relatively recently that this musician became known to a wider audience through the 1991 biopic Tous les matins du monde, starring Gérard Depardieu and his son Guillaume. Marin Marais, born in Paris of a humble shoemaker, became a chorister in the Church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, where his musical gifts were quickly appreciated, and he received his earliest instruction playing viol. Such was the standard he achieved in his playing that when his voice broke Marais was able to take lessons with the great Sainte-Colombe. Sainte-Colombe soon realised that his pupil would soon outstrip his own artistry, and when Marais was discovered spying on Saint-Colombe’s practising – hoping to discover some secrets of his master’s technical mastery – he was thrown out. By the age of 23, Marais was employed as a musician at Louis XIV’s court, and in 1679 was appointed joueur de viole de la musique de Chambre, a truly exalted position.
It is largely through Marais’ meticulously annotated instruction manuals and manuscripts that we know so much about the Baroque art of viol playing. Whether accompanied or playing solo, Marais’ music for viol is truly glorious.
Recommended recording: Pièces de Viole, Cinquième livre – Lei Henrikson (bass viol), Lars-Erik Larsson (theorbo)
Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729)
The daughter of an organ builder, Élisabeth Jacquet (de la Guerre was added to her name when she married the organist Marin de la Guerre) showed phenomenal gifts from an early age, gaining public recognition by the age of six. At ten years old, she was hailed as ‘a wonder’ by the journal Mecure galant: ‘She sings at sight the most difficult music. She accompanies herself, and others who wish to sing, at the harpsichord, when she plays in an inimitable manner. She composes pieces and plays them in all the keys asked of her.’ So impressed was Louis XIV that he placed her in the care of his then mistress, Mme de Montespan, and consistently encouraged her career. Several manuscripts of her works from the 1690s, including of solo and trio sonatas, have survived; and one of her surviving operas, Cephale et Procris, originally performed in Paris at the Académie Royale de Musique in 1694, was revived with huge success in 1989. Her name stands proud with any of her greatest French contemporaries, and deserves to be better known today.
We named Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre one of the greatest female composers ever
Recommended recording: Chamber music – Musica Fiorita, Daniela Dolci (harpsichord)
Pan Classics PC10333
François Couperin (1668-1733)
Known as Couperin le Grand to distinguish him from other members of his musically talented family, François Couperin is legendary among French composers of the Baroque era (in his honour, Maurice Ravel, almost 200 years after Couperin’s death, named his neo-baroque suite Tombeau de Couperin). Couperin was chief harpsichordist and organist at the court of Louis XIV, and while serving that monarch composed sacred music, chamber music and, above all, several volumes of keyboard works. His most performed ‘hit’ is the enigmatically titled ‘Les Baricades mistérieuses’ (The mysterious barriers), possibly referring to the fact that its beguiling melody forever straddles across the bar-lines. Though originally written for harpsichord, it works beautifully on lute or the modern guitar – which might be preferred by those yet to acquire a taste for harpsichord. Couperin’s sacred music is also beautiful and well worth hearing, as are his Nouveaux Concerts.
Recommended recording: Nouveaux Concerts – Thomas Indermühnle (oboe), Henk de Wit (bassoon), Ursula Dütschler (harpsichord)
Camerata CM 15045-6
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764)
While Ravel in the 20th century paid homage to Couperin, Ravel’s contemporary Claude Debussy paid homage to Jean-Philippe Rameau – both in writing and in his music. Having watched a performance of Rameau’s opera Castor et Pollux, Debussy described his music as ‘compounded of a delicate and charming tenderness, precise accentuation, strict declamation in recitative, without that German affectation of profundity or the need to double underline everything or explain everything’. Rameau is today most widely remembered as an opera composer, yet he began his career as a prodigiously gifted harpsichord and organ player, studying in Italy as a teenager before working in numerous provincial French towns as an organist. A man of formidable intelligence – he corresponded with Voltaire on a wide variety of subjects – his music is both immediate in its expressive communication yet far from predictable, its harmonic strangeness and adventurous nature evident whether played on harpsichord or piano.
Rameau came to opera late, his first – Hippolyte et Aricie – being staged when he was 50. This already shows Rameau as a consummate composer for the stage, though his most successful and today most often performed and recorded work is Les Indes galantes (1735), a colourful, anti-colonialist masterpiece.
Recommended recordings: Cantates profanes & Pièces en concerts Nos. 1, 3 & 5 – Solistes De l'Ensemble Baroque De Limoges/Christophe Coin (viol)
Erato Veritas 2435615405
Les Indes galantes – Purcell Choir, Orfeo Orchestra/György Vashegyi
Hector Berlioz (1803-69)
Though in many ways atypical of French composers, the impact Hector Berlioz has had on music outside France – most particularly in Russia – is such that no selection of major French composers could be without him. A fiery Romantic who embraced the extremes of human experience – most famously in his Symphonie fantastique, but also in his dramatic oratorio La damnation de Faust and even his Requiem – he also furthered the limpid expressiveness of Gluck (a bête noire of Debussy’s) in many of his songs and arias.
Recommended recording: La damnation de Faust – Michael Spyres (Faust), Joyce DiDonato (Marguerite); Coro Gulbenkian; Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra/John Nelson
Louise Farrenc (1804-75)
On first hearing, a good deal of Louise Farrenc’s work – especially her chamber music, similar in style to Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn – might appear to exemplify the well-mannered, ‘lady-like’ salon composer: which may be why her creative talent was more readily accepted by the French establishment than were that of many other women of her time. A pupil of Anton Reicha (himself a former pupil of Beethoven’s and one of the top composition teachers of the time), Farrenc was also an outstanding pianist; in 1842, she was appointed professor of piano at the Paris Conservatoire, a post she held until her retirement in 1873 – the only woman to hold such a position at that institute during the 19th century.
Her music, while building on the achievements of Mozart and Beethoven, has a subtlety which anticipates that of her compatriot Gabriel Fauré later that century. Farrenc demonstrated mastery of the sonata form in three symphonies and her many chamber music works including two piano trios, and her abundance of piano music, while much of it is comparable to the best of Mendelssohn’s, also shows a distinctly individual and sometimes quite fierce voice such as in the Etudes Op. 26.
Recommended recordings: Piano Works - Konstanze Eickhorst (piano)
Piano Trio, Op. 33; Sextet, Op. 40, etc – Linos Ensemble
Charles Gounod (1818-93)
Like Farrenc, Charles Gounod studied composition under Reicha, and seemed set on a brilliant career, not only winning the prestigious Prix de Rome but also praise from such diverse musicians as Berlioz and Mendelssohn. Yet even in his lifetime, his reputation was eclipsed. Of his dozen operas, he is today only widely remembered for Faust (1859), an international hit in its time. Though it has some of the trappings of Romantic Grand Opera, it includes several moments of distinctly French charm – such as Marguerite’s ‘Jewel Song’ (made notorious by Hergé’s ‘Milanese nightingale’ Bianca Castafiore, who regularly inflicts her interpretation of this showpiece aria), and the charming ‘Faites-lui mes aveux’ sung by the lovesick Siébel (Ravel, in a pianistic double tribute, paraphrased that aria in the style of Chabrier). Something of Gounod’s versatility and range may be gathered from his two symphonies, composed in the 1850s, the ‘Funeral March of a Marionette’, composed while he was living in London in the 1870s and later made famous by its use in the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents…, and the Ave Maria, the melody of which he added to Bach’s Prelude in C major from The Well-Tempered Clavier.
Recommended recording: Faust – Benjamin Bernheim, Véronique Gens, Andrew Foster-Williams; Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset
Bru Zane BZ1037
Jacques Offenbach (1819-80)
Possibly there are still some naysayers out there who claim Offenbach, a German Jew born in Cologne, has no business to be considered a ‘top French composer’. But Jacob (as he was named) proved so prodigiously gifted as a cellist that his father was persuaded that he and his equally talented brother, Julius, should study at the prestigious Conservatoire in Paris. Offenbach was soon bored by the Conservatoire’s staid regime, and sagged off after his first year, finding employment as a cellist at the Opéra-Comique. Unable to fulfil his ambitions as a composer there, he broke loose and ultimately formed his own Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens.
After writing several one-act operettas, his first full-length operetta, Orpheus in the Underworld (no less an artist than Gustav Doré providing its scenery), got a hostile review, condemning the work for its profanity and lack of reverence – which only stirred even greater public interest and turned it into a huge box office success. Its most famous number, now known as the can-can, was originally entitled ‘Galop infernal’: it was only when adopted by the Moulin Rouge that it became associated with the high kicking and acrobatic chorus-line of girls. Offenbach’s great masterpiece, though, is his opera The Tales of Hoffmann. By the time of his death, he managed to complete the piano score, but had only orchestrated the overture and the first act. Its most famous number is the Barcorolle, ‘Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour’, one of the most seductive numbers in all opera.
Recommended recording: Offenbach Colorature – Jodie Devos (soprano), Adèle Charvet (mezzo-soprano), Munich Radio Orchestra/Laurent Campellone
Alpha ALPHA 437
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Rather like Farrenc, Saint-Saëns’s music is quite deceptive. He adored Mozart, and his compositions often aspire to the understated elegance of that Austrian composer. Yet he also took pleasure in the theatrical devilries of Franz Liszt, and in the wild inventiveness of such Russians as Musorgsky (while also becoming a close friend of Tchaikovsky’s). That he enjoyed playing with the theatrical trappings of the Romantic pianist-composer is evident in his Piano Concerto No. 2, which even quotes to doom-laden chords from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, whose anti-hero is consigned to hell for his refusal to repent of his misdeeds. Saint-Saëns was also unostentatiously adventurous: his Piano Concerto No. 5, inspired by his holidays in north Africa, later inspired Ravel with its unusual orchestral effects. Yet Saint-Saëns was capable of writing tenderly lyrical music: most famously ‘The Swan’ in Carnival of the Animals, and also La muse et le poète – a work which has a strong affinity with the work of his beloved pupil, Gabriel Fauré.
Recommended recordings: Piano Concertos – Jean-Philippe Collard; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/André Previn
Warner Classics 586 2452
La Muse et le Poète – Renaud Capuçon (violin), Gautier Capuçon (cello); Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Lionel Bringuier
Léo Delibes (1836-91)
Besides Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky also admired the ballets of Delibes, and indeed met the composer during his 1888 visit to Paris, describing him as among ‘the young musicians…most likeable of all’. Though Delibes wrote several operas, of which Lakmé is the most famous (the Flower Duet being made famous when appropriated by British Airways as its theme tune), it is above all his ballets Coppélia (1870) and Sylvia (1876 – including a famous ‘Pizzicati’, used in Babe as our hero attempts to steal the ‘mechanical rooster’) through which his name endures. In these two ballets, Delibes wrote music that was inventive, charming, sophisticated (including the use of leitmotifs in Sylvia) and brilliantly orchestrated in a manner unprecedented in the genre, which inspired Tchaikovsky when composing his ballet masterpieces The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker.
Recommended recordings: Coppélia; La Source Ballet Suites - Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Mogrelia
Georges Bizet (1838-75)
Bizet died just as he had composed his first great hit, the opera Carmen, with the promise of far greater achievements. A pupil of Charles Gounod, whose symphonies were clearly a model for his own Symphony in C, Bizet wrote his most enduring works in the 1870s. First came Jeux d’enfants, originally for piano duet but now most famous in the form of an orchestral suite arranged from five of the original 12 movements. Then followed his pithy yet richly evocative incidental music to the play L’Arlésienne, from which he himself made a four-movement suite (its Adagietto surely an inspiration behind Mahler’s famous slow movement to the Fifth Symphony). Finally, his great operatic masterpiece Carmen, with its defiant and fiercely independent heroine whose misfortune is to get entangled with a very serious and unworldly soldier who cannot move on when their relationship ends.
Recommended recording L’Arlésienne Orchestral Suites – Chœur de l’opéra de Lyon; Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski
Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-94)
The most exuberant member of the Parisian circle that formed around the Belgian composer César Franck, Chabrier made several attempts to become a ‘serious’ composer, including a would-be Wagnerian opera Gwendoline. But he was most himself when writing carefree and light-hearted music, whether for his instrument, the piano, or for orchestra (most famously España). His music was to be greatly admired by Poulenc as well as Stravinsky in the next century.
Recommended recording: Orchestral works – Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Neeme Järvi Chandos CHSA5122 Chabrier: Orchestra Music [Neeme Järvi, Orchestre de le Suisse Romande
Chandos: CHSA 5122
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
Fauré’s music is generally softly spoken – as was the man himself – the very antithesis of the muscular heroism of a Beethoven. His most famous work, the Requiem, was written he said to ‘console the living’, and breaks convention by not harping on the theme of divine judgement. Fauré’s greatest achievement was in the realm of song, including the song cycle La bonne chanson and such beguiling gems as ‘Les roses d’Ispahan’ and ‘Après une rêve’. His chamber music, once you have tuned in to his understated style, has as much emotional power as any of his late-Romantic peers in Germany. Though he wrote relatively little for orchestra, several suites derived from his incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande, Shylock, and Masques et bergamasques are fine alternative introductions to Fauré’s gentle, understated style.
Recommended recordings: Songs, Vol. 4 – Jennifer Smith, Felicity Lott, Geraldine McGreevy (soprano), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor), Stephen Varcoe (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano)
Hyperion CDA 67336
Pelléas et Mélisande; Masques et bergamasques; Pavane; Ballade – Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne/Armin Jordan
Warner Classics 9029544112
Read part two of the best French composers ever