25 greatest French composers of all time
Daniel Jaffé explores the lives and works of France's greatest ever composers
Jules Massenet (1848-1912)
Massenet is most widely known for the beguiling ‘Méditation’ for solo violin and orchestra, taken from his opera Thaïs. This is just the tip of a huge iceberg of operatic talent that once commanded the stage at the height of that once great French tradition, Grand Opera. Hollywood reflected a smidgen of that reputation in Marathon Man, the thriller starring Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier, when an agent (played by Roy Schieder) has a rendezvous at the Paris Opéra, arriving to the sinister strains of ‘Dors, O cité perverse’ from Massenet’s now rarely heard opera Hérodiade. Of Massenet’s more than thirty operas, two – neither belonging to the Grand Opera tradition – have had more enduring success: Manon (1884) has been described as encapsulating the charm and vitality of the Parisian Belle Époque; while Werther (1887), based on Goethe, presents a tragic love story. Perhaps Massenet’s greatest and certainly most enduring success, though, was as a teacher: his composition pupils included Gustave Charpentier, Ernest Chausson, Reynaldo Hahn and Gabriel Pierné.
Recommended recording: Manon – Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna; Opera de la Monnaie/Antonio Pappano
EMI/Warner Classics 456 3892
Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931)
Vincent d’Indy was part of César Franck’s circle and was effectively the unacknowledged godfather of Les six. His pupils included Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric (whose irreverence was quite contrary to his teacher’s sober sensibility and religious devotion), and Erik Satie, the official ‘godfather’ of Les six. Both Auric and Satie studied under d’Indy at the Schola Cantorum, the institution he himself had founded in 1894 as France’s major alternative centre of higher music education to rival the Paris Conservatoire.
D’Indy’s activities as composer and teacher were complemented by his work as a scholar, researching and editing what was then considered early music: he presented the first modern performances of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, Castor et Pollux and Dardanus. Though a leading composer of his generation, with at least two major operas to his credit, two very fine string quartets and a deal of piano music, d’Indy’s reputation in that field was eclipsed not long after his death in 1931. Possibly this was due to his right-wing and especially his anti-Semitic views, though these did not affect his professional relations with Jewish colleagues – he held Paul Dukas in high regard, who in turn hailed d’Indy as ‘One of the greatest French musicians’; yet by the 1940s they were sufficient grounds for many, including Pierre Boulez, to reject his work out of hand. Just 20 years after d’Indy’s death, only three of his works were at all known even in d’Indy’s own country: a set of orchestral variations, Istar; the symphonic poem, Jour d’été à la montagne; and his earliest masterpiece, Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français.
Recommended recording: Orchestral works, Vol. 5 – Louis Lortie (piano); Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Rumon Gamba
Chandos CHAN 10760
Ernest Chausson (1855-99)
Chausson is perhaps best known for Poème, his fragrantly poignant piece for solo violin and orchestra. Born to a wealthy family, Chausson began his career as a lawyer; but music held him in thrall, and on meeting the composer Vincent d’Indy he was drawn into the circle of the Belgian composer César Franck. He became harmonically adventurous, on one hand admiring Wagner, and on the other sharing an enthusiasm for Musorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov with his close friend Debussy. Chausson’s career was cut short by his premature death from crashing into a wall while going downhill on his bicycle at speed – maybe deliberately (Chausson suffered from episodes of depression). He left one symphony, one major opera – Le roi Arthus – and a wealth of songs and other vocal works, of which his lush Poème de l'amour et de la mer for voice and orchestra is a masterpiece which deserves wider recognition.
Recommended recordings: Poème de l'amour et de la mer; Symphony – Véronique Gens (soprano); Orchestre National de Lille/Alexandre Bloch
Alpha ALPHA 441
Poème for violin and orchestra – James Ehnes (violin); Quebec Symphony Orchestra/Yoav Talmi Analekta
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Debussy was both a sensualist and a perfectionist. Though he hated being defined as an ‘impressionist’, he shared with those painters an extraordinary ability to translate different qualities of natural lighting into his work, whether the dazzling sunshine of his piano showpiece L’isle joyeuse, or the ominous clouds which define an otherwise clear night sky in ‘Nuages’, the opening movement of his orchestral Nocturnes. He also delighted in sonority for its own sake, divorced from the academic necessities of resolution: in this, he found common ground in Javanese gamelan and in Musorgsky’s extraordinary use of bell-like harmonies in the Coronation scene of Boris Godunov. The harmonic world he created from all these ingredients was uniquely his, until his music inspired a host of imitators. Yet none of them quite achieved the limpid perfection of his final sonatas, most particularly the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp.
Recommended recordings: Piano works – Angela Hewitt
Hyperion CDA 67898
Three Late Sonatas – Isabelle Faust (violin), Magali Mosnier (flute), Antoine Tamestit (viola), Alexander Melnikov (piano), Xavier de Maistre (harp), etc.
Harmonia Mundi HMM902303
Erik Satie (1866-1925)
After a rather strict, bourgeois upbringing, Satie became a piano student at the Paris Conservatoire but was expelled for unsatisfactory work. He started his career as a café pianist at various establishments, including Le Chat Noir in the city’s bohemian Montmartre district. While there he wrote some saucy cabaret songs including ‘Je te veux’ and ‘La diva de l’empire’, and his three Gymnopédies for solo piano – timeless, limpid melodies with the simplest accompaniment which were the total antithesis of the late-Romanticism of Franck and his circle. Satie became friends with Debussy, had his piano pieces championed by Ravel, and for a while was the spiritual godfather of the rising young French composers known as Les six – until two of their members, Georges Auric and Francis Poulenc, offended him by sending him a baby rattle on which they had drawn a face and glued on a beard in caricature of Satie’s appearance.
Satie wrote mostly short, pithy pieces. Exceptions include his Dada-ist ballet score for Diaghilev, Parade, which includes parts for typewriter, steamship whistle and siren. Much more sober in tone is his ‘symphonic drama’, Socrate (first completed in 1918, subsequently revised at least twice) which he described as ‘a return to classical simplicity with a modern sensibility’.
Recommended recording: Piano Music, Vol. 1 – Noriko Ogawa (piano)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Long regarded – mostly without justification – as a would-be rival of Debussy’s, Ravel is now recognised as a great master in his own right. While he deeply admired Debussy’s orchestral Nocturnes, which influenced some of his works such as Rapsodie espagnole, he had earlier relished the works of Chabrier and Satie, and later took an interest in other composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky (a personal friend), Béla Bartók and George Gershwin, borrowing ideas and transforming them into his own style. Stravinsky once described him as ‘the most perfect of Swiss watchmakers’ – every one of Ravel’s works is indeed fastidiously crafted with not a wasted note or effect. His music exemplifies ‘art concealing art’: the lovely and ever-growing melody that opens the slow movement of his G major Piano Concerto sounds like an inspired improvisation – yet Ravel confessed ‘That flowing phrase! How I worked over it bar by bar! It nearly killed me!’
Recommended recordings: Piano works – Steven Osborne
Hyperion CDA 67731/2
Piano Concertos – Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier
Chandos CHSA 5084
Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)
Lili Boulanger was one of the most prodigiously gifted and powerful of young voices among French composers who came to maturity in the second decade of the 20th century. Tragically, she suffered poor health: weakened by bronchial pneumonia when she was two, she died aged only 24 from Crohn’s disease. Yet in her few years she left several great masterpieces, including the cantata Faust et Hélène with which, aged 19, she won the Prix de Rome – the first female composer to do so – and the song cycle Clairières dans le Ciel. Several of her later works are understandably fraught in character, yet there is also a good deal of sunshine to be found in her earlier choral works such as Les sirènes.
Recommended recording: Faust et Hélène, Psalms etc. – City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Chorus, BBC Philharmonic/Yan Pascal Tortelier Chandos
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Poulenc’s earliest hit were three piano pieces, Trois mouvements perpétuels, impudent musical doodles written under the influence of Stravinsky and Satie. He was long underestimated by many of his peers, who couldn’t see beyond the clowning mixed with sentimentality in so many of his works. But gradually a more profound expression became evident – first through his songs, in which his genius shone brightest (the strongly contrasting Deux Poems de Louis Aragon, composed when Paris had fallen to Nazi Germany, are a fine introduction), and then through his religious works, starting with Litanies à la Vierge Noire, composed after the shock of a colleague’s death in a car crash. He also wrote several unconventional operas, of which the surreal Les Mamelles de Tirésias – a wild roller-coaster through a wide variety of styles from music hall (think Folies Bergère) to devoutly religious – perhaps best demonstrates Poulenc’s range. By the end of his life, he was admired by such different composers as Stravinsky and Britten.
Recommended recordings: Gloria; motets – Susan Gritton (soprano); Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge; Britten Sinfonia/Stephen Layton
Hyperion CDA 67623
Deux Poems de Louis Aragon and other songs – Régine Crespin (soprano), John Wustman (piano)
Decca 475 7712
Olivier Messiaen (1908-92)
Like the Russian composer Scriabin, the mystical Catholic composer Olivier Messiaen radically transformed his music through his assimilation and invention of modes well outside the standard Western tradition. Messiaen even formulated these modes – derived partly from his own studies of such modernists as Stravinsky and Bartók, but perhaps most strikingly from traditional music from the Andes, Bali, India and Japan – and described them in a textbook, Technique of my musical language (1944). Common to the modes he favoured were their inclusion of the tritone, a pair of notes conventionally considered dissonant and even evil – therefore known as the diabolus in musica – but which Messiaen considered to be divine. That interval flavours nearly all his music from the 1930s onwards. To this, he added his growing obsession with birdsong, which he meticulously notated and included in his music from the 1940s.
What truly makes Messiaen’s music, though, is his chef-like flair in making truly exotic and flavoursome musical dishes out of these ingredients. Perhaps most startling is his organ music: by turns wild and exuberant, or eerily still yet glowing with unusual harmonies, it is quite unlike anything that had been created before for that venerable instrument. Messiaen was organist at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Paris from 1931 until his death: it was the organ which became the crucible for some of his most extraordinary musical adventures and innovations.
Recommended recordings: Organ works – Simon Preston
Eloquence 482 4917
Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013)
Though a winner of the Prix de Rome in 1938, Dutilleux’s misfortune was to come to maturity just as the Second World War broke out, and his subsequent career was overshadowed by the more obviously ‘modern’ music first of Messiaen and then by pupils of that composer, most especially Pierre Boulez (see below). But lately, thanks to a groundswell of appreciation from a younger generation of musicians who from the late 1960s onwards discovered his music – including Mstislav Rostropovich (who commissioned the cello concerto Tout un monde lointain… (1967-70), a major contribution to the repertoire) and Richard Rodney Bennett – Dutilleux’s music is now enjoying a renaissance of appreciation. Several fine recent recordings to explore include John Wilson’s BBC Magazine Award winning account of Le Loup. Correspondances – wonderfully colourful and atmospheric settings for soprano and orchestra of texts by a wide range of writers including Rilke, Van Gogh and Solzhenitsyn – is also well worth discovering.
Recommended recordings: Correspondances; Tout un monde lointain…, etc – Barbara Hannigan (soprano), Anssi Karttunen (cello); Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Esa-Pekka Salonen
Deutsche Grammophon 479 1180
Le Loup – Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
Chandos CHSA 5263
Pierre Boulez (1925-2016)
A pupil of Messiaen’s, Boulez was provocative and confrontational in his youth: in 1945, he organised a group of students to boo and disrupt the French premiere of Stravinsky’s Four Norwegian Moods. He also pointedly turned his back on Dutilleux at the premiere of the latter’s First Symphony, and called for the demolition of all opera houses. Violence was a persistent theme of his early works, such as Le Visage nuptial, Le Soleil des eaux and his Piano Sonata No. 2. After this brutalist phase, Boulez began to explore ground common to that of his great forebears Debussy and Ravel: Le Marteau sans maître (1955) is scored for soprano and an ensemble of alto flute, viola, guitar and various percussion instruments including various types of mallet percussion (vibraphone, xylorimba, etc), claves, bongos and maracas. This was followed by Pli selon pli (1963, then revised several times), again for soprano and effectively an augmented version of the ensemble used in the earlier work, notably with the addition of piano, harps and brass instruments.
By the 1960s, Boulez was part of the establishment, much in demand as a conductor – including several engagements at Wagner’s festival in Bayreuth. In 1970 the French government invited Boulez to create the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) with generous state subsidy. By the end of his career, he was writing remarkably idiomatic pieces such as Anthemes I for solo violin.
Recommended recording: Pli selon pli – Christine Schäfer (soprano); Ensemble InterContemporain/Pierre Boulez
Deutsche Grammophon 471 3442
Pascal Dusapin (b1955)
Like many of his generation brought up in the age of the LP, Dusapin developed a wide-ranging music taste, embracing free jazz and The Doors as much as Beethoven and Bach in his childhood. At the age of 18, he heard Arcana by Edgard Varèse and decided to become a composer. He studied under Iannis Xenakis in the 1970s, and in his own music has been breaking boundaries ever since. Eerie, dramatic yet curiously familiar, his music readily communicates but is ever unpredictable.
Recommended recordings: Wenn Du Dem Wind…; Aufgang; À quia - Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire/Pascal Rophé
BIS BIS 2262
Morning in Long Island – Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Myung-Whun Chung
Deutsche Grammophon 481 0814