French Composers


In the wake of the terrible attacks in Paris, I found myself listening to a lot of French music and thinking about the Leonard Bernstein quote going around on Facebook: "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before." This list came to seem like my natural response. A very small response, I know. This list is chronological and leaves off people I should probably include. The forty [note: now forty-one] composers listed below are merely a start.

Léonin AKA Leoninus (c.1135-c.1201)
The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris in the 1100s was a major musical center, and Léonin (the first named composer from whom we have notated polyphonic music) was a crucial figure for defining the liturgical use of organum, the first polyphony. Earlier organum was fairly simple, involving parallel intervals and later contrary motion, but the mid-12th century brought the more sophisticated melismatic organum -- multiple notes sung against one note.

Magister Leoninus, Vol. 1: Red Byrd/Cappella Amsterdam (Hyperion)

Pérotin AKA Perotinus (c.1160-1225)
Pérotin was Léonin's sucessor at Notre Dame and built upon Léonin's innovations by expanded his own music to three and four voices: his Viderunt omnes and Sederunt principes are the earliest written examples of four-part music in Europe. Pérotin’s music and the Notre Dame style in general were hugely influential; even now, Minimalist composer Steve Reich cites Pérotin’s method. Though obviously quite ancient, it can sound very modern to us, as it long predates harmony as we think of it. The long, sinuous vocal lines weave around each other beautifully.

Viderunt omnes; Alleluia posui adiutorium; Dum sigillum summi Patris; Alleluia nativitas; Beata viscera; Sederunt principes: Hilliard Ensemble/Paul Hillier (ECM)

Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-1377)
Machaut created masterpieces of both liturgical and secular musics (and I picked the recommended recording partly to reflect that), and was a vastly influential figure both musically (the epitome of the Ars Nova) and poetically. His Notre Dame Mass is the first known mass from the pen of a single non-anonymous composer. His extensive works (including around 400 poems, many being song lyrics) contributed to the codification of musical and poetic forms, especially song types.

Notre Dame Mass; “The Lay of the Fountain”; “My end is my beginning”: Hilliard Ensemble/Paul Hillier (Hyperion)

Guillaume Dufay (c.1400-1474)
Dufay was the most famous composer of his time, and at the center of the dominant Burgundian style. Around 1428, he apparently invented the fauxbourdon style of parallel movement which led to the sixth chord (first inversion of the triad) becoming acceptable usage. This pointed the way towards the very beginnings of modern harmony, thebridge from the isorhythmic practices of the late Medieval period to the harmonic and melodic practices of the early Renaissance.

Missa Se la Face Ay Pale: Diabolus in Musica/Antoine Guerber (Alpha)

Johannes Ockeghem (c.1410-1497)
Ockeghem’s contrapuntal mastery led to him being considered Dufay’s successor as greatest living composer; his  Missa Prolationum consists entirely of mensuration canons. His is the earliest surviving polyphonic Requiem.

Requiem, Missa Mi-Mi, Missa Prolationum: Hilliard Ensemble/Paul Hillier (Virgin Veritas)

Josquin des Prez (c.1440-1521)
The epitome of the Franco-Flemish school, Josquin was Ockeghem's successor as "the greatest," widely admired for his technical mastery. He combined the Franco-Flemish polyphonic style with Italian homophony; in his polyphony he often emphasized equality of the lines through imitation. He was equally likely to write austerely or ornately, and equally adept at either. His influence was amplified by the more widespread promulgation of his works afforded by the invention of music printing (though there was also a brisk trade in misattributed works assigned, after his death, to his name for commercial reasons). His Missa Pange Lingua, perhaps his last work, is a masterpiece of the paraphrase technique and uses a hymn by Thomas Aquinas. His remarkable ingenuity is demonstrated in the Mass "La sol fa re mi" in the way that he uses over 200 times the five-note motif it's named for without seeming repetitive.

Missa Pange Lingua; Missa La Sol Fa Re Mi; motets: Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips (Gimell)

Pierre de La Rue (c.1460-1518)
Another great Franco-Flemish polyphonist, strongly influenced by Josquin, his trademarks are dense textures, extreme chromaticism, and favoring lower ranges; his Requiem is an extreme example of the latter.

Missa pro defunctis (Requiem); Missa de Beata Virgine: Ensemble Officium/Wilfried Rombach (Christophorus)

Antoine Brumel (ca. 1460-ca. 1513)
Brumel was a famous composer and singer in his time, noted for musical and personal eccentricities but also for his great knowledge of older musical techniques. The first printed collections of music included his works; one was devoted entirely to his Mass settings. An even greater sign of the regard in which he was held is that Lassus performed his Mass "Et ecce terrae motus" (the so-called Earthquake Mass) over 50 years after Brumel's death, in a time when most performances were of current material. In 12 parts, it's an exceptionally rich and complex piece even by the standards of the time, not only highly contrapuntal but also full of extreme voice-crossings. The Mass is performed a cappella, but brass are added for the Sequentia, which alternates chant and composed sections.

Missa "Et ecce terrae motus"; Sequentia "Dies Irae, dies illa": Huelgas Ensemble/Paul Van Nevel (Sony Legacy)

Nicolas Gombert (c.1495-c.1560)
Not a good man (he was fired from the Imperial Chapel of Emperor Charles V after he was caught having sex with a choirboy), he was nonetheless too great a composer to leave off this list -- so great that Josquin had been his mentor; so great that after around seven years' punishment as a galley slave, he was pardoned after writing some Magnificats or motets for Charles (though Charles wisely didn't give Gombert his job back).
Missa Media vita in morte sumus; Motets: Media vita in morte sumus; Salve Regina; Anima mea liquefacta est; O crux, splendidior; Quam pulchra es; Musae lovis: Hilliard Ensemble (ECM)

Eustache du Caurroy (1549-1609)

Du Caurroy was a master of counterpoint who eventually worked his way up to being the official composer for the royal chapel. His Requiem (Mass for the Dead) was written for the funeral of King Henry IV and continued to be played at the funerals of French kings for several centuries afterwards. As well it should have; in its measured dignity and austere beauty, it is one of the greatest pieces of music in French history.

Missa Pro Defunctis (1606); Psalm 80; Psalm 70: Doulce Mémoire/Denis Raisin-Dadre (Naïve/Astrée)

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704)

With the (Italian-born, hence not included here) Jean-Baptiste Lully holding a legal monopoly on opera performance for much of Charpentier's life (though the ban was occasionally flouted; his patrons could somewhat protect him), Charpentier focused most on sacred music and oratorios. He was influenced by Italian music, having lived in Rome for a few years and studying with Giacomo Carissimi there. The recommended album features a Christmas mass that quotes eleven carol melodies.

Messe de Minuit pour Noël; In Nativitatem Domini Canticum; Instrumental Noëls: William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants (Erato)

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729)
At a time when female composers were a great rarity, Jacquet's talents were so blindingly obvious that one of her patrons was King Louis XIV, and contemporaries ranked her the equal of famous contemporary male composers. Heard now, she seems their better.

Harpsichord Suites Nos. 1-6: Elizabeth Farr (Naxos)

Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747)
One of the shining lights of the French Baroque, Rebel was a child prodigy whose performance at age eight impressed the great Lully, who became his teacher. After working his way through the ranks of Paris' finest orchestras, becoming director of several, in 1718 he became chamber composer to King Louis XIV. Besides his chamber music, he was a noted composer of ballet music. He is most famous among musicologists for the opening chord of Les élémens, which has all twelve notes, an unprecedented dissonance for its time; the work (a ballet symphony) depicts the creation of the universe, and that chord represents the original chaos. That chord aside, his work is generally quintessentially French: elegant, melodic, gracefully ornamented.

Les élémens: L'Orfeo Barockorchester, Michi Gaigg (CPO)

François Couperin (1668-1733)
Couperin filtered the influence of Corelli through a French sensibility. He was especially famed as a keyboardist, and his technical writings influenced many, including Bach. Though he was adept in many formats, it is as an exemplar of the great French keyboard tradition that he is most remembered.

Pieces for Two Harpsichords: William Christie & Christophe Rousset (Harmonia Mundi)

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764)
Rameau’s music is perhaps the most graceful and refined in the French keyboard tradition. He was also important in French opera, but his keyboard music communicates most easily with modern listeners.

Music for Hapsichord Vol. 2: Gilbert Rowland (Naxos)

Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764)
There was something of a musical war in France in the 1700s between the French and the Italian styles, with the latter being more overtly virtuosic.  Leclair chose the Italian approach and pursued the success of Corelli's famous trio sonatas. But unlike many imitators, Leclair's were more original in both form and substance. Written for two violins, cello, and harpsichord, five of these six are in four movements, alternately slow and fast; the third sonata adds a fifth movement. Half the fast movements are fugues which combine grace and contrapuntal depth; the other movements, sometimes dance-derived, are characterized by an abundance of the cool, lilting charm the French have long specialized in. Though it's hard to hear at this long historical remove, Leclair's harmonies were sometimes more daring than was the norm at the time; sometimes piquant dissonances (always resolved, of course) spice up the sound.

Trio Sonatas, op. 4: London Baroque/Charles Medlam (Harmonia Mundi)

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastiqueis the first psychedelic music, depicting (in Berlioz's words) "a young musician of abnormal sensitivity and perfervid imagination" on an opium trip, to which he has been driven by romantic frustration. It's innovative in construction, attaining thematic unity by using what the composer called an idée fixe, or a motto theme, in each of its five movements, the theme representing the way the musician keeps thinking of his love across or within each context: "Reveries and Passions," "A Ball," "Scene in the Country," "March to the Scaffold," and "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath," as the movements are titled.

Symphonie fantastiqueHarold in ItalyLe Corsaire Overture; Béatrice et Bénédict Overture; Roman Carnival Overture; Benvenuto Cellini Overture; Les Francs-Juges Overture: Donald McInnes/Orchestre National de France/Leonard Bernstein/London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn (EMI Classics)

Charles Gounod (1818-1893)
Not counting the oddity of his Ave Maria (he put a new melody with those words over a Bach Prelude), Gounod's most famous work is his grand opera Faust. As great as that work is, this is unfair to a brilliant composer whose two symphonies, hardly heard nowadays, are also fine, and whose Messe Solennelle(solemn mass), AKA St. Cecilia Mass, is equally masterful. And his opera Romeo & Juliet is pretty good too.

Faust: Victoria de los Angeles/Nicolai Gedda/Boris Christoff/Choir & Orchestra of the National Opera Theater/Andre Cluytens (EMI Classics)

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
A child prodigy who also had a lengthy career, Saint-Saëns is not respected as much as he should be; it's almost as if he made composing seem so easy that people think his is not worth respecting. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Third is the only one of Saint-Saëns's five symphonies (two unnumbered and unpublished) to achieve standard repertoire status, especially distinctive because it is one of the few symphonies to feature the organ. After its premiere, Gounod called Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) "the French Beethoven." The symphony not only features organ (though not in all movements), but two pianos. Saint-Saëns's piano concertos are perhaps more representative of his style, sparkling concoctions of undeniably French flavor.

Symphony No. 3 in C minor "Organ": Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch (RCA Living Stereo)

Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5; Allegro appassionato; Rapsodie d'Avergne; Wedding Cake: Caprice-Valse; "Africa" Fantasy: Stephen Hough/City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo (Hyperion)

Léo Delibes (1836-1891)
Millions of people who never heard of the highly melodic Delibes are familiar with the "Flower Duet" from his last opera, Lakmé, from its use in British Airways commercials. His ballet Coppélia, about a mechanical dancing doll, is also well known.

Lakmé: Natalie Dessay/Gregory Kunde/José Van Dam/Delphine Haidan/Toulouse Capitole Chorus & Orchestra/Michel Plasson (EMI Classics)

Georges Bizet (1838-1875)
Mostly known for opera (especially his immortal Carmen), Bizet also wrote a fine, if somewhat backward-looking (yet still fresh-sounding) symphony. Nonetheless, it's his theatrical music on which his reputation rightly stands.

Carmen: Angela Gheorghiu/Roberto Alagna/Inva Mula/Thomas Hampson/Elizabeth Vidal/Isabelle Cals/Ludovic Tézier/Nicolas Cavallier/Nicolas Rivenq/Yann Beuron/La Lauzeta, Children's Choir of Toulouse/Choir "Les Éléments"/National Orchestra of the Capitol of Toulouse/Michel Plasson (EMI Classics)

Jules Massenet (1842-1912)
Massenet is best known for his many operas, most notably Manon, one of the great tragic operas (never mind that it is an "opéra comique"; that just designates a mixture of arias and spoken dialogue). An excellent orchestrator, and more versatile than his critics will admit, he was also a popular professor at the Paris Conservatory for many years.
Manon: Beverly Sills/Nicolai Gedda/Gérard Souzay/Gabriel Bacquier/Ambrosian Opera Chorus/New Philharmonia Orchestra/Julius Rudel (Deutsche Grammophon)
Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937)
Born into a family of organists and organ builders, Widor had great connections but also great talent; at age 24 he became Saint-Saëns's assistant. Widor moved the French organ tradition into a more symphonic direction, abetted by the more colorful organs being designed by family friend Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. Organ professor and later composition professor at the Paris Conservatory, Widor taught the next several generations of French organists and composers.

Organ Symphonies Nos. 3, 4, 9: Marie-Claire Alain (Erato)

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
Fauré developed a highly distinctive and utterly French style. A composition student of Saint-Saëns, he in turn taught Ravel, Enesco, Koechlin, Schmitt, Nadia Boulanger, and many others during his long tenure as Professor of Composition (and later Director) at the Paris Conservatory after spending the early part of his career as organist at a succession of prestigious churches. Delicacy and restraint are the trademarks of his music; his use of modes and unresolved dissonance (though never harsh) proved a useful example for the Impressionists of the next generation. Fauré, an agnostic, wanted to write a more comforting Requiem. He didn't start over from scratch (as Brahms did in his German Requiem), instead retaining much of the standard Latin Requiem text, though definitely not the stern Dies Irae, while supplementing it with other liturgical texts on the subject. The result is gentle, the polar opposite of the thundering showpieces the Romantic era had produced. Fauré emphasizes the choir's role, giving it some of the most ethereal melodies ever heard in a church.

Requiem; Pavane; Pelléas et Mélisande: Elly Ameling/Bernard Kruysen/Jill Gomez/Netherlands Radio Chorus/Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Jean Fournet, David Zinman (Philips)

Henri Duparc (1848-1933
Duparc is in a way the most tragic figure in French music: a student of Franck, a co-founder of the Société Nationale de Musique Moderne, he had a psychological breakdown at age 37, after which he found composing "repugnant, and he later went blind and, near the end of his life, was paralyzed; he destroyed the majority of his compositions, leaving only forty, some incomplete. The most famous are his seventeen art songs, most famously "L'invitation au voyage" and "Chanson triste."

Complete Songs: Sarah Walker/Thomas Allen/Roger Vignoles (Hyperion)

Ernest Chausson (1855-1899)
Chausson got a late start, was not prolific, and died at age 44 in a bicycle accident, yet left several masterpieces. Though a pupil of Massenet and Franck, the biggest influence on his style might be Wagner; certainly Chausson's most famous piece, the long orchestral song Poem of Love and the Sea, is strongly Wagnerian -- yet with French elegance and poetic sensibility that elevate it above imitation. His only symphony is also worth hearing.

Poem of Love and the Sea, Op. 19: Victoria de Los Angeles/Lamoureux Concerts Orchestra/Jean‑Pierre Jacquillat (Angel/EMI Classics)

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
The primary Impressionist (though he didn’t like the term), Debussy did more than any other pre-20th century composer to overthrow traditional harmony with his use of pentatonic and whole-tone scales and non-tonal parallel chords. Yet what was once radical and reviled is now cozily beloved, and Debussy is generally considered France’s greatest composer. A child prodigy pianist who was admitted to the Paris Conservatory at age 10, his ideas about harmony displeased his professors and the French musical establishment, and he faced great opposition. In 2012, for the 150th anniversary of his birth, I wrote at length about Debussy and various recordings of his works

Orchestral Works ILa Mer; Nocturnes; Prélude à l'après midi d'un faune; Marche écossaise; Berceuse héroïque; Musiques pour Le Roi Lear; Images for Orchestra; JeuxPrintemps: Michel Sendrez & Fabienne Boury/Orchestre National de l'O.R.T.F./Jean Martinon (EMI Classics)

Orchestral Works IIChildren's Corner Suite; Petite Suite; Danses sacrée et profane; La Boîte à joujoux; Fantaisie for Piano & Orchestra; La plus que lente; Clarinet Rhapsody; Saxophone Rhapsody; Khamma; Danse: Marie Claire Jamet/Aldo Ciccolini/Guy Dangain/Jean Marie Londeix/Orchestre National de l'O.R.T.F./ Jean Martinon (EMI Classics)

Preludes for Piano, Books I & II: Paul Jacobs (Nonesuch)

Pelléas et Mélisande: Maria Ewing/François Le Roux/José Van Dam/Jean-Phillipe Courtis/Christa Ludwig/Patrizia Pace/Rudolf Mazzola/Vienna Philharmonic/Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon)
Albéric Magnard (1865-1914)
Wealthy from birth (his father was the publishing director of Le Figaro, which, when it went to daily publication in 1866, was France's largest newspaper), Magnard experienced little public success but was able to self-publish more than half of his opus numbers before his tragic and early death in World War I after German cavalry set fire to his house, killing Magnard and destroying irreplaceable compositions. He was strongly influenced by his teacher Vincent D'Indy as well as Franck and Wagner. Magnard's four dense, structurally cyclical four-movement symphonies, rarely heard in the concert hall, have recently attracted attention in new recordings. His orchestrations are colorful in a shimmering, glittering way suggestive of Impressionism.

Symphonies Nos. 1-4: BBC Scottish Sym. Orchestra/Jean-Yves Ossonce (Hyperion)

Erik Satie (1866-1925)
Satie was mostly a miniaturist, partly a result of his rejection of thematic development and sonata form. Various of his musical phases influenced Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Milhaud, and more, and he became something of an icon of irony with such work titles as "Desiccated Embryos."

Gymnopedies; Gnossiennes; Nocturnes; La Belle Excentrique; 3 Morceaux en forme de poire; etc.: Aldo Ciccolini (EMI Classics)

Albert Roussel (1869-1937)
Roussel got a late start, not beginning intensive musical study until age 25. After starting out under the spell of the Impressionists Roussel came to favor thicker textures, more formally structured work, masterful counterpoint, and neo-classicism. Writing more densely than most of his countrymen but more piquantly than their Austro-Germanic opposites, he found a distinctive middle ground and tilled it productively.

Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4; Piano Concerto; Bacchus et Ariane: Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Concervatoire/André Cluytens; Orchestre National de France/Georges Prêtre (EMI Classics)

Louis Vierne (1870-1937)
Vierne, another in the long line of great French organist-composers, triumphed over trials and tribulations (near-blindness, divorce, the deaths of his brother and his son in WWI, a severe leg injury) to do what he had always said he wanted to do: die at the organ of Notre Dame de Paris, keeling over from a heart attack or stroke while giving a recital. A pupil of Widor, Vierne followed in his footsteps compositionally with six famous organ symphonies.

The Six Symphonies for Organ: Pierre Cochereau (Solstice)

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
The epitome of Gallic elegance, Ravel was not prolific, but almost everything he wrote is a highly polished gem. Nowhere is the scintillating character of his music better displayed than in his piano works. He is arguably the most popular French composer: the French rights agency SACEM reports that his music earns more in royalties than anyone else’s. Taking into account how little of it there is, relatively speaking, this indicates what a high percentage of his music is standard repertoire.

Piano Concertos; Valses Nobles et Sentimentales: Krystian Zimerman/London Symphony Orchestra/Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez (Deutscje Grammophon)

Complete Music for Solo Piano: Valses Nobles et Sentimentales; Gaspard de la nuitMiroirsLe Tombeau de Couperin; À la manière de Borodine; Menuet antique; À la manière de Chabrier; Menuet sur le nom de Haydn; Sonatine; "Pavane pour une Infante défunte"; Jeux d'eau; Prélude; La Valse: Abbey Simon (Vox)

Edgard Varèse (1883-1965)
Varèse was the first significant electronic composer. That his complete extant works (all but one of his early compositions -- before he moved to the U.S. in 1915 -- were lost, destroyed, or burned in a warehouse fire) can fit on just two CDs shows that he was not prolific, but his highly innovative 1920s compositions, which arguably changed the very definition of music, proved extremely influential on musicians ranging from John Cage to Frank Zappa.

Complete WorksAmériquesOffrandesHyperprismOctandreArcanaDensité 21.5 for solo flute;IonisationEcuatorialNocturnalIntégralesDéserts: Asko Ensemble, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly (Decca)

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974)
The prolific Milhaud is most frequently mentioned in music texts as one of "Les Six," a group of modernist French composers, and for his 1923 ballet La Création du monde (The Creation of the World), the first symphonic work to incorporate jazz and blues. Jazz fans know him as Dave Brubeck's teacher at Mills College (Brubeck named one of his sons Darius). Among Milhaud's 443 opus numbers is a startlingly broad variety of always attractive music. Milhaud's accomplishments and the high quality of his symphonic inspiration suggest that he is due for a serious reassessment and admission into the pantheon of the modern greats.

La Création du mondeLe Boeuf sur le toit; Suite Provençale; L'Homme et son désir: Orchestre National de Lille/Jean-Claude Casadesus (Naxos)

Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)
The talented but sickly Boulanger had attracted considerable attention by the time she died from Krohn's Disease at age 24. She'd been the first woman to graduate with the Grand Prix de Rome from the Paris Conservatory and had written a surprising number of works in a style on the cusp between Romanticism and Impressionism. This album presents a cross-section of her work, from choral masterpieces to orchestral gems to the small opera Faust et Hélène, which won the Prix de Rome in 1913.

Faust et Hélène; Psalm 24; Psalm 130; D'un soir triste; D'un matin de printemps: City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus/BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
The second-youngest member of “Les Six” (by a month), Poulenc (1899-1963) developed a deserved reputation in the 1920s assomething of a musical scamp, but after he returned to the Catholic faith in 1936 following the death of a friend, he wrote a series of gorgeous sacred choral works devoid of irony -- though not of wit. At first, he stuck to <I>a cappella</I> works, and even later, he wrote only two sacred choral works with orchestral accompaniment, his 1950 Stabat Mater and his 1959 Gloria. This 1996 disc focuses on the best-known <I>a cappella</I> pieces for mixed chorus with Latin texts. The first, and largest, is his 1937 Mass in G major. It's chordal and calm, and though full of harmonic twists that have tripped up many a chorus, constructed with voice-leading that skillfully diminishes the actual difficulties of some of the daring sections. There are also four Lenten motets (1939) and four Christmas-season motets (1952) that contain some of the greatest choral writing ever.

Four motets for a time of penitence; Exultate Deo; Salve Regina; Four motets for the Christmas season; Mass in G major: RIAS-Kammerchor/Marcus Creed (Harmonia Mundi)

Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986)
Duruflé took self-criticism to an extreme, scrapping compositions and endlessly revising others. He has only 14 opus numbers, mostly solo organ works and sacred choral compositions, reflecting his lengthy tenure as organist at St. Etienne-du-Mont in Paris. He studied with many of the greats of the unique French organ tradition -- Tournamire, Guilmant, Vierne, Gigout -- as well as with composer Paul Dukas. By far his best-known piece is his sublime 1947 Requiem, Op. 9. Like Fauré's, it's designed to provide maximum solace, omitting the hellfire-and-brimstone bits. The recommended recording includes both choral and organ works. The other major choral opus on this disc, the Four Motets on Gregorian themes, Op 10, is for <I>a cappella</I> choir. The first motet, the gentle "Ubi Caritas," is sometimes heard on its own. The use of gracefully harmonized Gregorian chant is typical of his work; chant melodies show up in the Requiem and are prominent in the Mass "Cum jubilo."

Requiem; Scherzo for Organ; Motets (4) on Gregorian themes; Prélude et fugue sur le nom d'Alain; Notre Père

Jean Langlais (1907-1991)
Blind from the age of two due to glaucoma, Langlais began studying organ with André Marchal (also blind) at the National Institute for Blind Children; later, at the Paris Conservatory, he studied with Marcel Dupré, Paul Dukas, and Charles Tournemire. His compositions are excellent, and Langlais was also a great improvisor (I am happy to have heard him on tour in 1979), which the recommended recording demonstrates.

Langlais at Notre-Dame de Paris: Maîtrises Notre-Dame de Paris/Quatuor de trombones de Paris/ Jean Langlais (Solstice)

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
Messiaen was one product of the French organ tradition whose impact turned out to be strongest in other formats, though one can listen to his sole symphony through the ears of an organist and surmise a connection between his orchestrational choices and the unique sound of French cathedral organs. In 2008, on his centenary, I looked at more of his music.

Turangalîla Symphony: Yvonne Loriod/Jeanne Loriod/Toronto Symphony/Seiji Ozawa (RCA Red Seal)

Quatour pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time): Tashi [Peter Serkin/Ida Kavafian/Fred Sherry/Richard Stoltzman] (RCA Victor Gold Seal)

Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013)
Dutilleuxwas a highly independent, severely self-critical composer who left a relatively small written legacy, considering his longevity, but a most distinctive and high-quality one. Early on (though, for him, "early" picks up well into his career, for he disowned all his pre-1948 work) -- for instance, his First Symphony -- his music could sound a bit jazzy; later it became more dissonant and severe. Rostropovich commissioned a cello concerto from Dutilleux, and Tout un monde lointain (A whole distant world) became a classic of the repertoire and the composer's favorite of his own works.

Cello Concerto “Tout un monde lointain”; Violin Concerto “L’Arbre des songes”; Symphony no 2 "Le double"; etc.: Mstislav Rostropovich/Renaud Capuçon/Aude Guirai/Timothee Collardot/Sarah Lecolle/Orchestre de la Société du Conservatoire Paris/Orchestre de Paris/Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra/French Radio New Philharmonic Orchestra/Toulouse Capitole Orchestra /Georges Prêtre/Serge Baudo/Myung-Whun Chung/Michel Plasson (EMI Classics)

Pierre Boulez (1925- )
Boulez was for a while the most doctrinaire of the Serialists, and proselytized strongly for organizing all aspects of composition, not just pitches, using Serial techniques (a concept developed by his teacher Messiaen). Later, looking for more expressiveness, he loosened his strictures. Then, starting in 1957 with Pli selon pli, he even introduced a bit of improvisation into his work (for the conductor, not individual performers). An inveterate reviser, he has produced several versions of and additions to what has become his longest piece, and most recently (1989) removed some of the open-ended aspects; that latest version is listed here.

Pli selon pli: Christine Schäfer/Ensemble Intercontemporain/Pierre Boulez (Deutsche Grammophon)

I am plagiarizing myself, drawing some of these blurbs from my 111 Composers articles of a few years back, with amendments. It was a lot to put together in one day.- Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. Earlier this year, his soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and more recently at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music FestivalThe CD of the soundtrack  was releaseby MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure) on August 7.