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)
Missa "Et ecce terrae motus"; Sequentia "Dies Irae, dies illa": Huelgas Ensemble/Paul Van Nevel (Sony Legacy)
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)
Messe de Minuit pour Noël; In Nativitatem Domini Canticum; Instrumental Noëls: William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants (Erato)
Harpsichord Suites Nos. 1-6: Elizabeth Farr (Naxos)
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)
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 fantastique; Harold in Italy; Le 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)
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)
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)
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.
Complete Songs: Sarah Walker/Thomas Allen/Roger Vignoles (Hyperion)
Poem of Love and the Sea, Op. 19: Victoria de Los Angeles/Lamoureux Concerts Orchestra/Jean‑Pierre Jacquillat (Angel/EMI Classics)
Orchestral Works I: La Mer; Nocturnes; Prélude à l'après midi d'un faune; Marche écossaise; Berceuse héroïque; Musiques pour Le Roi Lear; Images for Orchestra; Jeux; Printemps: Michel Sendrez & Fabienne Boury/Orchestre National de l'O.R.T.F./Jean Martinon (EMI Classics)
Orchestral Works II: Children'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)
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)
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 nuit; Miroirs; Le 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 Works: Amériques; Offrandes; Hyperprism; Octandre; Arcana; Densité 21.5 for solo flute;Ionisation; Ecuatorial; Nocturnal; Intégrales; Déserts: Asko Ensemble, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly (Decca)
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
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)
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 Festival. The CD of the soundtrack was released by MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure) on August 7.