Ok, I know French composers are not very helpful for you to learn French, but as a big lover of music in general, I had to share this wonderful part of French culture with you!
France is not as famous as Germany or Austria for its great composers, but we still have some amazing talents we can be very proud of.
And by the way, if you really want to learn French, the best way is to completely immerse yourself in a French environment. So why not listen to French music even without lyrics?
I’ve already made an article about the top 100 French songs to learn French, and now here are 10 music of famous French composers you can listen to get you in the mood to learn French.
10 French composers music
1) Danse Macabre – Camille Saint-Saëns
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), born in Paris, is one of the most famous French composers of the Romantic music period. He was a musical genius. He made his concert debut at the age of ten, and he wrote many operas, symphonies, concertos…
Danse Macabre is a symphonic poem and was composed in 1874 and played for the first time in Paris in January 1875. This first audition in Paris was surprising because of the use of the xylophone, unused at the time in a symphony orchestra.
There’s a whole scenario: the clock strikes midnight 12 times. Satan will lead the ball. Death appears, tunes its violin, and the ball begins, quite furtively at first, livens up, seems to calm down and start again with an increased rage that won’t stop until the rooster crows. The Sabbath dissolves with the sunrise.
2) Clair de Lune – Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye might be the most famous French composer. He is considered the father of French musical Impressionism. Among his outstanding works are the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un Faune, La Mer, or his Quatuor à cordes.
Clair de Lune is the 3rd movement of the famous piano suite Suite Bergamesque. It was composed in 1890. The name was probably inspired by the poem Clair de Lune of the famous French poet Paul Verlaine.
Most of the movement is played pianissimo, and the back and forth between a great emotional intensity and a great distance make it a masterpiece of the impressionist era. Clair de Lune was used many times in cinema, television, video games… (in the movie Ocean’s eleven for example).
3) Gymnopédie No.1 – Erik Satie
Erik Satie (1866-1925) was born in Honfleur in Normandie. Associated for a while with Symbolism, but unclassifiable, he is now regarded as a forerunner of several movements, including Surrealism, Minimalism, Minimal music and the Theater of the Absurd.
The Gymnopédies are three piano compositions published in Paris in 1888. The Gymnopédies are light but atypical pieces that deliberately defy many rules of classical music. All three pieces are written in a (3/4) rhythm and all have a similar theme and structure.
In the end of 1896, Erik Satie was struggling financially and popularity wise, so he’s friend Claude Debussy – whose popularity was rising at the time – decided to help him out by orchestrating the Gymnopédies.
4) Boléro – Maurice Ravel
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was born in Ciboure in the south of France. He, and Claude Debussy, are the most influential French composers of their time and main representatives of the Impressionism in the early 20th century.
The Boléro is a one-movement orchestral piece composed in 1928. This quite unique piece, which Ravel claimed to consider a mere orchestration study, has known from its inception a worldwide success which made it his most famous work and, even today, one the most played music in the world.
But the immense popularity of Boléro tends to mask the extent of its originality and the true designs of its author. Ravel himself was surprised by the success of his work. He said: “The orchestral writing is simple and straightforward all along […], not a single composer likes Boléro – and from their point of view they are absolutely right”.
5) Carmen : “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” – Georges Bizet
Georges Bizet (1838-1875), born in Paris, is another composer of the Romantic era. He composed Carmen, which is one of the best-known and most-performed operas in the world.
The opera Carmen was created in 1875 in Paris. It’s an opéra comique in four acts with the story taking place is Seville and its surroundings in the early 19th century. Carmen is the main character, she’s a cigar maker at the tobacco factory in Seville.
L’amour est un oiseau rebelle is part of the 1st act of the opera and is one of the most famous operatic arias of all. It’s a provocative song about the untameable nature of love, and is the first time the audience discovers the character of Carmen. At least here, you have some lyrics to practice your French! (But they’re really difficult to understand…)
6) Pavane, Op. 50 – Gabriel Fauré
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) was born in Pamiers in the south of France. He was the student of the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns in Paris. He was the organist of the church of La Madeleine, before becoming professor and then director at the conservatory of Paris.
Pavane op. 50 is a work in one single movement for small symphony orchestra composed in 1887. It’s dedicated to Countess Elisabeth Greffulhe. It constitutes a real “musical portrait” of the countess, famous for her beauty, her elegance and her bourgeois attitude, that Fauré called “Madame ma Fée > Madame my Fairy”.
Pavane inspired other French composers such as Debussy, and also Ravel who was Fauré’s pupil at the conservatory of Paris. The premiere was played in 1888 in Paris, and the choral version was created three days later by the orchestra of the National Music Society.
7) Symphonie fantastique – Hector Berlioz
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was born in La Côte-Saint-André near the French Alps. He’s another famous representative of the Romantic era, even though he considered himself a Classic composer, taking as models Gluck, Beethoven and Weber.
The Symphonie Fantastique was dedicated to Nicolas I of Russia and premiered in 1830 at the Paris Conservatory. This piece is composed of 5 descriptive scenes and the performance takes 48 minutes.
The expressive treatment of the orchestra is unprecedented. Music alternately expresses beauty, elegance, darkness, the demonic. It’s a revolution in the art of orchestration: people used to look for clear and distinct music and used the original sound of the instruments, but Berlioz ordered the orchestra to whisper, sing, shout and even scream. The tempo is largo.
8) Les Indes galantes : “Les Sauvages” – Jean-Philippe Rameau
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) was born in Dijon. He’s one of the greatest French composers of the 18th century and the main representative of French Baroque music.
His most famous work is the opéra ballet Les Indes galantes. It was created in 1735 with 3 entrées (and not “acts”, to emphasize that the different parts only have a thematic analogy, and not a story in different chapters).
In 1736, Rameau adds a 4th entrée called Les Sauvages. He reused the Native American dance that he composed several years ago and which he published in his third book in 1728. You can check out the dance, it’s quite funny.
9) Tango virtuoso – Thierry Escaich
Alright, let’s put at least one contemporary author. Thierry Escaich (1965-) was born in Nogent-sur-Marne near Paris. He has an international career as an organist and improviser, playing in major world capitals. He’s now the author of more than a hundred works and is quite respected among current French composers.
This Tango Virtuoso for four saxophones is more of a suggestion I give you. It’s an educational piece played here by the French saxophone quartet Quatuor Habanera that I find quite funny and I enjoy listening to.
10) Nocturne (op.9 No.2) – Frédéric Chopin
“Blasphemy! He’s not French! He’s Polish!”. Yes, I know I’m going to incur the wrath of many people. Indeed, Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) was born in Poland and lived his first 20 years there, but he’s father was French and he lived most of his life in Paris and composed all of his major pieces there.
Therefore, I personally believe he has his place in this top 10. And anyway, who cares if he’s French or Polish: his music is just breathtaking! The Nocturnes, Op. 9 are a set of three nocturnes written between 1830 and 1832.
The second nocturne is probably his most famous work, and you’ve probably heard it at one point or other in your life. It’s the kind of music that transports you to another world you know? I hope you can enjoy it as much as I do!