Contemporary French Composers You Should Know

Contemporary orchestra │
Contemporary orchestra │ | © yunje5054
Paul McQueen

You might be familiar with the Baroque compositions of Jean-Philippe Rameau, the Romantic arrangements of Jacques Offenbach, or the Impressionistic works of Claude Debussy, all great French composers from history. But what about those creators of classical music living and working today? Below you can listen to ten of France’s most distinguished contemporary composers.

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Claude Bolling

Born in Cannes in 1930, Bolling studied at the Nice Conservatory before relocating to Paris. A child prodigy, he was playing jazz piano professionally by 14. Preferring bebop to the avant-garde, Bolling was an integral part of the traditional jazz revival in the 1960s. In his career, he has also scored the music for over 100 motion pictures and become renowned for his collaborations with other musicians such as his Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano Trio with Jean-Pierre Rampal and his tributes to greats like Django Reinhardt.

Éliane Radigue

Born in Paris’ Les Halles district in 1932, Radigue became a student of Pierre Schaeffer, the theoretical originator of musique concrète, in the early 1950s. Through the 1960s, she developed her own style of electronic composition closer to New York’s minimalists. After a 1974 performance at Mills College in California, Radigue was introduced to the meditative practices of Tibetan Buddhism. She soon converted to the religion, which has greatly influenced her work, particularly her masterpiece Trilogie de la Mort. L’Ile Re-sonante, from 2000, is her last electronic work before transitioning to works for acoustic instruments.

Yves Prin

Prin excelled during his piano studies at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, winning several awards during his time at the school. However, an encounter with the legendary Italian violinist, conductor, and composer Bruno Maderna in the late 1960s convinced him that he should dedicate himself to conducting. This career has seen him hold prestigious positions in the Netherlands and France. So far, he has composed a catalog of over forty works, displaying his unique dramatic language and lyrical vision of music and, in recent years, has begun performing again as a pianist.

Gilbert Amy

From his time at the Conservatoire de Paris, Amy has worked with and been influenced by some of the biggest names in 20th-century French classical music including Olivier Messiaen, Darius Milhaud, and Pierre Boulez, under whose direction he composed his Piano Sonata. Amy’s compositions have won him numerous awards, including the Grand Prix National de la Musique in 1979, the Grand Prix of SACEM in 1983, the Grand Prix Musical of the City of Paris in 1986, and the Prix of the President of the Republic from the Academy Charles Cros in 1987.

Jean-Pierre Leguay

Born in 1939 in Dijon, Leguay is the most prominent French organist of his generation. At 22, he took up the position of titular organist at Notre-Dame-de-Champs in Paris, a position he held for 23 years before being appointed to the same role at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Famed for his works throughout Europe, North America, and Asia, Leguay has composed over 70 works for various instrumental and vocal ensembles, all of which explore the ‘alchemy of sound.’ On January 1, 2013, he was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.

Gérard Grisey

Born in Belfort in northeastern France in 1946, Grisey first studied at Trossingen Conservatory in Germany before entering the Conservatoire de Paris, where he won prizes for piano accompaniment, harmony, counterpoint, fugue, and composition. His success continued throughout his career, featuring sought-after appointments at conservatories and universities in Europe and the United States. Before his sudden death from a ruptured aneurysm in 1998, he said of musicians that, ‘Our model is sound not literature, sound not mathematics, sound not theatre, visual arts, quantum physics, geology, astrology or acupuncture.’

Tristan Murail

Unlike most composers on this list, Murail followed university studies outside of the world of music, instead focusing on Arabic and economics. Only after this, did he enter the Conservatoire de Paris to study composition with Olivier Messiaen. During the 1990s, he taught computer music and composition at IRCAM in Paris and helped develop Patchwork composition software. Following this, he moved to Columbia University in New York. Along with Grisey, he is credited with inventing the ‘spectral’ technique of composition in the 1970s, which incorporates sonographic representation and mathematical analysis in decision-making.

Joël-François Durand

Born in Orléans in 1954, Durand studied mathematics, music education, and piano in Paris before undertaking courses in composition in Germany, the United States, and Aix-en-Provence. Since 1991, he has been based at the University of Washington, where he is currently Professor of Composition, Chair of the Composition Program, and Associate Director of the School of Music. As well as teaching and composing, Durand has been designing and manufacturing state-of-the-art tonearms for record players since 2009.

Pascal Dusapin

Dusapin’s music, though inspired by Edgard Varèse and Iannis Xenakis, as well as elements of jazz and French folk music, is in a category of its own, distinguished by its microtonality, tension, and energy. He refuses to use electronics and percussion besides timpani and, until 1997, wouldn’t use piano in his compositions despite being an accomplished jazz pianist. Dusapin has composed an extensive catalog of solo, chamber, orchestral, vocal, choral works, and operas. He has been awarded numerous prizes, most recently the $1 million Dan David Prize for innovative and interdisciplinary research in 2007.

Nicolas Bacri

Born in Paris in 1961, Bacri presented his ideas about his own compositions in his 2004 book Notes étrangères, stating, ‘[M]y music is not neo-Classical, it is Classical, for it retains the timeless aspect of Classicism: the rigor of expression. My music is not neo-Romantic, it is Romantic, for it retains the timeless aspect of Romanticism: the density of expression. My music is Modern, for it retains the timeless aspect of Modernism: the broadening of the field of expression. My music is Postmodern, for it retains the timeless aspect of Postmodernism: the mixture of techniques of expression.’

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