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© Jorge Franganillo/Flickr

Eight Great American Composers Who Studied In Paris

Picture of Alixandra Haywood
Updated: 13 January 2017
The French capital is well known for its impressive opera houses, charming chanteuses, and quaint sidewalk musicians.The city is also well known for its pedagogical prowess; throughout the 20th century, composers from all around the world made the pilgrimage to Paris to study with internationally-renowned composers and be inspired by the city’s stunning sights.  Read on to discover a handful of American composers who made the trek abroad to study in the City of Lights.

Aaron Copland 

Modernist composer Aaron Copland was part of a large contingent of American composers who enrolled at the Fontainebleau School of Music during the period between the two World Wars. Also known as the American Conservatory, the institution was created in the 1920s thanks to increased cooperation between the American and French governments following World War I.  For the first half of the 20th century, the school welcomed a plethora of promising young American musicians and employed some of France’s top composers to introduce them to the innovative styles of composition popular in Paris at the time, as well as the often rigorous French pedagogical style. 

From 1921–1924, Copland studied with noted composers Isidor Philipp and Paul Vidal, as well as Paris’ most prolific pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger.  He was also exposed to the rich intellectual and artistic culture of Paris at the time and was heavily influenced by both contemporary French currents of thought (like Sartre or Proust) and the numerous other American expats of the Lost Generation who also called Paris home. 

George Antheil

George Antheil also arrived in Paris in the early 1920s to study with Nadia Boulanger, but unlike Copland, he kept his distance from the American enclave at Fontainebleau. Before arriving in Paris, the decidedly avant-garde composer had spent time in Berlin, where he met Igor Stravinsky.  Fast friends at first, the two would soon have a dramatic and public falling out, cementing his self-proclaimed status as a ‘bad boy’ of the classical music world. Antheil quickly befriended another key player in the Paris artistic milieu, American publisher Sylvia Beach.  In addition to giving Antheil and his wife a room in the flat above her bookshop, Shakespeare and Co. in the 5th arrondissement, Beach also introduced him to the vast network of expat writers who congregated there.  This group, which included greats like Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, would become Antheil’s closest supporters and helped launch his career in Paris.

Elliot Carter

Elliot Carter arrived in Paris in the 1930s.  Like nearly everyone on this list, Carter also studied with Nadia Boulanger, but this time at the prestigious Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris, where he earned a doctorate in music. During the 1930s, Carter mastered the neo-classical style popular at the time, which he would soon abandon for the demanding atonal and rhythmically-complex works for which he’s better known. Despite returning to his native New York immediately following his degree, Carter remained extremely active in Europe, winning prizes across the continent and serving on the board of directors of his alma mater.

Philip Glass

Minimalist composer Philip Glass studied in Paris during the 1960s.  Thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship, Glass studied with Nadia Boulanger (whose roster of students had grown so large that it had acquired its own nickname: the Boulangerie) from 1964–1966. While in Paris, Glass focused on the musical greats of the past (Mozart, Bach, etc.) rather than the serialism and electronic schools revolutionizing the music scene at the time.  He also began to get involved with the modernist theatre scene, both composing original scores for plays and acting as a music director.  It was working on a film score that Glass met celebrated Indian composer Ravi Shankar, whose methods and style would have a deep impact on his work for years to come.  Though he has since moved back to the States, Glass regularly returns to Paris for performances and premieres — catch him if you can!

John Cage

Like Philip Glass, John Cage spent his time in Paris studying the greats of the past (notably Bach). Cage’s time in the City of Lights was brief, but he packed a lot in, studying architecture, painting, and poetry, before finally settling on music.  After studying with pianist Lazare Lévy, he took off an journey of self-exploration across Europe, eventually landing in Spain, where he began his earliest compositions.

Cole Porter

Cole Porter’s years in Paris were a whirlwind. Arriving in 1917 following the US’s entry into World War I, Porter worked with a few relief organizations as well as the French Foreign Legion, even commissioning a special portable piano backpack to entertain his fellow soldiers while at camp — or so the somewhat disputed legend goes.  While in Paris, he met and married a wealthy American expat who provided him with a lavish lifestyle as well as a cover for his secret homosexuality.  His wife also tried unsuccessfully to help him find a composition teacher, allegedly approaching the city’s best teachers like Nadia Boulanger and Igor Stravinsky.  Eventually, Porter managed to secure a place at the Schola Cantorum, where he studied counterpoint and orchestration with Vincent d’Indy.  While in the City of Lights, Porter was an active member of Paris’ artistic circles as both an artist (composing for the innovative Ballets Suédois) and a patron (once hiring the Ballets Russes to perform at a private party).

Quincy Jones

Quincy Jones is a perhaps surprising addition to the long list of composers who studied with Nadia Boulanger.  Following an eye-opening tour to Paris, Jones relocated to the French capital in 1957 where he studied with both Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen, one of the century’s most revolutionary and influential composers.  To help fund his studies, Jones secured a job with the record company Barclay Disques, where he had the opportunity to record some of the country’s best chanteurs and chanteuses.

George Gershwin

Technically, George Gershwin didn’t actually study composition in Paris.  Although he arrived in the 1920s hoping to study with, of course, Nadia Boulanger, his dreams were quickly dashed when he was rejected by not only Boulanger, but also a variety of other prominent composers, like Maurice Ravel, who seemed concerned about tampering with young Gershwin’s decidedly jazz-leaning style. Nevertheless, his years in Paris proved extremely fruitful and it was there that he wrote his most well-known piece, the aptly-titled “An American in Paris,” which reflects his experience as a young American in the French capital.  The piece evokes the city’s lively atmosphere with a cacophony of sounds and Gershwin even went so far as to import Parisian taxi horns for the American premiere in 1928.