Jean Françaix

1912 1997

Jean Françaix

Composer • Piano


Jean Françaix was a 20th century French composer and pianist who followed closely and proudly in the footsteps of neo-classicism and the French Les Six.

Françaix was born into a musical family in Le Mans, France in 1912. His mother was a singer and vocal teacher while his father, Alfred, was a composer, pianist, musicologist and director at Le Mans Conservatoire. Françaix’s early music education began at home and was nurtured by his parents, especially after Maurice Ravel wrote to Alfred, “Among the child’s gifts I observe above all the most fruitful an artist can possess, that of curiosity: you must not stifle these precious gifts now or ever, or risk letting this young sensibility wither.” With this in mind, his parents sent his first work, the petite piano suitePour Jacqueline (1922) to the publisher Editions Sénart in 1922.

The work made a great impression on the selection panel from the publisher, especially on the composer Marcelle de Manziarly, who directed Françaix to Nadia Boulanger for his studies. He studied composition with her and she later played and conducted some of the first performances of his works, most notably at the salon of the Princesse de Polignac.

Françaix continued his studies at the Paris Conservatoire with Isidore Philipp. While there, his excellence as a pianist and composer was recognized, earning him apremier prix in 1930.

After his studies, Françaix worked regularly as an accompanist for many artists; most notable are his tours with Maurice Gendron and the Trio Pasquier. He often performed together with his daughter Claude, who also played piano. Together they premiered his Concerto for Two Pianos (1965). He also performed his own works frequently throughout the world, in cities such as Berlin, London, New York and Boston.

Françaix was a prolific composer with a constant desire to write. His output includes more than 200 pieces which adhere to the 20th century French traditions. Though his works are unique, he reuses traditional forms and genres. Many of his works center around the piano, in the form of a solo instrument, in a chamber ensemble or in a duet

In 1932 Françaix experienced success with his Eight Bagatelles for piano and string quartet (1932) at the ISCM Festival in Vienna. In the same year, he also finished his first mature work for solo piano, the Scherzo (1932), which is technically demanding and exciting. Also in 1932, a scandal evolved after the performance of one of his early symphonies, as performed by the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris with Monteux. Françaix quickly withdrew this work from his collection.

As an accomplished orchestrator, Françaix enjoyed arranging and transcribing his own works, especially for the Klaus Rainer Schöll’s Bläser-Ensemble Mainz. He also arranged many works by his favourite composers,Chabrier, Chopin, Mozart, Poulenc and Schubert. His most well-known orchestral arrangement is the charming rendition of Poulenc’sL’histoire de Babar, which Poulenc himself requested.

In general, Françaix was inspired by past literary subjects and French literature. His style is very tonal, with freedom of harmonic language. Many of his themes are very melodic or feature short, simple motives which evolve through repetition and variation. The rhythmic variety in his works is very captivating, yet difficult; Françaix incorporates rhythms from dances such as the polka and gallop. He uses these rhythms and motifs to create diverse characters in the music that converse animatedly with one another.

Some of the works produced in the following years include the Wind Quartet (1933) and the Quintet for flute, harp and string trio (1934). He also wrote his first of many balletsScuola di ballo (1933) and Beach (1933) for the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo. These ballets, along with the operas that later follow, show his influence from the Les Six through his use of irony and satire. He also wrote his operaLes malheurs de Sophie (1935) during these years, which was performed in the Paris Opéra.

Several years later, in 1936, Françaix’s Concertino for piano (1936) was premiered at the Baden-Baden Chamber Music Festival. The work was enthusiastically received, as demonstrated by Heinrich Strobel’s commentary in which he stated, “after so much problematic or laboured music, this Concertino was like fresh water, rushing from a spring with the gracious spontaneity of all that is natural.” This same year he completed his operaLe roi nu (1936), which had the honour of being premiered in the Paris Opéra. The following year he also composed hisLes diable boiteux (1937), a comedy for tenor, bass and small orchestra.

Very proud of his classification as a neo-classical composer, Françaix thrived on the colours of French music and the traditional classical orchestra, which providing a sense of humor. He was also known to have said, punningly, about his wind quintet that his goal was “to do something that can be called ‘Français,’ with both and S and an X, that is, to be jolly most of the time-even comical” and “to avoid the premeditated wrong note and boredom like the plague. In sum, Emmanuel Chabrier is my good master.” Ravel was also one of the composers who inspired him most.

Impressively, Françaix wrote a concerto for 15 solo instruments, as a sort of “homage to the sonorities of the classical orchestra.” He also wrote individual solo works for nearly all of the orchestra instruments.

Françaix won several awards throughout his life including the Florence Gould prize in 1950 and the Gran Prix Arthur Honegger in 1992.

Jean Françaix died in 1997 in Paris.

Header image courtesy of Octuor de France Other images courtesy of public domain

Françaix’s work in the theatre world increased in subsequent years with his work with Roland Petit at the Théâtre Marigny; together they createdLes demoiselles de la nuit (1948) and La dame dans la lune (1958).

As with many 20th century composers, Françaix also became interested in film music and collaborated on several films with Sacha Guitry, includingSi Versailles m’était conté(1953), Si Paris nous était conté (1956) and Napoléon (1954).

Later operas include his La princesse de Clèves (1961), which was inspired by the novel by Madame de Lafayette. The opera, which was first performed at Rouen in 1965, was unanimously popular, but has never been revived.

Françaix’s only large-scale work that is not for the stage is his oratorio L’apocalypse selon Saint-Jean (1939), inspired by the Book of Revelation.