Jean Françaix
Jean Françaix

Jean Françaix Biography (BBC)

Jean Françaix, one of the most classically French composers of the 20th century and a disarming musical wit, was born in 1912 to the head of the Le Mans Conservatoire and one of its singing teachers.

By the age of 6 he was composing. When he was 10, his father sent a score of his to Ravel, who replied: "Among this child's gifts I notice above all the most fertile that an artist can possess: curiosity." He shortly after went to study with Nadia Boulanger, who recalled telling his mother after two months of lessons that he must have been born knowing harmony. Françaix's recollection was more sharply put: 'She couldn't teach me harmony or counterpoint, still less fugue. To keep up her prestige she would say that I had it all by instinct." Not that this difference of opinion prevented Boulanger from conducting his first opera, Le diable boiteux, in 1938.

Françaix had emerged from the Paris Conservatoire with first prize in piano and for much of his life travelled as a concert pianist. That he was able to perform primarily his own works was down to a sensational early success in 1932, when he premiered his Concertino in Baden-Baden. This work set the tone not only of his career but of his musical language, traditionally rooted and clear in form, eloquent in melody and light in touch, with an astute ear for harmonic movement, an alert feeling for instrumental character, and a dry sense of humour. These were not the qualities naturally associated with a composer whose next success was to be The Apocalypse according to St John. This oratorio nowadays comes across as a fascinating mix of the portentous and the subversive - a cathedral whose gargoyles are its high point. Under the shadow of the Second World War, it had the force of a premonition. For its premiere in the occupied Paris of 1942, it somehow got past the censors despite setting the lines about saving 'a hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel'.

It was not, however, to signal a direction he often took. There were stage works and film scores which returned to moments of grandeur. More usually, and right through to the end of his life, he kept true to the spirit of the Concertino in a prolific outpouring of instrumental, chamber and orchestral works. Although his music was anathema to the post-war composing establishment, he received many public honours, including the Prix Arthur Honegger, Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur, and Officier de l'Ordre National du Mérite. He died in 1997.

Jean Françaix Performances & Interviews

Jean Françaix Tracks

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