Jeunes filles au piano
Jeunes filles au piano © Getty  /  Auguste Renoir (1892)

The History of French Melody in 10 Lesser Known Composers

Have you ever heard of Reynaldo Hahn? Albert Roussel or Emmanuel Chabrier? If not, you have come to the right place: let's explore some little-known French melodies.

When the poems of Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo and many others were put to music, the French mélodie was created. Specifically, a mélodie is the setting to music of a usually poetic text. This is a refined genre, requiring excellent pronunciation from the performer. 

Amongst the most well-known composers of mélodies we find Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc, and of course Hector Berlioz, whose composition Les Nuits d’été, published in 1838, is considered to be one of the finest examples of the genre. 

But many other composers have set poetic masterpieces or texts by their contemporaries to music. Here are portraits of ten such composers whose melodic work is sometimes unfairly underestimated... 

Jules Massenet (1842 - 1912)

Massenet composed 280 melodies, but he is particularly remembered for his operas Manon, Werther, Thaïs, Le Cid and Cendrillon.

Élégie by Jules Massenet, set to a poem by Louis Gallet

Reynaldo Hahn (1874 - 1947)

A conductor, composer and excellent singer, he was also the Director of the Paris Opera, a pupil of Massenet, and even a close friend of Marcel Proust. 

Si mes vers avaient des ailes by Reynaldo Hahn, set to a poem from Contemplations by Victor Hugo

Albert Roussel (1869 - 1937)

He originally trained as a mathematician and even had a career at sea; after returning from his travels in Asia and Indo-China, he devoted himself to music. 

Le jardin mouillé by Albert Roussel, set to a poem by Henri de Régnier.

Ernest Chausson (1855 - 1899)

A keen admirer of the work of Wagner. Ernest Chausson was part of the Parisian bourgeoisie, thus enjoying great financial security, a rare occurence for a composer!

Dans la forêt du charme et de l'enchantement by Ernest Chausson, set to a poem by Jean Moréas.

André Caplet (1878 - 1925)

Caplet studied the violin and became Director of The Odéon. He was a student and colleague of Debussy. Unsurprisingly, therefore, his melodies were inspired by the Impressionist movement.

Viens ! Une flûte invisible by André Caplet, set to a poem from Contemplations by Victor Hugo.

Déodat de Séverac (1872 - 1921)

Séverac was raised in the South of France before moving to Paris. He was confronted with the decline of regional music and criticised the small-minded Parisian circles.

Le ciel est par-dessus les toits by Déodat de Séverac, set to a poem  by Paul Verlaine.

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 - 1921)

Celebrated for his composition The Carnival of the Animals, Saint-Saëns was also a virtuoso pianist.

Si vous n'avez rien à me dire by Camille Saint-Saëns, set to a poem from Contemplations by Victor Hugo.

Cécile Chaminade (1857 - 1944)

Encouraged by Camille Saint-Saëns and Bizet, her admission into the conservatoire was a great success. She would go on to compose three grand and beautiful symphonies, over two hundred works for piano and 150 mélodies. 

L’été by Cécile Chaminade, set to a poem by Edouard Guinand.

Gabriel Dupont (1878 - 1914)

Monsieur Gabriel Dupont was born in Caen but quickly decided to move to Paris where he studied composition. Sadly, he passed away from an illness at the age of only 36. He lived a confined and melancholic life. 

Mandoline : Les donneurs de sérénade by Gabriel Dupont, set to a poem by Paul Verlaine.

Emmanuel Chabrier (1841 - 1894)

He first worked as a civil servant before leaving the ministry in order to pursue a career in music. 

Ballade des gros dindons by Emmanuel Chabrier, set to a poem by Edmond Rostand.

BONUS: a playlist featuring some of the most beautiful French mélodies