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? On the occasion of the week-long celebration of the French language and the French-speaking world, from March 18th to 26th, let's explore some little-known French melodies.

When the poems of Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo and many others elided with music the French mélodie was created. It is a refined genre, demanding excellent pronunciation from the performer. 

A mélodie is the setting to music of a usually poetic text.

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

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 it is for his operas Manon, Werther, Thaïs, Le Cid and Cendrillon that he is particularly remembered.

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 had a career at sea; on his return from 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)

He was a keen admirer of the work of Wagner. Chausson enjoyed great financial security, as he was part of the Parisian bourgeoisie. 

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 at The Odéon. He was a student and colleague of Debussy, his melodies were therefore 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 grew up 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 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 entry to the conservatoire was a great success. She would go on to compose three grand, beautiful symphonies, two hundred pieces 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, he then learnt composition in Paris and died from an illness at the age of only 36. He had a confined, melancholy 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 then left the ministry to pursue his music. 

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

Here is a bonus playlist, which features some of the most beautiful French mélodies

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