France is the birthplace and welcomed many classical composers. The work of many of them was lost through history, others became famous worldwide during their lifetime or posthumously. Here are the stories of two lesser-known French composers.

Hector Berlioz 

Born in 1803 in the Isère department, Hector Berlioz was supposed to follow in his father’s steps and become a doctor. While his father did not prevent his musical education during his youth, the announcement of his renunciation of medical education sealed an end to his familial relationship. In 1823, Berlioz entered the Paris Conservatory and wrote a mass for a church. Later, the young man won a scholarship ( Prix de Rome ) and went to Rome to study.

Back in France, Berlioz’s works were not received as well as he had hoped. If his first requiem was a success, the rest of his compositions were a disaster. In debt, Berlioz left France for a European tour but it was in Russia that he became famous. With the help of Franz Liszt, his first opera was welcomed in Weimar and other cities in the German States.

Hector Berlioz was also a successful critic, writing for thirty years for the Journal of Debates. The mid-1860s were the worse years of Berlioz’s life when he lost his second wife and a son. He slowly retired from public life and died aged 65 in 1869.

Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale

Requiem : Grande Messe des Morts

The Damnation of Faust ( Hungarian March )

Charles Gounod 

Born in Paris in 1818, Charles Gounod grew up in a family of artists. His father was a painter and his mother played the piano. It was her that taught the young Charles his first steps in music. With his mother, he settled in Rome to study, and there he was introduced to a new artistic world. Gounod was heavily influenced by religion and he composed masses. Back in France, he headed for an ecclesiastic career but abandoned this idea in 1848.

In the early 1850s, Gounod composed operas, meeting average success. His opera Romeo and Juliet marked one of his greatest successes when first played in 1867 at the International Exposition of Paris. With the forthcoming fall of the Second Empire, Gounod fled France and lived in the United Kingdom. There, his compositions met mixed success. He returned to France after four years and spent most of his remaining years creating religious music, mostly masses. Charles Gounod died in Saint-Cloud in 1893.

Mass for Saint-Cecile

Ave Maria

Camille Saint-Saëns

Born in Paris in 1835, Camille Saint-Saëns’ entire life revolved around music. He learned piano and organ as a child with his family. For his first show, Saint-Saëns covered famous works of artists such as Beethoven. He was eleven years old. A brilliant student of the Paris Conservatory spent his early adulthood playing and composing for churches. He had won the admiration of many great composers of his time, the most famous being Franz Liszt. In the 1870s, he played for Queen Victoria who very much enjoyed his performance.   The following decades were spent travelling around the world. Saint-Saëns played for the Imperial family in Saint-Petersburg, he composed in Egypt and visited countries in South America.

Saint-Saëns’ work knew its apogee in the early 20th century, he received honorific decorations in many countries, was given teaching offices in universities and his concerts were applauded in the United-States. He died in 1921, in Alger after composing a dozen operas, soundtracks for the movie industry, and tenths of piano, organ, and chamber music compositions.

Samson and Delilah

Danse macabre

Symphonie No. 3 ( with organ )

Here is a list of other famous French composers who lived in various centuries: Jean-Baptiste Lully, Marin Marais, Claude Debussy, Georges Bizet, Henri Dutilleux, Maurice Ravel, Jacques Offenbach, Guillaume de Machaut, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Nadia Boulanger, Jean-Philippe Rameau… etc.

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