The Most Famous

COMPOSERS from France

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This page contains a list of the greatest French Composers. The pantheon dataset contains 1,228 Composers, 139 of which were born in France. This makes France the birth place of the 3rd most number of Composers behind Italy and Germany.

Top 10

The following people are considered by Pantheon to be the top 10 most legendary French Composers of all time. This list of famous French Composers is sorted by HPI (Historical Popularity Index), a metric that aggregates information on a biography’s online popularity. Visit the rankings page to view the entire list of French Composers.

Photo of Claude Debussy

1. Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918)

With an HPI of 85.30, Claude Debussy is the most famous French Composer.  His biography has been translated into 95 different languages on wikipedia.

(Achille) Claude Debussy (French: [aʃil klod dəbysi]; 22 August 1862 – 25 March 1918) was a French composer. He is sometimes seen as the first Impressionist composer, although he vigorously rejected the term. He was among the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born to a family of modest means and little cultural involvement, Debussy showed enough musical talent to be admitted at the age of ten to France's leading music college, the Conservatoire de Paris. He originally studied the piano, but found his vocation in innovative composition, despite the disapproval of the Conservatoire's conservative professors. He took many years to develop his mature style, and was nearly 40 when he achieved international fame in 1902 with the only opera he completed, Pelléas et Mélisande. Debussy's orchestral works include Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894), Nocturnes (1897–1899) and Images (1905–1912). His music was to a considerable extent a reaction against Wagner and the German musical tradition. He regarded the classical symphony as obsolete and sought an alternative in his "symphonic sketches", La mer (1903–1905). His piano works include sets of 24 Préludes and 12 Études. Throughout his career he wrote mélodies based on a wide variety of poetry, including his own. He was greatly influenced by the Symbolist poetic movement of the later 19th century. A small number of works, including the early La Damoiselle élue and the late Le Martyre de saint Sébastien have important parts for chorus. In his final years, he focused on chamber music, completing three of six planned sonatas for different combinations of instruments. With early influences including Russian and Far Eastern music, Debussy developed his own style of harmony and orchestral colouring, derided – and unsuccessfully resisted – by much of the musical establishment of the day. His works have strongly influenced a wide range of composers including Béla Bartók, Olivier Messiaen, George Benjamin, and the jazz pianist and composer Bill Evans. Debussy died from cancer at his home in Paris at the age of 55 after a composing career of a little more than 30 years.

Photo of Georges Bizet

2. Georges Bizet (1838 - 1875)

With an HPI of 84.52, Georges Bizet is the 2nd most famous French Composer.  His biography has been translated into 84 different languages.

Georges Bizet (25 October 1838 – 3 June 1875), né Alexandre César Léopold Bizet, was a French composer of the Romantic era. Best known for his operas in a career cut short by his early death, Bizet achieved few successes before his final work, Carmen, which has become one of the most popular and frequently performed works in the entire opera repertoire. During a brilliant student career at the Conservatoire de Paris, Bizet won many prizes, including the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1857. He was recognised as an outstanding pianist, though he chose not to capitalise on this skill and rarely performed in public. Returning to Paris after almost three years in Italy, he found that the main Parisian opera theatres preferred the established classical repertoire to the works of newcomers. His keyboard and orchestral compositions were likewise largely ignored; as a result, his career stalled, and he earned his living mainly by arranging and transcribing the music of others. Restless for success, he began many theatrical projects during the 1860s, most of which were abandoned. Neither of his two operas that reached the stage in this time—Les pêcheurs de perles and La jolie fille de Perth—were immediately successful. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, during which Bizet served in the National Guard, he had little success with his one-act opera Djamileh, though an orchestral suite derived from his incidental music to Alphonse Daudet's play L'Arlésienne was instantly popular. The production of Bizet's final opera, Carmen, was delayed because of fears that its themes of betrayal and murder would offend audiences. After its premiere on 3 March 1875, Bizet was convinced that the work was a failure; he died of a heart attack three months later, unaware that it would prove a spectacular and enduring success. Bizet's marriage to Geneviève Halévy was intermittently happy and produced one son. After his death, his work, apart from Carmen, was generally neglected. Manuscripts were given away or lost, and published versions of his works were frequently revised and adapted by other hands. He founded no school and had no obvious disciples or successors. After years of neglect, his works began to be performed more frequently in the 20th century. Later commentators have acclaimed him as a composer of brilliance and originality whose premature death was a significant loss to French musical theatre.

Photo of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

3. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1520 - 1594)

With an HPI of 84.32, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina is the 3rd most famous French Composer.  His biography has been translated into 90 different languages.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525 – 2 February 1594) was an Italian Renaissance composer of sacred music and the best-known 16th-century representative of the Roman School of musical composition. He had a long-lasting influence on the development of church and secular music in Europe, especially on the development of counterpoint, and his work is considered the culmination of Renaissance polyphony.

Photo of Hector Berlioz

4. Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869)

With an HPI of 84.16, Hector Berlioz is the 4th most famous French Composer.  His biography has been translated into 105 different languages.

Louis-Hector Berlioz (11 December 1803 – 8 March 1869) was a French Romantic composer and conductor. His output includes orchestral works such as the Symphonie fantastique and Harold in Italy, choral pieces including the Requiem and L'Enfance du Christ, his three operas Benvenuto Cellini, Les Troyens and Béatrice et Bénédict, and works of hybrid genres such as the "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette and the "dramatic legend" La Damnation de Faust. The elder son of a provincial doctor, Berlioz was expected to follow his father into medicine, and he attended a Parisian medical college before defying his family by taking up music as a profession. His independence of mind and refusal to follow traditional rules and formulas put him at odds with the conservative musical establishment of Paris. He briefly moderated his style sufficiently to win France's premier music prize – the Prix de Rome – in 1830, but he learned little from the academics of the Paris Conservatoire. Opinion was divided for many years between those who thought him an original genius and those who viewed his music as lacking in form and coherence. At the age of twenty-four Berlioz fell in love with the Irish Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, and he pursued her obsessively until she finally accepted him seven years later. Their marriage was happy at first but eventually foundered. Harriet inspired his first major success, the Symphonie fantastique, in which an idealised depiction of her occurs throughout. Berlioz completed three operas, the first of which, Benvenuto Cellini, was an outright failure. The second, the huge epic Les Troyens (The Trojans), was so large in scale that it was never staged in its entirety during his lifetime. His last opera, Béatrice et Bénédict – based on Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado About Nothing – was a success at its premiere but did not enter the regular operatic repertoire. Meeting only occasional success in France as a composer, Berlioz increasingly turned to conducting, in which he gained an international reputation. He was highly regarded in Germany, Britain and Russia both as a composer and as a conductor. To supplement his earnings he wrote musical journalism throughout much of his career; some of it has been preserved in book form, including his Treatise on Instrumentation (1844), which was influential in the 19th and 20th centuries. Berlioz died in Paris at the age of 65.

Photo of Maurice Ravel

5. Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937)

With an HPI of 84.11, Maurice Ravel is the 5th most famous French Composer.  His biography has been translated into 83 different languages.

Joseph Maurice Ravel (7 March 1875 – 28 December 1937) was a French composer, pianist and conductor. He is often associated with impressionism along with his elder contemporary Claude Debussy, although both composers rejected the term. In the 1920s and 1930s Ravel was internationally regarded as France's greatest living composer. Born to a music-loving family, Ravel attended France's premier music college, the Paris Conservatoire; he was not well regarded by its conservative establishment, whose biased treatment of him caused a scandal. After leaving the conservatoire, Ravel found his own way as a composer, developing a style of great clarity and incorporating elements of modernism, baroque, neoclassicism and, in his later works, jazz. He liked to experiment with musical form, as in his best-known work, Boléro (1928), in which repetition takes the place of development. Renowned for his abilities in orchestration, Ravel made some orchestral arrangements of other composers' piano music, of which his 1922 version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is the best known. A slow and painstaking worker, Ravel composed fewer pieces than many of his contemporaries. Among his works to enter the repertoire are pieces for piano, chamber music, two piano concertos, ballet music, two operas and eight song cycles; he wrote no symphonies or church music. Many of his works exist in two versions: first, a piano score and later an orchestration. Some of his piano music, such as Gaspard de la nuit (1908), is exceptionally difficult to play, and his complex orchestral works such as Daphnis et Chloé (1912) require skilful balance in performance. Ravel was among the first composers to recognise the potential of recording to bring their music to a wider public. From the 1920s, despite limited technique as a pianist or conductor, he took part in recordings of several of his works; others were made under his supervision.

Photo of Camille Saint-Saëns

6. Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 - 1921)

With an HPI of 82.33, Camille Saint-Saëns is the 6th most famous French Composer.  His biography has been translated into 64 different languages.

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (French: [ʃaʁl kamij sɛ̃ sɑ̃(s)]; 9 October 1835 – 16 December 1921) was a French composer, organist, conductor and pianist of the Romantic era. His best-known works include Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso (1863), the Second Piano Concerto (1868), the First Cello Concerto (1872), Danse macabre (1874), the opera Samson and Delilah (1877), the Third Violin Concerto (1880), the Third ("Organ") Symphony (1886) and The Carnival of the Animals (1886). Saint-Saëns was a musical prodigy; he made his concert debut at the age of ten. After studying at the Paris Conservatoire he followed a conventional career as a church organist, first at Saint-Merri, Paris and, from 1858, La Madeleine, the official church of the French Empire. After leaving the post twenty years later, he was a successful freelance pianist and composer, in demand in Europe and the Americas. As a young man, Saint-Saëns was enthusiastic for the most modern music of the day, particularly that of Schumann, Liszt and Wagner, although his own compositions were generally within a conventional classical tradition. He was a scholar of musical history, and remained committed to the structures worked out by earlier French composers. This brought him into conflict in his later years with composers of the impressionist and dodecaphonic schools of music; although there were neoclassical elements in his music, foreshadowing works by Stravinsky and Les Six, he was often regarded as a reactionary in the decades around the time of his death. Saint-Saëns held only one teaching post, at the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse in Paris, and remained there for less than five years. It was nevertheless important in the development of French music: his students included Gabriel Fauré, among whose own later pupils was Maurice Ravel. Both of them were strongly influenced by Saint-Saëns, whom they revered as a genius.

Photo of Erik Satie

7. Erik Satie (1866 - 1925)

With an HPI of 80.95, Erik Satie is the 7th most famous French Composer.  His biography has been translated into 59 different languages.

Eric Alfred Leslie Satie (UK: , US: ; French: [eʁik sati]; 17 May 1866 – 1 July 1925), who signed his name Erik Satie after 1884, was a French composer and pianist. He was the son of a French father and a British mother. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire but was an undistinguished student and obtained no diploma. In the 1880s he worked as a pianist in café-cabaret in Montmartre, Paris, and began composing works, mostly for solo piano, such as his Gymnopédies. He also wrote music for a Rosicrucian sect to which he was briefly attached. After a spell in which he composed little, Satie entered Paris's second music academy, the Schola Cantorum, as a mature student. His studies there were more successful than those at the Conservatoire. From about 1910 he became the focus of successive groups of young composers attracted by his unconventionality and originality. Among them were the group known as Les Six. A meeting with Jean Cocteau in 1915 led to the creation of the ballet Parade (1917) for Serge Diaghilev, with music by Satie, sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso and choreography by Léonide Massine. Satie's example guided a new generation of French composers away from post-Wagnerian impressionism towards a sparer, terser style. Among those influenced by him during his lifetime were Maurice Ravel and Francis Poulenc, and he is seen as an influence on more recent, minimalist, composers such as John Cage and John Adams. His harmony is often characterised by unresolved chords, he sometimes dispensed with bar-lines, as in his Gnossiennes, and his melodies are generally simple and often reflect his love of old church music. He gave some of his later works absurd titles, such as Veritables Preludes flasques (pour un chien) ("True Flabby Preludes (for a Dog)", 1912), Croquis et agaceries d'un gros bonhomme en bois ("Sketches and Exasperations of a Big Wooden Man", 1913) and Sonatine bureaucratique ("Bureaucratic Sonata", 1917). Most of his works are brief, and the majority are for solo piano. Exceptions include his "symphonic drama" Socrate (1919) and two late ballets Mercure and Relâche (1924). Satie never married, and his home for most of his adult life was a single small room, first in Montmartre and from 1898 to his death, in Arcueil, a suburb of Paris. He adopted various images over the years, including a period in quasi-priestly dress, another in which he always wore identically-coloured velvet suits, and is known for his last persona, in neat bourgeois costume, with bowler hat, wing collar and umbrella. He was a lifelong heavy drinker, and died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 59.

Photo of Jean-Philippe Rameau

8. Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 - 1764)

With an HPI of 80.71, Jean-Philippe Rameau is the 8th most famous French Composer.  His biography has been translated into 61 different languages.

Jean-Philippe Rameau (French: [ʒɑ̃filip ʁamo]; (1683-09-25)25 September 1683 – (1764-09-12)12 September 1764) was one of the most important French composers and music theorists of the 18th century. He replaced Jean-Baptiste Lully as the dominant composer of French opera and is also considered the leading French composer of his time for the harpsichord, alongside François Couperin.Little is known about Rameau's early years. It was not until the 1720s that he won fame as a major theorist of music with his Treatise on Harmony (1722) and also in the following years as a composer of masterpieces for the harpsichord, which circulated throughout Europe. He was almost 50 before he embarked on the operatic career on which his reputation chiefly rests today. His debut, Hippolyte et Aricie (1733), caused a great stir and was fiercely attacked by the supporters of Lully's style of music for its revolutionary use of harmony. Nevertheless, Rameau's pre-eminence in the field of French opera was soon acknowledged, and he was later attacked as an "establishment" composer by those who favoured Italian opera during the controversy known as the Querelle des Bouffons in the 1750s. Rameau's music had gone out of fashion by the end of the 18th century, and it was not until the 20th that serious efforts were made to revive it. Today, he enjoys renewed appreciation with performances and recordings of his music ever more frequent.

Photo of Charles Gounod

9. Charles Gounod (1818 - 1893)

With an HPI of 78.60, Charles Gounod is the 9th most famous French Composer.  His biography has been translated into 57 different languages.

Charles-François Gounod (; French: [ʃaʁl fʁɑ̃swa ɡuno]; 17 June 1818 – 18 October 1893), usually known as Charles Gounod, was a French composer. He wrote twelve operas, of which the most popular has always been Faust (1859); his Roméo et Juliette (1867) also remains in the international repertory. He composed a large amount of church music, many songs, and popular short pieces including his Ave Maria (an elaboration of a Bach piece), and Funeral March of a Marionette. Born in Paris into an artistic and musical family Gounod was a student at the Conservatoire de Paris and won France's most prestigious musical prize, the Prix de Rome. His studies took him to Italy, Austria and then Prussia, where he met Felix Mendelssohn, whose advocacy of the music of Bach was an early influence on him. He was deeply religious, and after his return to Paris, he briefly considered becoming a priest. He composed prolifically, writing church music, songs, orchestral music and operas. Gounod's career was disrupted by the Franco-Prussian War. He moved to England with his family for refuge from the Prussian advance on Paris in 1870. After peace was restored in 1871 his family returned to Paris but he remained in London, living in the house of an amateur singer, Georgina Weldon, who became the controlling figure in his life. After nearly three years he broke away from her and returned to his family in France. His absence, and the appearance of younger French composers, meant that he was no longer at the forefront of French musical life; although he remained a respected figure he was regarded as old-fashioned during his later years, and operatic success eluded him. He died at his house in Saint-Cloud, near Paris at the age of 75. Few of Gounod's works remain in the regular international repertoire, but his influence on later French composers was considerable. In his music there is a strand of romantic sentiment that is continued in the operas of Jules Massenet and others; there is also a strand of classical restraint and elegance that influenced Gabriel Fauré. Claude Debussy wrote that Gounod represented the essential French sensibility of his time.

Photo of Josquin des Prez

10. Josquin des Prez (1450 - 1521)

With an HPI of 78.24, Josquin des Prez is the 10th most famous French Composer.  His biography has been translated into 48 different languages.

Josquin des Prez (French: [ʒɔskɛ̃ depʁe]; c. 1450/1455 – 27 August 1521; born Josquin Lebloitte), often referred to simply as Josquin, was a French composer of the Renaissance. He was the most famous European composer between Guillaume Dufay and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and is usually considered to be the central figure of the Franco-Flemish School. Josquin is widely considered the first master of the high Renaissance style of polyphonic vocal music that was emerging during his lifetime. During the 16th century, Josquin acquired the reputation of the greatest composer of the age, his mastery of technique and expression universally imitated and admired. Writers as diverse as Baldassare Castiglione and Martin Luther wrote about his reputation and fame, with Luther declaring that "he is the master of the notes. They must do as he wills; as for the other composers, they have to do as the notes will." Theorists such as Heinrich Glarean and Gioseffo Zarlino held his style as that best representing perfection. Many anonymous compositions were attributed to him by copyists, probably to increase their sales. More than 370 works are attributed to him; it was only after the advent of modern analytical scholarship that some of these attributions were challenged and revealed as mistaken, on the basis of stylistic features and manuscript evidence. In spite of Josquin's renown, which endured until the beginning of the Baroque era and was revived in the 20th century, his biography is shadowy, and almost nothing is known about his personality. The only surviving work which may be in his own hand is a graffito on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, and only one contemporary mention of his character is known.Josquin wrote both sacred and secular music, and in all of the significant vocal forms of the time, including masses, motets, chansons and frottole. During the 16th century, he was praised for his melodic gift and his use of technical devices. In modern times, scholars have attempted to ascertain the basic details of his biography, and have tried to define the key characteristics of his style to correct misattributions. This has proven difficult, as Josquin sometimes wrote in an austere style devoid of ornamentation, and at other times he produced music requiring considerable virtuosity. Heinrich Glarean wrote in 1547 that Josquin was not only a "magnificent virtuoso" (the Latin can be translated also as "show-off") but capable of being a "mocker", using satire effectively. While the focus of scholarship in recent years has been to remove music from the "Josquin canon" (including some of his most famous pieces) and to reattribute it to his contemporaries, the remaining music represents some of the most famous and enduring of the Renaissance.

Pantheon has 139 people classified as composers born between 1125 and 1970. Of these 139, 6 (4.32%) of them are still alive today. The most famous living composers include Yo-Yo Ma, Alexandre Desplat, and Tristan Murail. The most famous deceased composers include Claude Debussy, Georges Bizet, and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. As of October 2020, 23 new composers have been added to Pantheon including Robert Cambert, Pierre Attaingnant, and André Caplet.

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Deceased Composers

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Newly Added Composers (2020)

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Which Composers were alive at the same time? This visualization shows the lifespans of the 25 most globally memorable Composers since 1700.