Jean Françaix was born on May 23, 1912 in Le Man.
Thanks to his family circle (his father was the director of the Man’s Conservatory and his mother a voice teacher), Jean Françaix's outstanding musical gifts were able to develop freely. In fact, his talent was so extraordinary that his renowned teacher, Nadia Boulanger, to whom he was entrusted for his musical training at the age of ten, wrote to his mother: “I do not understand why we should waste time teaching him harmony since he knows it. I don’t know how, but he knows it, he was born knowing it. Let’s work on counterpoint.” In the same year, he wrote Pour Jacqueline, a work dedicated to his little cousin, which was published two years later by Sénard.
In 1923 the following year, Maurice Ravel, encouraged the child to continue on the path he had chosen: “Among this child’s gifts, I would like to point out one of which is the most fruitful for an artist: curiosity.”
At the age of 18, he won the First Prize in piano at the National Superior Conservatory of Paris. Two years later with Claude Delvincourt, he represented the young French school at the International Vienna Festival, where his Huit Bagatelles was performed to great acclaim.
The success of his Concertino for Piano and Orchestra (1932) was the first of many, and his compositions were conducted by the most renowned conductors of that time: Paul Paray, Hermann Cherchen, Pierre Monteux, Eugene Ormandy, Manuel Rosenthal, Herbert von Karayan, Antal Dorati, Pierre Dervaux, Seiji Ozawa and Georges Prêtre.
He also wrote the music for sixteen ballets, staged by celebrated choreographers such as Leonid Massine (Scuola di ballo, by the Ballets Russes in Monte Carlo in 1933), Serge Lifar (Le Roi nu, at the Paris Opera in 1935), Roland Petit (Les Demoiselles de la nuit, based on a text by Jean Anouilh, at the Paris Opera in 1948 and at La Scala in Milan) and George Balanchine (À la Françaix, based on his Sérénade, by the New York City Ballet in 1951). The scores of those four ballets as well as the Malheurs de Sophie were recorded at the begining of the 2000's by the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Thierry Fischer. His last ballet, Pierrot ou les secrets de la nuit, from a text by Michel Fournier, was premiered in 1988 at the Salzburg Festival under the baton of Georges Prêtre.
His greatest work, The Apocalypse According to Saint John, for mixed choruses, four soloists and orchestra, premiered in Paris with Charles Munch in 1942, was reprised in London and in Italy, in 1961, at the Cathedral of Montreal. In 1997 this oratorio was again performed in Göttingen and Linz with the Göttingen Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Christian Simonis (first record on CD).
Within two years, four more performances were given, one in 1999 (60 years after its composition), in the Le Mans Cathedral, which had originally inspired the work.
The last performance took place in Munich in February 2004 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Marcello Viotti.
Jean Françaix composed five operas and comic operas, including La Main de la gloire and La Princesse de Clèves. More vocal works remain to be discovered, such as Le Diable boiteux, encored in its entirety at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1950, Trois Poèmes de Paul Valéry and L’Ode à la gastronomie, both written for a cappella choir.
His chamber music, from duets to decets, is constantly played and recorded worldwide. His Trio for Strings, his Wind Quintet No 1, his Petit Quatuor for saxophones and his Tema con variazioni have become classics, as well as most of his concertos for solo instrument and orchestra (approximately 40 works, covering almost all the orchestral instruments). The best known of which are L’Horloge de Flore, for oboe and orchestra, and the Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra.
But, indicative of the times, it is with his film scores for Sacha Guitry (including the famous Si Versailles m’était conté) that Françaix’s reputation with the general public was established in his own country.
He died on September 25, 1997 in Paris, at the age of 85.
© Jacques Françaix