Jean Françaix was a French neoclassical composer, pianist, and orchestrator, known for his prolific output and vibrant style.
Françaix's natural gifts were encouraged from an early age by his family: his father, Director of the Conservatoire of Le Mans, was a musicologist, composer, and pianist, and his mother, a teacher of singing. He studied at the Conservatoire of Le Mans and then at the Paris Conservatory, and he was only six when he took up composing with a style heavily influenced by Ravel. His first publication, in 1922, caught the attention of a composer working for the publishing house who steered the gifted boy toward a gifted teacher, Nadia Boulanger. Noted pianist and pedagogue Isidor Philipp also taught him. Françaix himself often played his own works, to public acclaim; notably in the premiere of his Concertino for Piano and Orchestra at the festival of Baden-Baden in 1932.
He was an accomplished pianist from an early age, earning a First Prize in Piano at the Paris Conservatory, and toured throughout Europe and the U.S. He performed notably in a duo with the French cellist Maurice Gendron, and also performed the Poulenc Two Piano Concerto with Francis Poulenc for several engagements when Jacques Février was not available. He even premiered his concerto for two pianos with his daughter, pianist Claude Françaix, in 1964.
Since he was a virtuoso pianist, many of his works feature the piano, particularly his numerous chamber works which he wrote for nearly every orchestral instrument and standard ensemble. He was a skilled orchestrator, which was reflected in his use of tone colors. Françaix wrote the majority of his earlier works for saxophone between the mid 1930s and the early 1960s. Françaix wrote pieces in many of the major large musical forms, including concerti, symphonies, opera, theatre, ballet, and works drawing on traditions falling out of favor in the 20th century, such as the cantata.
Françaix's style is marked by lightness and wit (a stated goal of his was to "give pleasure"), as well as a conversational style of interplay between the musical lines. It changed little throughout his career; while he was influenced by composers he admired (such as Emmanuel Chabrier, Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, and Francis Poulenc), he integrated what he picked up into his own distinct aesthetic, which was already evident in his early works.
Jean Françaix's primary occupation was his extraordinarily active compositional career. He remained prolific throughout his life; even in 1981 he described himself as "constantly composing", barely finishing one piece before beginning another, and continued thus until his death in 1997. He was named an Officier de la Légion d'honneur in 1991.