16 Famous French Piano Players you Should Know

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You may not think of France as a country that is famous for its pianists. However, over the centuries, many French piano players have risen to fame and left their mark on the world’s musical landscape.

The piano is one of the most popular instruments played among the people of France and in this post we’re going to look at 16 famous French piano players and explore their lives and careers.

1. Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Claude Debussy

Born in 1862, just north of Paris, Claude Debussy was one of the greatest French composers of his time and a virtuoso pianist.

His musical talent landed him a spot at France’s best music college, the Conservatoire de Paris. 

While his start was with the piano, Debussy quickly moved on to composition.

He was no instant success, either.

It wasn’t until he was almost 40 that he became internationally recognized with orchestral works like “Nocturnes” and “Images.” 

2. Alfred Cortot (1877- 1962)

Alfred Cortot went by many titles: pianist, conductor, teacher.

He is often cited as one of the most renowned classical musicians of the 20th century.

Not only was Cortot known for his individual work, but he also played piano in a trio with violinist Jacques Thibaud and cellist Pablo Casals. 

Notably, Cortot created the world’s first-ever commercial electrical recording of classical music in Camden, New Jersey.

However, he is a bit controversial as he participated in concerts in Paris during the occupation of Germany in 1942.  

3. Robert Casadesus (1899-1972)

Pianist Robert Casadesus’ musical family was partial to the string instruments, but he chose piano instead and learned from his aunt. 

Casadesus went on to study at the Paris Conservatory, where he learned from Louis Diemer.

His career was interrupted when he was drafted into the army, but he continued his love of music as a drummer in the Engineers Corps band. 

Afterward, Casadesus went on several international tours, made recordings, and raised a family simultaneously. 

4. Claude Bolling (1930-2020)

Born in Cannes, France, Claude Bolling was a jazz pianist, composer, and part-time actor.

He learned about the piano at the Nice Conservatory and time in Paris and began playing the jazz piano professionally at the early age of 14. 

In fact, Bolling’s music contributed heavily to the jazz revival of the late 60s.

Bolling’s career significantly featured the film industry, as he wrote music for over 100 movies.

He also participated in several crossover collaborations featuring classical musicians, and a large portion of his work included work with various genres and professionals. 

5. Richard Clayderman (1953-)

Richard Clayderman is a French pianist who’s had a successful career since the mid-70s.

Clayderman has several albums, including his own renditions of popular music, movie soundtracks, easy listening, and more. 

Clayderman got his start right in his own home, where he learned piano from his father, an accordion teacher.

At the young age of 12, he studied at the Conservatoire de Paris and received significant recognition. 

His career took off in 1976 when he was invited to record a piano ballad, and he’s been flourishing ever since. 

6. Jacques Loussier (1934-2019)

French pianist Jacques Loussier did more than just play the piano.

He was well known for composing and arranging unique jazz interpretations of classical works, including Bach’s. 

Loussier’s combination of jazz and classical music was made even more unique by his love of improvisation.

He was also part of a trio called the Jacques Loussier Trio, which played over 3,000 concerts and sold over seven million recordings. 

7. Marcelle Meyer (1897-1958)

Marcelle Meyer began learning piano from a very young age, learning from her older sister before entering the Conservatoire de Paris at age 14.

She studied alongside Alfred Cortot and Marguerite Long and received awards and recognition. 

Meyer became so famous for her playing that she performed in several countries, including England, Germany, and the Netherlands, and was apparently Erik Satie’s favorite pianist.

8. Erik Satie (1866-1925)

Erik Satie

Erik Satie may have lived a short life, but he still created a musical career worth noting today.

This French composer began studying at the Paris Conservatory, but he dropped out to play piano at a cafe. 

He continued on to compose several works under the influence of the Rosicrucian movement before he was adopted into a well-known group of young composers called “Les Six.”

This group leveled him with the likes of Louis Durey, Francis Poulenc, and others. 

9. Colette Maze (1914-) 

An incredible demonstration that success has no age, Colette Maze is a French pianist who not only turned 107 in 2021 but also released an album with recordings of Debussy.

She is the oldest recording pianist in the world today. 

Maze came from a humble upbringing and studied at the Ecole Normale de Musique, where she learned from Alfred Cortot.

She has released six recordings and spent the majority of her life working as a piano teacher. 

10. Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Francis Poulenc

Born into an industrial family, Francis Poulenc started learning the piano at a young age when his mother had him practice classical composers such as Mozart, Schubert, and Chopin.

Poulenc grew to love Stravinsky, but his father wanted him to commit to general studies.

After meeting Ricardo Vines, Poulenc learned the music of his time and later composed pieces included in the London publisher Chester.

His repertoire of work included songs, solo piano, chamber music, choral pieces, ballets, operas, and orchestral concert music. 

11. Jean-Yves Thibaudet (1961-)

Jean-Yves Thibaudet is a French-American professional pianist who has been active for the last three decades.

Known as one of the world’s best pianists, the Steinway artist was born in Lyon, France, but currently resides in Los Angeles. 

Beginning his musical career at the age of 5, he attended the Lyons conservatory as well as the Paris Conservatory.

Fast forward a few years and now Thibaudet has performed all around the world and has recorded over 50 albums.

He was an apprentice of Maurice Ravel, and his career has skyrocketed since with soundtrack credits for movies like Pride & Prejudice and Atonement. 

12. Michel Legrand (1932-2019)

French musician Michel Legrand was a jazz pianist who has written over 200 film and television scores.

Legrand has won three Oscars, five Grammys, an Academy Award, and was nominated for an Emmy. 

Legrand’s mother was the sister of conductor Jacques Helian, and Legrand followed in the family’s footsteps by studying piano and music at the conservatoire de Paris at age 11.

His music lives on today. 

13. Philippe Entremont (1934-)

Philippe Entremont is currently a French classical pianist and conductor.

Entremont was born to musical parents; his father was an operatic conductor, while his mother was a Grand Prix pianist. 

Entremont studied piano in Paris, where he won awards for sight-reading as early as 12 years old.

In 1952, he won an award in the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition and went on to be one of the foremost artists in Europe. 

14. Hélène Grimaud (1969-)

Helene Grimaud is a classical pianist who received her education at the Conservatoire de Paris.

She began learning the piano at the age of 7 and studied under Jacques Rouvier. 

Grimaud is unique in that she experiences synesthesia, which means that she sees music as color.

She is an expert pianist who performed with the Paris Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Berliner Philharmoniker, and more. 

15. Pascal Rogé (1951-)

Pascal Roge is a French pianist with a repertoire spanning French influences along with German and Austrian composers, including Mozart and Beethoven. 

Roge’s first-ever public performance won him a piano prize at the Paris Conservatory.

He worked alongside Julius Katchen, performed chamber works, and currently performs recitals across the globe. 

His favorite composers include Claude Debussy, Gabriel Faure, and Francis Poulenc. 

16. Samson François (1924-1970)

French composer and pianist Samson Francois was born in Frankfurt, where he discovered the piano at the early age of just two.

He studied in Italy under Pietro Mascagni and gave his very first concert at the age of six.

Francois went on to study at the Conservatoire in Nice and caught the attention of Alfred Cortot.

He moved to Paris for further studies and later performed renditions of Schumann, Debussy, and Ravel.

His works include concertos for piano, orchestra, and solo piano, and some music for film.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.