updated 16 February 2016

Jean-Louis Florentz

French composer born 19 December 1947 in Asnières; died 4 July 2004.

Jean-Louis Florentz was born on 19 December 1947 in Asnières, Hauts de Seine, France. While pursuing his university studies in the natural sciences, Arabic literature, and ethnomusicology, he enrolled in the Conservatoire de Paris, sudying with Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Schaeffer, as well as with Antoine Duhamel. In 1978, he was awarded the Lili Boulanger Composition Prize, and then multiple awards from the SACEM and the Institut de France.

He traveled extensively for research, including to the Antilles, Polynesia, and Africa, notably to Kenya, where from 1981 to 1982 he was a guest professor at the Kenyatta University College of Thika-Nairobi. He was an élève-titulaire at the Institut d’Étho-écologie des Communications Animales of the École Pratique des Hautes-Études, where he studied equatorial bird polyphonies, publishing several articles on the topic.

In 1989, Jean-Louis Florentz returned to the advanced study of Semitic languages (in particular Ethiopian languages) at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (now INALCO), as well as at the École des Langues Orientales Anciennes of the Institut Catholique. He traveled several times to Israel and lived in close contact with the Ethiopian Orthodox community of West Jerusalem (Däbrä Gännät Monastery).

In 1985, Florentz was appointed as a professor of ethnomusicological analysis at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Lyon. He was a resident at the Villa Médicis in Rome from 1979-1981 and at the Casa Velasquez in Madrid and Palma de Mallorca from 1983-1985. He was a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres and in 1989 was awarded the Grand Prix Musical by the City of Paris for his entire body of work; in 1990 he was awarded the Grand Prix Musical by the Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco for Asún (formerly Requiem de la Vierge), Opus 7. He also won the SACEM Grand Prix de la Musique Symphonique in 1991.

Florentz was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts on 5 April 1995, and served as a composer-in-residence with the Orchestre National de Lyon from 1995-1997 and with the Orchestre National des Pays de Loire from 2000-2002.

After a last research trip in 2002, this one to Saharan Tunisia, Jean-Louis Florentz passed away in Paris on 4 July 2004, leaving a catalogue of some fifteen works.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2008

By Fabrice Contri

The origins of the works: territories, encounters, maturation

Like Paul Dukas and Maurice Ravel, Jean-Louis Florentz pored over his own compositions. They were often months in the making. As with his peers, Florentz’s slowness was not only a sign of perfectionism, but also of a desire to be at one with his creations. He allowed the work to mature; the way in which he engendered it and entered into communion with it was passed through the sieve of experience. Imbued with Eastern religious rituals, and those of Sufism in particular, he mulled at length over ideas before expressing them. He had to build an “imaginary world.”1 This was one of his watchwords when he was teaching, and his artistic and human journey, his personal life, was a quest: the quest for an elsewhere, through the cultures, landscapes, and human or animal societies he set out to discover. Like all ethno(musico)logists, he felt a pressing need to get out into the field, to take the time to meet people. This took him from the monastery of Däbrä Gännät (Paradise Monastery2) in Jerusalem to the temples of Karnak in Egypt, from the vertiginous spaces of Mount Orohena (Tahiti) to Kilimanjaro. He was keen to collect materials himself, gathering and welcoming sounds and words from Africa, Oceania, and the Orient. Religere and religare: to gather and to connect. In his “religion,” Florentz remained aware of a sovereign unity, beyond the apparent formal multiplicity. Asùn, op. 7 (1986-1988, originally titled Requiem de la Vierge [Requiem for the Virgin]), draws on a wide variety of sources. Quoting the Koran and various texts from the Ethiopian Jewish, as well as Eastern and Western church, traditions, orchestrally evoking the natural spaces of Africa or some Tibetan ritual, this ample “liturgical tale,” a Marian hymn, celebrates the mystery of Creation with a single voice. L’Hospitalité des mémoires: Genesis de ma technique harmonique is not only a reasoned enunciation of Florentz’s musical-language techniques, but also an invitation to realize that “for its survival, our contemporary world must prepare to welcome other knowledge”3: memories of origins, memories of rituals, memories borne by the living word of the oral traditions that fecundate history.

A voyager at heart, Florentz was by no means a vagabond, for a scientific discipline guided his steps. On his desk and at his bedside, books on mathematics and ethnomusicology, collections of poems in classical Arabic and of psalms in the Geʿez language were piled alongside The Thousand and One Nights (the Mardrus translation) and French translations of Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. Unlike many of his contemporaries — Luciano Berio, György Ligeti, Maurice Ohana, and Steve Reich — he kept going into the field, right up to the last years of his life. Madagascar and the Tunisian Sahara were his final journeys. The desert enabled him — in his symphonic poem Qsar Ghilâne, op. 18 (2003) — to capture the voice of the jinn, while the sight of a young Madagascan girl on a beach in the Indian Ocean inspired him to write the symphonic poem L’Enfant des Îles, op. 16 (Child of the Islands, 2001), a song of great purity that revealed his innermost being: that of an African child. His last work, L’Enfant noir, op. 17 (The Black Child, 2001), a symphonic tale for organ and of which only the prelude was completed, is inhabited by the “irrepressible homesickness” from which he suffered at the end of his life, when illness forced him to remain confined to his small Boulogne apartment.

Florentz, an African storyteller

Because everything is sign and meaning at the same time for black Africans: each being, each thing, but also the material, the form, the color, the smell and the gesture and the rhythm and the tone and the timbre, the color of the pagne, the form of the kora, the design of the bride’s sandals, the steps and the gestures of the dancer, and the mask.4
L.S. Senghor

Florentz’s compositions cannot be regarded as isolated objects; they echo and respond to each other. They resonate with the words and songs of the people and animals with whom he came into contact. These correspondences were an essential feature of his creative process. They testify to his extraordinary “permeability” to the universe and his profound desire to unite worlds that may seem distant or even contradictory: East and West, Christian religion and dance (L’Anneau de Salomon, op. 14 [The Ring of Solomon, 1998], symphonic dance for full orchestra, which he hoped to have danced in a church; La Croix du sud, op. 15 [The Southern Cross, 1999-2000], symphonic poem for organ), the refined style of the organ against the din of jet engines (Chant des fleurs [Song of the Flowers], fourth piece in Laudes, op. 5 [1985], for organ). His willingness to forge links is also expressed through rewriting and connecting seemingly dissimilar works through shared instrumentation. In Florentz’s oeuvre, the object to be shaped remained in progress for a long time, as he delved as deeply as possible into the material and ideas. Works are reborn, reappearing in different states during their creator’s life. Thus, in the second movement of Marches du soleil, op. 4 (Steps of the Sun, 1981-1983; withdrawn from the catalog by the composer), the orchestra was replaced by four cellos. Thus was born the Chant de Nyandarua, op. 6 (Song of Nyandura, 1986), which, no doubt influenced by nostalgia for the vast spaces of Kenya’s Rift Valley, in turn engendered Second chant de Nyandarua, op. 11 (Second Song of Nyandura, 1985-1995), for twelve or eight cellos. Similarly, Debout sur le soleil, op. 8 (Standing on the Sun, 1990), for solo organ, and Asmarâ, op. 9 (1991-1992), for mixed a cappella choir, form the Livre des enchantements (Book of Enchantments). The Magnificat, op. 3 (1980), Laudes, and Asùn are the pillars of the Livre du Pacte de Miséricorde (Book of the Pact of Mercy), a triptych on the meditations (mysteries) of the rosary.

“The word is a world. Speech is dangerously multiple. . . . To speak, that, too, is speech; to be silent, that, too, is speech; everything is speech.”5 The genre of the symphonic poem, or “tale” (conte), dominates Florentz’s oeuvre. Like the skein of myth, Florentz’s poetic discourse must be untangled before its narrative threads can be grasped. A storyteller and rhapsodist, Florentz structured his discourse in episodes or sections that coincided with his “scenarios,” shaping the form as he traveled around the world. Having listened to a great deal of Bach and birdsong, Florentz was first and foremost a polyphonist. Deeply influenced by sub-Saharan Africa, “his” polyphony conveyed an allegorical language, often filled with symbols, particularly numerical ones. Florentz’s music needs to be deciphered so that all the subtleties of its meaning may be grasped. Each borrowing, each evocation or reminiscence, becomes a sign and resonates. The song of the gray hornbill and the cymbalization6 of the cicada become shimmering harmonies, heterophonies, learned polyphonies in the playing of the organist or within large symphony orchestras. The cello calls to prayer and cantillates (in the cello concerto Le Songe de Lluc Alcari, op. 10 [The Dream of Lluc Alcari, 1992-1994], and in the piece for solo cello L’Ange du tamaris, op. 12 [The Tamarisk Angel, 1995]). A progression of parallel thirds evokes Bantu music. In La Croix du sud, written for the great organ of Notre-Dame de Paris, a pedal line whirls, evoking the steps of a courtly dance of love from the Hoggar Mountains in Algerian Sahara. Rich polyrhythms and the fusional interplay of the organ’s various registers further enrich the composition. This dimension of vibration is also evident in the treatment of timbre: Florentz took great pleasure in complex sonorities, working the harmonic spectrum with meticulous care, seeking to “load” it, as do African musicians who, by adding noise to the primary sound, endow it with singular voices — those of ancestors, bush or forest spirits, divinities — filling it with mystery.

At the heart of his output are the symphony orchestra and the voice, revealing his enjoyment of classical singing and melody. The organ — one of the most representative instruments of the Christian liturgy, “the ultimate presence of the sacred within contemporary Western Catholic ritual” — and the cello — a carnal voice, “which can only be played in an embrace”7 — are two essential elements of his sound palette. To these should be added the Ethiopian lyre (bagana) and the Tuareg hurdy-gurdy (imzad), instruments he evoked or imitated with both orchestra and organ. In his work, these “talking instruments”8 are elevated to the status of characters in his narrative universe, celebrating the spirituality and sensuality of a sole mystical aspiration.

Florentz, a traditional musician

Like Olivier Messiaen, who never visited India, his land of predilection, Florentz never made the journey — the pilgrimage — to Ethiopia, that “prefiguration of Paradise.” The sociopolitical upheavals that shook the country in the second half of the twentieth century prevented him from going there; but no doubt, despite the vicissitudes of history, he, too, preferred dreams to reality. For a while, he managed to act as an ethnomusicologist, with all the science and objectivity required; he also played with reality, imbuing his works with a highly personal poetry. Florentz cultivated distance in his writing, and, even when he drew inspiration from scattered sources or made use of quotations, it never became the work of a copyist. He combined his harmonic exploration with his wanderings in nature, notably in “the great temple of the African forests,” a “natural laboratory of resonance” capturing and analyzing the songs of birds and insects, amplified and filtered by the vegetation. During each of his many “study trips,” he sought to discover, as accurately as possible, these plays of sound. He made no attempt to shed his own musical baggage: that of the West, with its forest of churches and cathedrals and their liturgies. His fascination for other cultures did not lead him to deny his roots. His work, however, never succumbs to the temptation to amalgamate, and is in no way an attempt at métissage, still less a rallying cry for world music. It rests instead on a synthesis of innumerable, meticulously combined influences — a synthesis he deemed necessary and salvatory. Thus, the principles of natural resonance and the pentaphone, which Florentz considered “guarantees of universality,” played host to modality, “subtly malleable matter,” just as they mingled with tonality, bearer of several centuries of Western history. Florentz’s multicultural language is the fruit of thoughtful appropriation, polyglot, not ignoring etymology.

Florentz, in search of the other as well as himself, was in no way interested in novelty at any price, in all its opportunistic and peremptory aspects. His modernity ignored time and fashion. It also tended toward (re)conciling diverse cultures, aesthetics, and styles, drawing some anecdote from the depths of antiquity, offering the sacredness of myth to the fleetingness of the moment. He had no desire to break with the past; perhaps he simply expressed the dream of enduring, as part of a history and a space that are understood as broadly as possible. In this, Florentz aspired to an immutable, traditional rootedness that is the antithesis of a tabula rasa policy. It was this mindset that often put him at odds with the Western musical avant-gardes of the second half of the twentieth century.

Today, Florentz’s music sounds resolutely modern and daring to some ears — particularly those of organists — while to others it seems backward-looking, outdated. Questioning Florentz’s style, contrasting its innovative dimension with its returns to the past and its “unspeakable nostalgia,”9 hardly seems appropriate. Indeed, to ask such a question is to take a rather ethnocentric view — at least, according to a fairly recent Western viewpoint that considers avant-gardism a supreme quality — of an original way of positioning oneself with regard to history. If Florentz can be considered a “traditional” musician, it is because he disregarded a purely linear chronology, which would be limited to a simple time-driven accumulation of facts. Tradition is a fire that each generation stokes. Florentz did not stubbornly keep his gaze turned in a single direction. A great scholar, he was heir to a vast cultural heritage, which he updated according to his own sensibility. Like a traditional musician, he wished to “be simply contemporary.”

Beyond these debates, it is important to recognize that Florentz was not always in tune with the musical environments and languages in vogue at the time. His demanding temperament, his reputation for gruffness or even misanthropy, were expressions of this trait. In order to grasp his sincere generosity and real depth, it is necessary to set aside European ethnocentrism in order to make the journey with him, the ethnocentrism that led some critics to pillory him, as well as to elevate him to the heights of “genius,” an incongruous notion within traditional cultures, at least those he admired and studied. Florentz was fully aware that the artist could only assimilate and transform: try to understand, not claim to create.

A living legacy

Although the quality of a work cannot be judged solely by its success with the public, it should be highlighted that Florentz’s compositions, at least among organists and cellists, have been performed continuously since their creation, despite their complexity of execution. Time, “when cruel and implacable history finishes undermining what, in the end, was not as important as first thought,”10 will tell whether his contribution will leave a lasting imprint on the Western musical landscape. Even though several aspects of his language and creative ethic brought Florentz closer to some composers or “schools” of his time — such as Messiaen, Henri Dutilleux, Philippe Hersant, and the musicians of the Itinéraire — it would be hazardous, given his personality, to attempt to classify him. Beyond his borrowings from multiple musical traditions; beyond his fieldwork in Kenya, Israel, Polynesia, Egypt, and Madagascar, among many others; beyond his assiduous frequentation of certain high points of the French organ school and his love of the great colorists — from Charles Tournemire to Maurice Duruflé, from Dukas to Messiaen, from Giacomo Puccini to Heitor Villa-Lobos — Florentz wanted to remain independent. Rather than postmodernity, it would be more appropriate to speak of a kind of “exomodernity” in his work — without any gratuitous search for a neologism: a form of openness to multiple cultures, to different lands and time strata, to different aesthetics, without fear of the inappropriate or anachronistic. This attitude led Florentz to call into question, and sometimes reject, certain forms of Western thought and sensibility, and to extricate himself from any system, except that of religious rituals. “On the threshold of the twenty-first century, the considerable intermingling of highly differentiated populations in major metropolises no longer makes it possible to dispense with an in-depth understanding of them”11: Florentz’s lesson, insofar as he sought to teach one, is undoubtedly the affirmation that a confluence of cultures is more necessary than ever today. A rich polyphony that can only flourish if we remain, as he managed to do, in a state of perpetual wonder.

1. The quotations without sources all refer to personal conversations the author of this text had with Florentz between 1997 and 2002 (mainly during interviews conducted as part of a “Carte blanche” at the CNR de Boulogne-Billancourt for his fiftieth birthday). 
2. Florentz recorded a two-CD set for Ocora Radio France, which opened up new musical horizons for him. 
3. Typewritten document, n.d., 110 pages. 
4. Léopold Sédar SENGHOR, “Like the Sea Mammals Who Go to Drink at the Source & Kaya-Magan,” trans. Ann Neelon, The American Poetry Review, vol. 15, no. 1 (January/February 1986), pp. 15-19. 
5. Sory CAMARA, Paroles très anciennes, Grenoble, La Pensée sauvage, 1982, p. 69. 
6. A technical term used by entomologists, which Florentz adored for its musical connotations. Designates the male cicada’s song of seduction to attract the female. 
7. Jean-Louis FLORENTZ, s.v. L’Ange du tamaris, on the website for the Association Jean-Louis Florentz: http://www.jeanlouisflorentz.com
8. The musical discourse of many African instruments is based on a melodic and rhythmic encoding of speech, hence the expression “talking instrument” commonly used in Africa. 
9. Jean-Louis FLORENTZ, preface to the score of the Second Chant de Nyandarua, Paris, Leduc, 1997 (AL29025). 
10. Marie-Louise LANGLAIS, Jean-Louis Florentz, l’œuvre d’orgue: Témoignages croisés, Lyon, Symétrie, 2009, p. 179. 
11. Jean-Louis FLORENTZ, excerpt from the introduction to his ethnomusicology class at the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse de Lyon. 

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2016

Catalog sources and details

Œuvres retirées du catalogue

  • Ti-ndé, op. 1, pour alto et petit orchestre (1976)
  • Ténéré-Incantation sur un verset coranique, op. 2, pour orchestre (1976)
  • Les Marches du Soleil, op. 4, pour orchestre (1982)

Catalog source(s)

Œuvres retirées du catalogue

  • Ti-ndé, op. 1, pour alto et petit orchestre (1976)
  • Ténéré-Incantation sur un verset coranique, op. 2, pour orchestre (1976)
  • Les Marches du Soleil, op. 4, pour orchestre (1982)


  • Apollinaire ANAKESA, Jean-Louis Florentz, …sur les marches du soleil, éd. Millénaire III, Lillebonne, 1998, 168 p.
  • Jean-Louis FLORENTZ, Enchantements et merveilles, Symétrie, Lyon, 2007, 132 p.
  • Pascale GUITTON-LANQUEST, « Jean-Louis Florentz Magnificat-Antiphone pour la Visitation : Rite, nature, nombre : la femme, médiatrice du sacré », Intemporel (Bulletin de la Société Nationale de Musique) n° 17, janvier-mars 1996. [lire en ligne] (lien vérifié en février 2016).
  • Marie-Louise LANGLAIS, Jean-Louis Florentz, l’œuvre d’orgue : témoignages croisés, Symétrie, Lyon, 2009, 216 p.


  • Jean-Louis FLORENTZ, Concert-Hommage à Notre-Dame avec :Debout sur le soleil ; Asmarâ ; Qsar Ghilâne, enregistrement live : 14 et 15 janvier 2005, cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris dans le cadre de « Musique Sacrée à Notre-Dame », Olivier Latry : orgue, Maîtrise Notre-Dame de Paris, direction : Nicole Corti, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, direction : John Nelson, 1 Cd Accord - Universal, 2005, n° 476-7495.
  • Jean-Louis FLORENTZ, L’Enfant des îles ; L’Anneau de Salomon,dansL’appel du feu, avec l’œuvre de Guillaume Connesson, Orchestre des Pays de Loire, direction : Hubert Soudant, 1 cd Forlane, distribution DOM, 2003, n° 16832.
  • Jean-Louis FLORENTZ, Les Jardins d’Amènta ; Le Songe de Lluc Alcari ; L’Ange du tamaris, violoncelle : Yvan Chiffoleau, Orchestre National de Lyon, Direction : Emmanuel Krivine, Günther Herbig, 1 Cd MFA-Radio France, 1998, distribution Harmonia Mundi, n° 216023.
  • Jean-Louis FLORENTZ, Magnificat-Antiphone pour la Visitation ; Laudes Kidân za-Nageh, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, ensemble vocal Michel Piquemal, ténor : Yan Caley, direction : Armin Jordan, orgue : Michel Bourcier, 1 Cd Erato/MFA, 1990, n° 2292-45432-2.
  • Jean-Louis FLORENTZ, Chant de Nyandarua (1 et 2),dans«133 violoncelles pour Casals », Enregistré en public le 17 novembre 1990 à Paris, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, 1 Cd Vogue, 1991, n° 651-645007.

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