updated 10 October 2022

Philippe Fénelon

French composer born in 1952 in Suèvres, Loir-et-Cher.

Philippe Fénelon was born in France in 1952. He began studying piano at the Conservatoire d’Orléans, taught by Claude Ardent and Janine Coste. He continued his studies at the Conservatoire de Paris (CNSMDP), in the composition class of Olivier Messiaen, graduating with highest honors in 1977. Encouraged by André Boucourechliev, Fénelon dedicated his Ballade pour hier (1976) to him. In parallel, he studied at the École nationale des langues orientales vivantes (now INALCO). He won the Jury Prize at the Stockhausen Competition in Bergamo in 1980 and held a residency at the Casa Vélazquez in Madrid from 1981 to 1983.

Fénelon’s fascination with poetry and dramaturgy have been a cornerstone of his aesthetic from the beginning, and his commitment to prioritizing narrative structure in the construction of his musical work can be heard in his earliest compositions, such as Les trois hymnes primitifs (based on poems by Segalen, 1974) or Les chants du héros (based on poems by Rabindranath Tagore, 1975). This led him to create a significant body of vocal compositions, notably operas: his first, Chevalier imaginaire (1984-1986), based on the work of Cervantes and Kafka, premiered in 1992 and was followed by Rois (1988-1989), Salammbô, after Flaubert (1992-1996), Faust (2003-2004), Judith (2006-2007), and then La cerisaie, after Chekov (2008-2009). For the three-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Fénelon composed JJR, citoyen de Genève with a libretto by Ian Burton, which premiered at the Grand Théâtre de Genève in September 2012.

Much of his other work draws on great literary texts, or weaves in forms and references drawn from ancient poetry and music, such as Dix-huit Madrigaux (1996), based on Rilke’s Duino Elegies; In darkness (1998), inspired by Renaissance settings of Lamentations and based on Elizabethan poetry; the Magnificat (2002); Leçons de ténèbres (2003); Deux airs de concert (1999-2006); and Ich lasse dich nicht (2007), inspired by the motet. He has continued to produce vocal compositions including Les fourmis, a “suite philosophique“ for baritone, piano, and drum (2008) and Les portes de Babel for four vocalists and string quartet (2009).

In addition to his vocal compositions, Fénelon has written numerous instrumental pieces. His first instrumental compositions, Lointain for ensemble (1977) and “Du, meine Welt !” (1979) show already the great freedom of his style, melding aleatory sequences and set structure. Maipù 994 and Diagonal in 1983, Onze Inventions for string quartet (1988) and his instrumental cycle Mythologies (1989-1990) all affirm this desire for experimentation. Gloria for large orchestra (2004-2005), a ballet piece for ensemble titled Pasodoble (2006), and compositions for soloists such as Le calme des puissances for piano (2008) or Anima for tenor viola da gamba (2010) are more mature examples of his approach.

Fénelon has won many international awards and honors, including the Prix Georges Wildenstein in 1983, the Prix Hervé Dugardin in 1984, and the Prix Villa Medicis hors les murs in 1991. He was invited to Berlin as a DAAD composer-in-residence in 1988 and received a fellowship from the Fondation Beaumarchais in 1990 for his third opera, Salammbô; in 1992, he was awarded the Prix des nouveaux talents en musique dramatique by the Société des auteurs et compositeurs dramatiques (SACD), which awarded him a second prize in 2004. The Académie des Beaux-Arts awarded him the Prix Rossini in 2006 and the SACEM awarded him the Grand prix de la musique symphonique in 2007. He is a Chevalier de l’Ordre national du mérite and a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.

In 2018, Philippe Fénelon donated his archives to the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2011


  • Marguerite Haladjian, Philippe Fénelon (site de Philippe Fénelon, voir ressources documentaires).

By Emmanuel Reibel

Having kept his distance from the two major aesthetic currents of his formative years, post-serialism and spectralism, Philippe Fénelon has always considered himself an independent, someone who can appreciate Puccini as well as Alban Berg, György Kurtág, and Olivier Messiaen (his teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, in whose class he won the Prix de composition in June 1977). In his writing, Fénelon remains open to experiment while committed to the idea of discourse. He deploys grand sonic dramas and does not shy away from emotion. Perhaps for this reason, he is a theater enthusiast. He found his vocation upon discovering Les Noces by Igor Stravinsky as conducted by Pierre Boulez at Bayreuth in 1970, and, after the late 1980s, he turned more and more toward opera. From Le Chevalier imaginaire (1984-1986) to JJR, citoyen de Genève (2012), his seven stage works form the core of his portfolio of more than a hundred scores for solo instruments, chamber music, orchestra, and choir. This diverse output reveals both evolution (stretching as it does over nearly four decades) and deep continuities that reflect the consolidation of a personal style.

From chance experiments to labyrinthine wandering

The Ballade pour hier (1976) is typical of Fénelon’s early works, which betray the influence of André Boucourechliev and tend to reserve a degree of freedom for the performers. Conceived as a labyrinth with three entrances, this score (a grand-format square measuring 50 by 50 cm) affords the pianist multiple pathways, indicated by arrows linking various musical motifs. In the late seventies, Fénelon was looking beyond the “open work” and experimenting with combinations of determinacy and indeterminacy. Though soon abandoned, this style would leave its mark. Fénelon has never really taken to techniques of formal predetermination: “In my methods of writing,” he notes, “controlled chance has always predominated, and it still does.”1 In addition, the theme of the labyrinth has remained important in his oeuvre, outlasting aleatoric experimentation.

This oeuvre, surely not by chance, channels an urban imagination: the city, after all, is the modern labyrinth, a place of numerous simultaneous trajectories, the paradise or hell of the modern Wanderer. Evoking the chaos of urban traffic, Diagonal for fourteen instruments (1983) takes its name from the main thoroughfare of Barcelona, Fénelon’s home base. The Onze Inventions for string quartet (1988), meanwhile, were inspired by Berlin just before the Wall came down: “It was precisely the restructuring of the city that led me to blow apart the form.”2 Fénelon wrote the text for Notti, for “voice and obligato contrabass” (1990), following nocturnal rambles in a city in northern Italy. Indeed he often bases his musical forms on topography or on urban peregrinations: Maipù 994 (1983) is a nod to the Buenos Aires of Jorge Luis Borges, while Midtown for two trumpets and seventeen other instruments (1994) originated in a contemplation of Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick’s Cathedral from a New York hotel window, and Omaggio (a Tiepolo) for solo violin (1990) in the discovery of a huge fresco, partly destroyed by the bombardments of 1945, in the ballroom of the Palazzo Canossa in Verona.

Topographical wandering can take on a formal and spatial dimension. In Les Combats nocturnes for piano and percussion (1986-1987), the first movement, “Daedalus Improvises His Labyrinth Dance,” can be accompanied with choreography. More than just a mosaic in the floor, a labyrinth can become a temporal trajectory for the performer and a mental pathway for listeners . It comes as no surprise to find Fénelon’s first two operas inseparable from this aesthetic. Thematizing and interiorizing the idea of wandering, in Le Chevalier imaginaire, “absolute music” becomes a Labyrinthe (the subtitle of two instrumental interludes associated with Don Quixote’s madness). In addition, Fénelon reprises the title of the first movement of Les Combats nocturnes for an intermezzo in Les Rois, which revisits the myth of the minotaur via Julio Cortázar. Imagining that a world of light and harmony reigns at the heart of the labyrinth, the whole opera becomes a metaphor for the musical work, which preserves the utopia of harmony, aspires to order on the other side of chaos, and banishes all intellectual errancy by offering an emotional trajectory.

Beyond the avant-garde: the singing voice and the world around

Fénelon has often presented his Épilogue for piano (1980) as an important turning-point in his style. In this work, he abandoned aleatoric procedures in favor of a strict writing based on elaborate structures. But more importantly, he began to foreground, with irony, his confrontation with the collective heritage of the avant-garde. This seven-minute score, which won the jury prize at the Stockhausen International Competition, takes material from the Klavierstücke and elaborates it in serial fashion, but an omnipresent, obsessive “re-” factor undercuts the whole logic of this language. More than just a declaration of independence, this work can be read as a sort of epilogue to the avant-garde (at least in its ideological and teleological aspects). In that respect Fénelon appears of his time, consciously or not, as his gesture coincides with Jean-François Lyotard’s reflections on postmodernity and the marked change of course of György Ligeti took at the turn of the 1980s. Two years later, with Pré-Texte, Fénelon affirmed his evolution, definitively reconciling with the human voice (included in a few youthful scores) and reference to the external world, two major characteristics of his subsequent writing.

Fénelon came to love the singing voice by way of vocal pyrotechnics. A piece such as Pré-texte takes up the legacy of 1970s music-drama, making the performer juggle multiple modes of declamation and, rapid elocution of phonemes (Fénelon’s interest in their sonority relates to his passion for languages, including Bulgarian, which he studied at the École des langues orientales). His enduring love of vocal virtuosity shows up in the feats he reserves for the coloratura soprano. His Airs de concert (2007), based on extracts from Pierre Corneille’s Psyché, to which is addedhe adds a vertiginous “Improvisation sur le mot perfido,” requires a blazing virtuosity. The “Improvisation” echoes in the role of Annette in Faust (2003-2004), and, though Fénelon had, even earlier, already written another coloratura soprano role for the terrifying role of Pasiphaé in Les Rois (1988-1989) for coloratura soprano, while Ania, in La Cerisaie (2008-2009), is a new Zerbinetta. Beyond vocal agility and spectacular displays of hysteria, Fénelon was quick to rediscover the melodic dimension proper to vocal writing. While lyrism appears in his work as early as Latitudes for clarinet and fourteen instruments (1981), it really flourished in the substantial vocal section of his portfolio starting with Du blanc le jour son espace for baritone and fifteen instruments (1984), notably in the Dix-huit Madrigaux after Rainer Maria Rilke’s Elegies (1995), In darkness (1998), the Magnificat, and Les portes de Babel for vocal quartet and string quartet on poems by Jean-Yves Masson (2009).

This lyric tension culminates in his operas, where Fénelon reconciles creativity with passion for the canon, which he had formerly kept separate from his composing though he had deeply assimilated it thanks to long experience as a singing coach. Fénelon often writes or co-writes his own libretti, and, in these lofty works, he usually constructs a personal trajectory in the form of sequential dramaturgy out of the lofty works he sets: thus La Cerisaie (2010) reworks Anton Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard through the ball scene, while JJR, citoyen de Genève (2012) presents themes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s life and work through juxtaposed tableaux that mix the philosopher’s different phases and voices and intersperse historical figures with fictional characters. While avoiding making a simple return to the narrative fiction traditional in opera (the influence of Bernd Alois Zimmermann turns up, for example, in Salammbô with its simultaneous scenes), Fénelon’s dramaturgy restores conventions that the opera world had set about trying to deconstruct: the spectator’s orientation toward representation through immediate emotional impact; choruses and vocal ensembles (such as the dectet in La Cerisaie); arias that link the characters to the genre’s inherent memory; and a spectacular dimension, embraced to the point of grandiloquence (as in the pillage scene in Salammbô and the storm scene in Faust). The final scene of JJR, citoyen de Genève, a zany vaudeville setting various of Rousseau’s pronouncements on opera, effects a mise en abyme tribute to opera in all its diversity and historical density.

Memory is the second theme reintroduced in Pré-Texte. He does not, however, flaunt reference as some kind of postmodern manifesto; in fact, he masks some of his allusions even as they feed material into his works. Even a well-informed listener could miss this music within the music, which might take the form of a truncated citation, a surreptitious allusion, a momentary parody, a full-on pastiche. Yet such references are constant in Fénelon’s music from the eighties onwards: a tango by Carlos Gardel at the end of Maipù 994, Johannes Brahms in Saturne, Luigi Dallapiccola and Giuseppe Verdi in Onze Inventions, a Palestrina motet in Midtown, and so on. Quotations and pastiches start to appear more openly with Le Chevalier imaginaire, which appropriates Claudio Monteverdi’s lettera amorosa for the letter to Dulcineau. Some Certain references now become easily perceptible, as in the Dix-huit Madrigaux, which immerse the listener in the world of antique polyphony through instrumentation that brings back the shade of the Baroque era — though this does not deter Fénelon from also includes multiple other additional points of reference, from the troubadour Raimon de Miraval to Brahms by way of Bach and Monteverdi.

In eEach of Fénelon’s his operas, Fénelon tailors its references to the subject: the lengthy Germanic chorale (borrowed from Johann Christian Bach) that intrudes in Faust, a Russian modal soundworld in La Cerisaie, distinct reminiscences of Le Devin du village in JJR, citoyen de Genève. But in each case, these specific colorations are accompanied by much more eclectic borrowings from Wagner, Berg, Darius Milhaud, Kurt Weill, etc. This strategy of freely mixing references — whether highbrow or (as in his ballet Pasodoble) popular, near or far, real or fantastic — creates a dramaturgy of memory, one that matches the identity Fénelon has constructed for himself as a composer: a free eclecticism that bases its modernity on invention rooted in the terrain of the past.

The titan and Orpheus

Conceiving his work as a dialogue with music history, Fénelon strives to reconcile past and present, music and discourse, consonance and dissonance, atonality and tonality. I; in this respect, his Gloria for orchestra (2005) might constitute the paragon of his writing, with its textural richness, underlying narrativity, and frequent polarities that pull toward the final E major/minor. Two different aesthetics nevertheless come together in his work, drawing on very different imaginative registers and writing styles but coexisting and complementing each other like yin and yang: in Fénelon, there is something of the titan and something of Orpheus.

The first strand, partly inherited from the preceding generation and its experimental ethos, relies on athematicism, dense textures, fragmentation of material, juxtapositions of masses, and transcendental virtuosity.: “This overabundance of signs, of elements external to the main text,” Fénelon writes, “this virtuosity in the phrases, is probably what most characterizes my music during a whole period lasting a little over fifteen years, especially after 1980, … up to Salammbô.”3 It is linked to a mythic imagination that summons up primordial violence, as in Les Combats nocturnes or the series of Mythologies. This chaotic, overflowing energy returns in the athletic first Concerto pour piano et orchestre (1996), in the pillage scene that closes the fifth tableau of Salammbô (Fénelon’s sole excursion into electroacoustics), and even in the 2008 Le calme des puissances for piano. Fénelon, who has also written a percussion piece entitled Zabak, in reference to African dance rituals, can resemble a shaman conjuring up the violence of chthonic or psychic forces in his work.

This harsh, titanic writing coexists with a tendency toward transparency and intimate melancholy. Techniques of for rarefying sound and material are common in Fénelon’s music, and his gaping silences rival his effects of saturation. Over the years, a rift has opened up in the titan to reveal the elegiac poet inside. Songs of loss, of lament, of sorrow traverse his work and have demanded a thematic and melodic style, partly tonal or modal and colored with deep melancholy. This pared-down side comes to the fore in the Magnificat (2002), the Leçons de ténèbres (2003), and La Cerisaie, which is flooded with elegiac lyricism. But it began in the Dix-huit Madrigaux, an incontestable masterpiece of austerity — but one that hasn’t completely gotten over complexity, since Fénelon takes up a genre that was historically that of the fragmentation of language and dispersal of texts. No archaic nostalgia, then: in this polyphonic style, which continues the choral legacy of Ligeti and Francis Poulenc, Fénelon achieves moments of ecstatic consonance, a sobriety of diction without excluding flights of lyricism, a refinement of writing that gives the impression of naturalness. With the voice of the Angel (countertenor) — the inner voice of the poet in Rilke — he makes us hear the Orpheus who sings within him.

  1. Philippe FÉNELON, Arrière-pensées: entretiens avec Laurent Feneyrou (Musica Falsa, 1998), p. 125.
  2. Philippe FÉNELON, Ricordi interview, undated, p. 14, included in the dossier “Fénelon” of the Centre de documentation de la musique contemporaine.
  3. FÉNELON, Arrière-pensées, p. 98.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2012

Site Internet

(liens vérifiés en septembre 2022).


  • Philippe FÉNELON, Magnificat, chœur Arsys Bourgogne, direction : Pierre Cao, avec des œuvres de Thierry Escaich, Pierre-Adrien Charpy, Nicolas Bacri, Guillaume Connesson et Régis Campo, 1 cd Accords, 2006, 476 9939.
  • Philippe FÉNELON, extraits de Dix-huit Madrigaux, dans « Répertoires polychromes 3 », Les Jeunes solistes, direction : Rachid Safir, avec des œuvres d’Edith Canat de Chizy, Jean-Christophe Feldhandler, Michael Jarrell, Bruno Giner, Yoshihisa Taira et Georges Boeuf, 1 cd MFA Radio France, 2001, 216038.
  • Philippe FÉNELON, Dix-huit Madrigaux, Les Jeunes solistes, direction : Rachid Safir, 1 cd Grave, 1998, GRCD 10.
  • Philippe FÉNELON, Halley ; Omaggio ; Zabak ; Deux Épigrammes ; Épilogue ; Notti ; Les combats nocturnes, Sylvie Beltrando, Florent Boffart, Florent Jodelet, Maryvonne Le Dizès, Joëlle Léandre, 1 cd MFA-Radio France, 1997, 216015.
  • Philippe FÉNELON, Omaggio (a Tiepolo), Florent Boffard : piano, Florent Jodelet : percussion, Joëlle Léandre : contrebasse, Sylvie Beltrando : harpe, Maryvonne Le Dizès : violon, 1 cd MFA Radio France, 1997, 216015.
  • Philippe FÉNELON, Nit, dans « Hommage à Dominique Troncin », Christophe Gaugué, alto, avec des œuvres de Frédéric Durieux, Joshua Fineberg, Gérard Grisey, Betsy Jolas, Jacques Lenot, Alain Louvier, Frédérick Martin, Philippe Manoury, Gérard Pesson, Éric Tanguy, 1 cd MFA Radio France, 1995, 216007.
  • Philippe FÉNELON, « Mythologies », La colère d’Achille (Mythologie I) ; Orion (Mythologie II) ; Hélios (Mythologie III) ; Ulysse (Mythologie IV),  Ensemble Fa, direction : Dominique My, 1 cd MFA - Thésis, 1993, THC 82057.
  • Philippe FÉNELON, Le chevalier imaginaire, Le Roy Villanueva, Aurio Tomicich, Mélanie Armistead, Menai Davies, Philippe Doghan, Luis Masson, Ensemble intercontemporain, direction : Peter Eövös, 1 cd Erato, 1992, 4509-96394-2.
  • Philippe FÉNELON, Orion (Mythologie II),  Alain Damiens, clarinette, Ensemble intercontemporain, avec des œuvres de Iannis Xenakis, Philippe Haim, Jacques Lenot et Vinko Globokar, 1cd MFA Radio France, 1990, 581277.
  • Philippe FÉNELON, Onze inventions, Quatuor Rosamonde, avec des œuvres d’Henri Dutilleux et Philippe Hersant, 1 cd MFA Radio France, 1990, 581280.
  • Philippe FÉNELON, Diagonal ; Maipú 994 ; Épilogue ; Paral.lel, Caroline Haffner : piano, Alexandre Ouzounoff : basson, Ensemble intercontemporain, direction : Peter Eötvös,  1 LP Harmonia Mundi, 1986, HMC 5180.


  • Philippe FÉNELON, Déchiffrages : une vie en musique, Paris, Riveneuve éditions, 2017.
  • Philippe FÉNELON, Histoires d’opéras, Actes Sud, 2007, 233 pages.
  • Philippe FÉNELON (Rencontre avec), « Paroles en musique », dans Actes des ving-troisièmes assises de la traduction littéraire , Arles, ATLAS/Actes Sud, 2006.
  • Philippe FÉNELON, « Les Architectures de l’invisible. Entretien avec Laurent Feneyrou », dans Stéphane Michaud et Gerald Stieg (sous la direction de), Rilke et son amie Lou-Andreas Salomé à Paris, coéd. Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle et Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, 2001.
  • Philippe FÉNELON, Arrière-pensées : Entretiens avec Laurent Feneyrou, éditions Musica Falsa, Paris, 1998.


  • Philippe FÉNELON, La vuelta al día  2007-2008, 40 min.
  • Philippe FÉNELON, Aurora Bernárdez leyendo a Cortázar, 2007, 28 min, Mexique, États-Unis.
  • Philippe FÉNELON, Leyendo a Cortázar, 2006, 3 min. 30, [réalisé pour l’exposition consacrée aux archives photographiques de Julio Cortázar].
  • Philippe FÉNELON, La vie est plus courte qu’un jour d’hiver, [sur la vie de la compositrice Leni Alexander], 2005, 52 min [version espagnole, Santiago de Chile, 2007].
  • Philippe FÉNELON, 87 Galle Road, Bentota, [sur une maison de l’architecte sri lankais Geoffrey Bawa], 2005, 9 min. 10.
  • Philippe FÉNELON, Carnet 1. Anne-Marie Pécheur, Paris, L’Archipel, 2002, 26 min.