ABC Classic FM found out when they made this year’s Classic 100 Countdown an all-French affair.

The three exalted Bs of classical music are Bach, Beethoven and Brahms – not Berlioz, Bizet and Boulez. The muscular Germanic tradition may reign supreme in the Classical and Romantic pantheon, but neighbouring France holds sway as a lover, not a fighter, seducing the ears with frissons and parfums all her own. What is it that makes this music sound so distinctly, enchantingly French? What esprit français unites centuries of disparate styles and movements under the tricolour? 

The team at ABC Classic FM took it upon themselves to find out when they made this year’s Classic 100 Countdown an all-French affair – never has there been a better excuse to tuck into a croissant while tuning in. With the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth looming large in the musical calendar, this is the first time the publicly voted list of classical favourites has been devoted to the music of a single culture and country. Why France, then? Touching on works from the Top 100 (and a few that should have made the cut, but – quelle horreur! – missed out) I hope to shed some light on that elusive je ne sais quoi. 

Music has always held an elevated place in France, where they know how to enjoy the finer things in life. The elegance, opulence and attention to detail so central to the French arts can all be seen in the country’s sophisticated dance traditions. Few monarchs are praised for their fancy feet, but the Sun King, Louis XIV, earned a reputation as a seriously good dancer – skills he put to use in the splendour of the hall of mirrors in his palace at Versailles. But what is dance without tunes? Illustrious court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully developed a refined, regal and elaborately ornamented style that suited these glittering surrounds and dominated the French Baroque in his ballets, operas, theatre and incidental music (Le Bourgeouis Gentilhomme, No.79), while his successor, Jean-Philippe Rameau, took the noble stature of Lully and infused it with daring new harmonies and a rustic vitality courtesy of French market music and sailor dances (Les Indes Galantes, No.65). 

There can be no missing the eroticism that comes so naturally to the French. Theirs is the language of love, after all, as heard in Berlioz’s sumptuous song cycle Les nuits d’été (No.44). The declamatory lyricism of their native tongue is present even without words; it’s in the impressionistic orchestral palette and languid flute of Debussy’s hedonistic reverie, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (No.6), as delicate a flavour sensation as biting slowly into a Ladurée macaron. There’s nothing delicate, on the other hand, about the sex-on-a-stick allure of Bizet’s sultry Spanish heroine Carmen (claiming the No.1 spot). It is widely believed that the surging finale and slow-build orchestration of Ravel’s Boléro (No.9), with its supple saxophone, is a musical representation of lovemaking. 

That two of the three masterpieces mentioned above, both in the Top 10, draw heavily on Spanish influences, hints at the French penchant for the exotic (whether composers looked to the Far East – Delibes’ Lakmé, No.15 and Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, No.5, both set in India – or got swept up in the American jazz craze, as in Ravel’s sassy Blues movement in the Violin Sonata, strangely not in the Top 100). The nation’s aesthetic preoccupation with light, colour and elegant form, combined with proximity to Spain and a questing colonial outlook, produced composers who were musical chameleons, but who nonetheless stirred in unmistakable traces of their own Gallic tradition. 

Even when imitating the stoic German style, they couldn’t help giving sounding hopelessly froufrou. Witness the fin-de-siècle French obsession with Wagner, a culture clash nicely summed up by Renoir’s small, rather unflattering impressionist portrait of the Teuton, hanging in the Musée d’Orsay. It was a love-hate relationship: Saint-Saëns and Chabrier were in awe of him; Chausson longed to “déwagnériser” (de-Wagnerise) himself. Debussy considered a “horror of Wagner” to be a “sure sign of a refined intelligence”, but couldn’t resist Frenchifying the lush Tristan chord in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande (No.78), and sneaking it into his Gollywog’s Cakewalk (Children’s Corner, No.40) as a joke. 

That leads us to the lighter French touch: that charming Gallic wit we find in Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals (No.10), in which “pianists” are included in the menagerie of elephants, swans and kangaroos. Cabaret pianist Erik Satie may have produced some of the country’s most graceful, effortlessly beautiful tunes with his Gymnopédies (No.4), but he was also an enfant terrible who dashed off quirky miniatures like Limp Preludes for a Dog and Three Pieces in the form of a pear. (Unsurprisingly, his Vexations didn’t make the ABC list!)  

French composers throughout the ages have been able to take the pious and the comical, the sacred and the sensual, hand in hand. In the fourteenth-century, Guillaume de Machaut penned the earliest complete Mass setting, Messe de Notre Dame (not on list). He also composed love songs – using incredibly lush harmonies for the time – and, in his sixties, wrote an extended poem about his affair with a teenage girl. Six centuries later, the devoutly Catholic Messiaen created one of the most stirring evocations of love and longing in the ondes martenot theme of his Turangalîla-Symphonie (No.51). And blind organist Jean Langlais didn’t deny himself the sensual pleasures of long, supple melodies and huge, potent blocks of choral harmony in his stunning Messe Solennelle (not on list). Francis Poulenc wrote light-hearted neoclassical ditties in the 1920s but, after a profound religious conversion, devoted himself to sacred music (e.g. Gloria, No.94), attracting the comment that he embodied both “le moine et le voyou” ­– the monk and the rascal. 

But for shameless frivolity French style, there’s always the Can-Can (Offenbach’s Gaîté Parisienne, No.61)!

View the complete list of ABC Classic FM’s French Countdown Top 100 here.