French pianist and composer Pierre Sancan was, along with Olivier Messiaen and Henri Dutilleux, a major figure among French musicians in the mid-20th century transition between modern and contemporary eras, but outside France his name is almost unknown.
Born in Mazamet in the South of France, Sancan began in musical studies in Morocco and Toulouse before entering the Paris Conservatoire, where he took conducting with Charles Münch and Roger Désormière, piano with Yves Nat, and composition with Henri Büsser. In 1943, Sancan won the Conservatoire's Prix de Rome with his cantata La Légende de Icare, but did not assume a regular teaching post there until 1956 when his former master Yves Nat retired. Sancan held this job until his own retirement in 1985; although he lived to be 92, his later years were compromised by the onset of Alzheimer's disease.
As a pianist, Sancan was most prominently seen in his role as accompanist to the great cellist André Navarra; his recordings of Ravel's two piano concertos with conductor Pierre Dervaux and Mozart four-hand concertos with Pommier were highly praised upon their first release in the 1960s, but have not returned to the active catalog. As a piano teacher, Sancan helped train such luminaries as Michel Béroff, Abdel Rahman El Bacha, Émile Naoumoff, Jean-Bernard Pommier, Daniel Varsano, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, and Jean-Philippe Collard, who has recorded Sancan's Piano Concerto. Although his Sonatine for flute and piano (1946) has been a popular staple for flute players since its publication, little else of Sancan's output is well known. Sancan also composed a Violin Concerto, at least three ballets, a Symphony for Strings (1961) and an opera, Ondine (1962). Some of his shorter piano pieces, such as Boîte à musique and a Toccata, have caught on as specialty encores; in his music, Sancan sought strategies to reconcile expanded contemporary performance techniques with the harmonic language of Debussy, a composer of whom Sancan was an expert interpreter.