Jean Prodromidès was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1927 into a music-loving family. His father, of Greek origin, owned a pianola thanks to which he could familiarise himself with the works of Beethoven and Wagner. He started to learn the piano at the age of eight, took his first lessons before the War with Rose Casadesus and learned the rudiments of music with his mother and later with Yvonne Desportes. He later met Marcel Landowski and told him of his desire to become a composer.
Jean Prodromidès entered the Paris Conservatory in 1945, in parallel to studying law at university. He regularly borrowed scores from the lending library of the publisher Max Eschig and immersed himself in orchestral music. At the Conservatory he followed the harmony classes of Georges Dandelot then of Olivier Messiaen, whose analysis and aesthetics classes he subsequently attended and with whom he studied all styles, from the music of Monteverdi to the Hindu raga. Noël Gallon taught him fugue and counterpoint and Louis Fourestier was his conducting teacher. He also studied with René Leibowitz, who made him work at modal harmony and the dodecaphonic system. In 1949 he went to Darmstadt with René Leibowitz and Antoine Duhamel, conducting a work of the latter.
During his military service Jean Prodromidès was put in the army’s cinema service and wrote film music while at home during very many periods of leave. When his military service came to an end, he was engaged as a civilian and continued to compose for the army. He also wrote for the television as well as the theatre, notably orchestral music for the mimes of Marcel Marceau. He also received very many commissions for film music, working with such directors as Gilles Grangier (Archimède le clochard, 1958), Roger Vadim (Et mourir de plaisir, 1960), Jean Delannoy (Les amitiés particulières, 1963), Denys de La Patellière (Le bateau d’Émile, 1962), Dominique Delouche (Vingt-quatre heures de la vie d’une femme, 1968), Alain Cavalier (Mis à sac, 1967), Andrzej Wajda (Danton, 1983). The cinema constitutes, according to the composer, a good apprenticeship for tackling opera.
In 1961 Jean Prodromidès achieved success with his dramatic oratorio Les Perses. The work was broadcast on the sole French TV channel of the time and simultaneously on the radio for an experiment in stereophony. He has also written ballet music, notably for Maurice Béjart whom he met in 1962. The collaboration was immediate (La belle et la bête), and was based on a reciprocal freedom of style.
With opera Jean Prodromidès devoted himself to his true passion. His first, entitled Passion selon nos doutes (1971) and premiered at the Lyons Opera with Daniel Chabrun as conductor, was characterised by a mixing of singers and actors. This feature enabled him to mediate between opera and the public, the actors embodying characters who look at and comment upon the opera.
Influenced by his work for the cinema, Jean Prodromidès prefers to develop his opera librettos in collaboration with the writers: Serge Ganzl for Les traverses du temps (1979) and H.H. Ulysse (1984); Jean Gruault for La noche triste (1989); Floria Fournier (his wife) and Jean Cosmos for Goya (1996). The composer is always playing with time (present-past, in opposition, moving closer to or facing each other) as well as history in general. His subjects lie between the two extremities of the Mediterranean: between Spain and Greece, between temperament and mythology, excess and immoderation.
From the stylistic point of view, apart from the importance accorded to opera form, Jean Prodromidès adopts a vertical approach to the treatment of sound matter. The harmonic conception is important, as is that of the orchestration, which comes into play right from the start of the compositional process from an orchestral reduction on two to six staves. Tone-colour is also an essential and initial element. An admirer of the tone-colour combinations of Wagner and Debussy, he set himself to deal with sound blocs, as in Parcours for orchestra (1973), a veritable study of the evolution of sound masses.
He admits he detests music that flows easily and prefers jagged edges, asperities and contrasts.
Finally, Jean Prodromidès has exercised an important institutional role, holding, notably, the positions of inspector for opera houses at the French Ministry of Culture, of president of the opera committee of Unesco’s International Theatre Institute, of president of the Centre Français du Théâtre and of vice-president of the SACD (the French performing rights society for stage works).
Working most particularly for opera, he created the Fonds de Création Lyrique during his term as president of the music commission of the SACD, set up partnerships for the SACD with Musique Française d’Aujourd’hui (MFA) and managed to ensure complete monitoring of new operas, from their gestation right up to their first performance and any eventual further performances: the Fondation Beaumarchais (financed by the SACD) gives financial help to composers to write their works, then the Fonds de Création Lyrique intervenes to bring the work to the stage, discographic recording is supported by MFA, and finally the periodical Avant-scène Opéra, Opéra d’Aujourd’hui (sponsored by the SACD) constitutes a supplementary, printed tool for the work’s diffusion.
In February 1990 Jean Prodromidès was elected member of the French Academy in succession to Henri Sauguet.