Francis Poulenc

(7 January 1899 - 30 January 1963)

Francis Poulenc was a French composer and pianist, who is noted for his simplicity, wit and directness in his compositions. In his later years, he wrote some champion French religious music and is regarded as the greatest composer of mélodies since the death of Fauré.

Poulenc was from a wealthy bourgeois family. Tragically his Pyrenean businessman father and his artistic Parisian mother, both died when young Poulenc was in his teens. A duality exists in his music, which he attributed to the two main strands in his family - Catholicism from his father’s side and the artistic flair from the many artists and craftspeople on his mother’s side. As Claude Rostande put it ‘In Poulenc, there is something of the monk and something of the rascal’.

Poulenc had been playing the piano from the age of five, learning first from his mother, and then from various other tutors such as Ricardo Viñes, a friend of Ravel’s, whom he regarded as both his teacher and spiritual leader and thanks to Viñes, he met other musicians such as Eric Satie and Manuel de Falla as well as writers and poets such as Apollinaire, Aragon and Gide.

Poulenc, like Brahms and many other perfectionists, destroyed his first composition attempts dating from 1914. However, he made his public debut in Paris in 1917 with Rapsodie negre, which he dedicated to Erik Satie. Although he was conscripted into the army from 1918 to 1921, he still produced some notable compositions, such as Trois mouvements perpétuels, which was immediately successful, as well as Le bestiaire, which was a cycle of mélodies on poems by Apollinaire. Performances of his pieces were very often given in Montparnasse, at the studio of the painter Emile Lejeune, and in this series, the programmes often included works by Milhaud and Honegger. These concerts led to the formation of the group of composers known as Les Six, in 1920, united not by a shared aesthetic, but by a strong friendship. Les Six consisted of: Poulenc, Milhaud, Honegger, Auric, Tailleferre and Durey.

Diaghilev commissioned Poulenc to compose a ballet for the Ballets Russes: Le biches, which premiered in Monte Carlo in 1924. Princesse Edmond de Polignac commissioned him to compose a Concerto for Two Pianos and Organ Concerto. He was also commissioned by the wealthy Marie-Laure and Charles de Noailles to write Aubade and Le bal masque specifically for events that they organised.

The gramophone was to have a notable impact on his musical career. Poulenc’s first pieces to be made into recordings date from 1928. Later on, after World War II, realising what a huge influence radio could have on musical life, he was widely broadcast on French national radio.

Poulenc suffered from his first bout of manic-depression in the late 1920s and came to the realisation that he was gay. Through his letters, it is clear how intensely emotional and complex he was, both as a composer and as a person.

Poulenc’s main highlights in the 1930s were the formation of his duo with the baritone Pierre Bernac and the composition of his first religious works. He composed over 90 mélodies for this duo, garnering great success on the concert stage, a partnership which lasted until 1959. In these years, Poulenc had a busy, fruitful life, alternating between periods of performing and composing, living part time in Paris and, during extended periods of composing, living at his house at Noizay, where he spent most of World War II. In this period he composed L’histoire de Babar based on Jean de Brunhoff’s children’s books about Babar the elephant, Les animaux modeles, Figure humaine and his first opera, Les mamelles de Tirésias, which was premiered at the Paris Opéra-Comique in 1947.

In 1948, Poulenc toured the United States, returning there regularly until 1960, giving concerts with the baritone Pierre Bernac and the soprano Denise Duval and attending premieres of his compositions, such as his Piano Concerto which was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Poulenc’s late works such as Dialogues des Carmelites and La voix humaine rapidly gained him international success.

Before his sudden death of a heart attack in 1963, Poulenc had composed his set of sonatas for flute (1956), clarinet (1962) and oboe (1962) with piano, each of which share many similar thematic material; for instance some motifs in the final movement of the clarinet can be perceived in the scherzo of the Oboe Sonata. Poulenc did not live to complete them, yet they have all deservedly  made their way into their respective repertoires, as they all possess extraordinary beauty and require ample technical expertise.

In Poulenc there is something of the monk and something of the rascal.

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