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Poulenc, Francis

Poulenc, Francis (b Paris, 1899; d Paris, 1963). Fr. composer and pianist. Taught pf. by his mother. At 15 studied with Ricardo Viñes, who encouraged his ambition to compose and introduced him to Satie, Casella, Auric, and others. In 1917 his Rapsodie nègre brought his name to notorious prominence in Paris as one of a number of composers—Les Nouveaux Jeunes—encouraged by Satie and Cocteau. Even so, his technical knowledge was still scanty and in 1920 he studied harmony for 3 years with Koechlin, but never studied counterpoint nor orchestration. His knowledge of form was instinctive. In 1920, a mus. critic, Henri Collet, selected 6 of Les Nouveaux Jeunes and called them Les Six, Poulenc being among them. They gave concerts together, one of their articles of faith being to draw inspiration from ‘Parisian folklore’, i.e. street musicians, mus.-halls, circus bands. This milieu is faithfully reflected in Poulenc's settings of Cocteau's Cocardes. These caught the ear of Stravinsky who recommended Poulenc to Diaghilev, the result being the ballet Les Biches (1923), in which he expressed brittle 1920s sophistication, a faithful understanding of the jazz idiom, and (in the adagietto) the romantic lyricism that was increasingly to dominate his work. Perhaps his finest achievements are contained in his many songs for v. and pf., particularly those written after 1935 when he began to acc. the great Fr. bar. Pierre Bernac. His settings of Apollinaire and of his friend Paul Éluard are particularly good, covering a wide emotional range. He comp. 3 operas, the biggest being Les dialogues des Carmélites (1953–6), based on events of the Fr. Revolution, and his religious works have a tuneful ecstatic joy such as one finds elsewhere only in Haydn. He rediscovered his RC faith after the death of a close friend in a car crash, the first musical result being Litanies à la vierge noire (1936). Of his instr. works, the org. conc. (1938) is highly original in its treatment of the solo instr. His mus., eclectic yet strongly personal in style, is essentially diatonic and melodious, embroidered with 20th-cent. dissonances. It has wit, elegance, depth of feeling, and a bitter-sweetness which derives from the mixture in his personality of gaiety and manic depression. In 1946 he said: ‘I have no system for writing music, thank God! (by system I mean “contrivances”)’. Prin. works:OPERAS: Le gendarme incompris (comédie-bouffe) (1921); Les mamelles de Tirésias (1944); Les dialogues des Carmélites (1953–6); La voix humaine (1958).BALLETS: Les Biches (1923); contribution to L'Éventail de Jeanne (1927); Les Animaux modèles (1941).INCID. MUSIC: La Reine Margot (Bourdet), with Auric (1935); Léocadia (Anouilh) (1940); La fille du jardinier (Exbrayat) (1941); Le voyageur sans bagages (Anouilh) (1944); La nuit de Saint-Jean (Barrie) (1944); Le soldat et la sorcière (Salacrou) (1945); L'invitation au château ( Anouilh) (1947); Amphitryon (Molière) (1947); Renaud et Armide (Cocteau) (1962).FILMS : La Belle au bois dormant (1935); La Duchesse de Langeais (1942); Le voyage en Amérique (1951).ORCH.: 2 Marches et un intermède, chamber orch. (1937); Suite, Les Biches (1940, rescored); Suite, Les Animaux modèles (1942); Sinfonietta (1947); Matelot provençale (1952); Bucolique (1954).CONCERTOS: Concert champêtre, hpd. or pf., orch. (1927–8); Aubade, ‘concerto choréographique’, pf., 18 instr. (1929); 2 pf., orch. (1932); org., str., timp. (1938); pf., orch. (1949).CHAMBER MUS.: 2-cl. sonata (1918); sonata, cl., bn. (1922); sonata, tpt., tb., hn. (1922); trio, ob., bn., pf. (1926); pf. sextet (1932–9); Villanelle, pipe, pf. (1934); vc. sonata (1940–8); vn. sonata (1942–3); str. qt. (1946, destroyed); fl. sonata (1957); Élégie, hn., pf. (1957); Sarabande, gui. (1960); cl. sonata (1961–2); ob. sonata (1962).VOICE(S) & INSTR(S).: Rapsodie nègre, bar., pf., str. qt., fl., cl. (1917); Le Bestiaire, v., fl., cl., bn., str. qt. or v., pf. (1919); Le Bal masqué, cantata, bar. (or mez.), chamber ens. (1932); Colloque, sop., bar., pf. (1940); La Dame de Monte Carlo, sop., orch. (1961).CHORAL: Chanson à boire, unacc. male ch. (1922); 7 Chansons, unacc. ch. (1936); Litanies à la Vierge Noire, women's or children's ch., org. (1936); Petites Voix, unacc. ch. (1936); Mass in G, unacc. ch. (1937); Sécheresses, ch., orch. (1937); 4 Motets pour un temps de pénitence, unacc. ch. (1938–9); Exultate, unacc. ch. (1941); Salve Regina, unacc. ch. (1941); Figure humaine, cantata, unacc. double ch. (1943); Un soir de neige, cantata, 6 unacc. vv. or unacc. ch. (1944); Chansons françaises, unacc. ch. (1946); 4 petites prières de St. François d'Assise, unacc. male ch. (1948); Stabat Mater, sop., ch., orch. (1950); 4 Motets pour le temps de Noël, ch. (1952); Ave verum corpus, 3 female vv. (1952); Laudes de Saint Antoine de Padoue, unacc. male ch. (1959); Gloria, sop., ch., orch. (1959); 7 Répons des ténèbres, male ch., orch. (1960–2).PIANO: 3 Pastorales (1918); 3 mouvements perpétuels (1918); Valse (1919); 5 Impromptus (1920); Suite in C (1920); 10 Promenades (1921); Suite, Napoli (1925); Pastourelle (1927); 2 Nouvellettes (1927–8); 3 Pièces (1928); Pièce brève sur le nom d'Albert Roussel (1929); 8 Nocturnes (1929–38); Valse-Improvisation sur le nom Bach (1932); 15 Improvisations (1932–59); Feuillets d'album (1933); Villageoises (1933); Presto (1934); 2 Intermezzi (1934); Humoresque (1934); Badinage (1934); Suite française (1935); Les Soirées de Nazelles (1936); Bourrée, Au Pavillon (1937); Mélancolie (1940); Intermezzo in A♭ (1943); Thème varié (1951); Novelette (1959); Improvisation in D: Hommage à Edith Piaf (1960).PIANO & NARRATOR: L'Histoire de Babar le petit éléphant (1940–5).PIANO (4 HANDS): Sonata (1918).2 PIANOS: L'Embarquement pour Cythère (1951); Sonata (1953); Elégie (1959).SONGS (v., pf. unless otherwise stated): Toréador (Cocteau) (1918); Le Bestiare au cortège d'Orphée (Apollinaire, 6 songs), v., 7 instr. or pf. (1919); Cocardes (Cocteau, 3 songs), v., 5 instr. or pf. (1919); 5 Poèmes de Ronsard (1924–5); Chansons gaillardes (17th-cent. anon., 8 songs) (1926); Vocalise (1927); Airs chantés (Moréas, 4 songs) (1927–8); Epitaphe (Malherbe) (1930); 3 Poèmes de Louise Lalanne (Apollinaire pseudonym, 3 songs) (1931); 4 Poèmes (Apollinaire) (1931); 5 Poèmes (Jacob) (1931); 8 Chansons Polonaises (1934); 4 Chansons pour enfants (Jaboune) (1934–5); 5 Poèmes (Éluard) (1935); A sa guitare (Ronsard) (1935); Tel jour telle nuit (Éluard) (1936–7); 3 Poèmes ( Vilmorin) (1937); 2 Poèmes (Apollinaire) (1938); Le Portrait (Colette) (1938); Miroirs brûlants (Éluard, 2 songs) (1938); Priez pour paix (d'Orléans) (1938); La Grenouillère (Apollinaire) (1938); Ce doux petit visage (Éluard) (1938); Bleuet (Apollinaire) (1938); Fiançailles pour rire (Vilmorin, 6 songs) (1939); Banalités (Apollinaire, 5 songs) (1940); Le chemins de l'amour (from Léocadia) (1940); Chansons villageoises (Fombeure, 6 songs) (1942, also with chamber orch.); Métamorphoses (Vilmorin, 3 songs) (1943); 2 Poèmes (Aragon) (1943); Montparnasse; Hyde Park (Apollinaire) (1945); Le Pont; Un Poème (Apollinaire) (1946); Paul et Virginie (Radiguet) (1946); Le disparu (Desnos) (1947); 3 Chansons de F. Garcia Lorca (1947); Main dominée par le cœur (Éluard) (1947); ‘… mais mourir’ (Éluard) (1947); Calligrammes (Apollinaire, 7 songs) (1948); Hymne (Racine) (1949); Mazurka (Vilmorin) (1949); La Fraîcheur et le feu (Éluard, 7 songs) (1950); Parisiana (Jacob, 2 songs) (1954); Rosemonde (Apollinaire) (1954); Le Travail du peintre (Éluard, 7 songs) (1956); 2 Mélodies 1956 (Apollinaire and de Baylié) (1956); Dernier poème (Desnos) (1956); Une chanson de porcelaine (Éluard) (1958); Fancy (Shakespeare) (1959); La Courte Paille (Carême) (1960).

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Francis Poulenc

Francis Poulenc

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was in many ways the most "typical" of the group of French composers known as Les Six, and he represents a trend of 20th-century music that is characteristically French.

Francis Poulenc was born in Paris to a family that was artistic, musical, and affluent. His mother was a fine pianist, and Francis began lessons at the age of 5. Later he studied with Ricardo Vines, a friend of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel who had played the first performances of much of their piano music. While still in his teens Poulenc met Erik Satie, who left a permanent mark on his musical ideals.

When Poulenc was 18, he wrote Rapsodie nègre baritone, string quartet, flute, and clarinet. Its lighthearted irreverence and music-hall atmosphere established his right to be a charter member of Les Six when the group was formed a few years later. He spent most of his life in Paris, except for concert tours that included several trips to the United States after World War II, where he accompanied baritone Pierre Bernac, who specialized in singing his songs.

Poulenc's gift was lyric; he was at his best when he was setting words to music. As the composer of over 150 songs with piano accompaniment, he is perhaps the most important songwriter of his time. He usually set the verses of poets he knew: Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, Paul éluard, and Max Jacob; he performed the same service for these poets that Debussy did for the symbolists. Poulenc's early set of songs, Cocardes (1919), written to Cocteau's poems, suggest the Paris streets. The accompaniment, consisting of cornet, violin, bass drum, and trombone, resembles the little street bands that still play there. A later cycle, Tel jour, tel nuit (1937), celebrates the quiet pleasures of life with sincerity and directness.

Poulenc's two operas differ strikingly from each other. Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1944) is a risqué, surrealist farce; Les Dialogues des Carmélites (1957) is a serious and moving account of the spiritual development of a nun during the French Revolution. His religious choral works, particularly the Litanies à la Vierge noire (1936) and a Stabat Mater (1950), are frequently performed. He also wrote numerous piano solos, a sonata for two pianos, and concertos for piano, two pianos, organ, and harpsichord. Among chamber works there are sonatas for various instruments and piano and a sextet for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn.

Poulenc avoided large, dramatic gestures. He accepted his natural limitations and was content to write music in the spirit of the composers he most admired: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Frédéric Chopin, Debussy, and Igor Stravinsky.

Further Reading

A book-length study of Poulenc is Henri Hell, Francis Poulenc (trans. 1959). There is a short biographical study and analysis of his work in Joseph Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music (1961).

Additional Sources

Bernac, Pierre, Francis Poulenc: the man and his songs, London: V. Gollancz, 1977.

Poulenc, Francis, My friends and myself: conversations with Francis Poulenc, London: Dobson, 1978.

Poulenc, Francis, Selected correspondence, 1915-1963: echo and source, London: V. Gollancz, 1991. □

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Poulenc, Francis

Francis Poulenc (fräNsēs´ pōōlăNk´), 1899–1963, French composer and pianist. He was one of Les Six, a group of French composers who subscribed to the aesthetic ideals of Erik Satie. The spontaneity and lyricism of Poulenc's style are best adapted to small forms—piano pieces such as Mouvements perpétuels (1918) and songs. Also outstanding are the ballet Les Biches (1924); Concert Champêtre (1929), for harpsichord and orchestra; the Mass in G (1937), for chorus and organ; Litanies à la Vierge noire (1936), for women's choir and organ; the Intermezzo in A Flat Major (1944), for piano; and the Concerto in G Minor for organ, strings, and percussion (1938). His operas are Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1947) and Dialogues des Carmélites (1957).

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Poulenc, Francis

Poulenc, Francis (1899–1963) French composer and member of Les Six. Spontaneity and melodiousness characterize his works, which include ballets, notably Les Biches (1923), orchestral works, chamber music, piano music and songs. Poulenc also wrote two operas: the comic Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1944), and the religious drama Dialogues des Carmélites (1957).

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