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POULENC, FRANCIS (1899–1963)


French composer.

A friend of Francis Poulenc once declared, "there is some of the monk and some of the rascal in him." Indeed, Poulenc may be the most delightful paradox in twentieth-century music. His enormous oeuvre spans from the sacred to the risque, but each piece speaks with the same engaging voice. Unlike many peers, Poulenc performed constantly, which kept him in contact with concertgoers, and never felt compelled to reinvent himself or adopt fashionable methods like serialism. Instead, he preferred to create, evolve, and just be who he was. Thus Poulenc became one of the world's most esteemed composers when art music often seemed indifferent to its audience.

The foundation for Poulenc's unique style formed early. His father, a devout Catholic from southern France who directed the Rhône-Poulenc pharmaceutical company, loved orchestral music and opera, especially that of the French composers Hector Berlioz and Jules Massenet. His mother, whose family was Parisian, played the music of Wolfgang Mozart and Frédéric Chopin at the piano and exposed her son to art, ballet, literature, and music, instilling passions sustained throughout his life. At fourteen, Poulenc began piano studies with Ricardo Viñes, who introduced him to the latest French, Spanish, and Russian music and encouraged his efforts at composition. By 1917 Poulenc's parents had died, but an inheritance enabled him to pursue music. Failing to enter the Paris Conservatoire that year, Poulenc was drafted to defend France, but his distinctive music already had begun to gain attention. As World War I ended, Poulenc became acquainted with the writer Jean Cocteau, whose collaboration with Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso, and the Ballets Russes on the ballet Parade (1917) had attracted many young musicians. Their aesthetic rejected Romanticism, Wagnerism, and impressionism, emphasizing instead simplicity, clarity, and "French sensibilities." During the euphoric, exhilarating postwar period in Paris, six of these Nouveaux Jeunes (new youth, young upstarts)—Darius Milhaud, Louis Durey, Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc, and Germaine Tailleferre—were highlighted in 1920 by the journalist Henri Collet, who called them Les Six, comparing them to Les Cinq Russes (The Five Russians). As composers, Les Six had different styles, but their friendship and interest in artistic movements like cubism, surrealism, and fauvism fostered mutual encouragement and attracted publicity. Self-taught as a composer, Poulenc studied with fellow composer Charles Koechlin from 1921 to 1925 to improve his technique, even as his fame grew. From these influences and circumstances, Poulenc developed a style that was energetic, lyrical, and colorful, as well as spontaneous, humorous, and provocative, but above all personal and expressive.

Poulenc gained early fame with solo piano works, but collaborative genres seemed to inspire him more. His chamber music includes sonatas for violin (1943), cello (1948), flute (1957), clarinet (1962), and oboe (1962), plus works for diverse combinations of instruments and/or voices. With 137 mélodies, many written for his friend and frequent collaborator, the baritone Pierre Bernac, Poulenc's contribution to the intimate French vocal genre is rivaled in the twentieth century only by that of Gabriel Fauré. Yet Poulenc's creativity also could be extroverted, as concertos for harpsi-chord (1928), two pianos (1932), organ (1938), and piano (1949) demonstrate. The bawdy Chansons galliardes (1926; Ribald songs) as well as the charming L'histoire de Babar (1945; Story of Babar) represent other aspects of his outgoing nature.

Poulenc's works for the stage may be his most important achievements. The early ballet Les biches (1923; The hinds) solidified his reputation as an innovative provacateur. In opera, his comic farce Les mamelles de Tirésias (1944; The breasts of Tirésias), the historical drama Dialogues des Carmélites (1957; Dialogues of the Carmelites), and a tragedy, La voix humaine (1958; The human voice), rank among the twentieth century's dramatic landmarks. Yet Poulenc may have been proudest of his sacred music. His Litanies à la Vierge Noire (1936; Litanies to the Black Virgin), Mass (1937), and Stabat mater (1950; Sorrowful mother) represent strikingly original yet heartfelt contributions to the Catholic choral literature.

During his last fifteen years Poulenc often visited the United States for concerts of his own music and was both touched and invigorated by the welcome he received. His Gloria (1959), commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation and premiered by the Boston Symphony, plus his Sept répons des ténébres (1962; Seven responses for tenebrae), commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to celebrate the opening of Lincoln Center, attest to a warm, mutual affection. Poulenc once said, "Above all, do not analyze my music—love it" (Bernac, p. 13). It seems clear that Americans, as well as the French, and indeed music lovers around the world, have embraced his art as he wished.

See alsoFrance.


Bernac, Pierre. Francis Poulenc: The Man and His Songs. Translated by Winifred Radford. New York, 1977. Brief biography and in-depth discussion of the composer's 137 mélodies by the singer who was his longtime friend and frequent collaborator.

Buckland, Sidney, and Myriam Chimènes. Francis Poulenc: Music, Art, and Literature. Aldershot, U.K., 1999. A collection of essays that offers a broad, contemporary survey of the composer's art.

Hell, Henri. Francis Poulenc. Translated by Edward Lockspeiser. New York, 1959. A brief, yet valuable portrait of Poulenc, written by a friend of the composer.

Poulenc, Francis. Diary of My Songs. Translated by Winifred Radford. London, 1985. A personal view of Poulenc's mélodies that reveals their artistic and aesthetic spirit.

Schmidt, Carl B. Entrancing Muse: A Documented Biography of Francis Poulenc. Hillsdale, N.Y., 2001. A thorough, in-depth biography of Poulenc, based on systematic research involving original documents.

James William Sobaskie

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Poulenc, Francis (1899–1963)

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