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Francis Poulenc


Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc (January 7, 1899 – January 30, 1963) was a French composer. Poulenc was born in Paris. His mother, an amateur pianist, taught him to play, and music formed a part of family life. As a young man, in 1918 he was fulfilling his National Military Service but still managed to compose three miniatures. At one time, the best known of all Poulenc’s music was the three Mouvements perpétuels of 1918, but his most successful work may be the opera Dialogues des Carmélites. He was a Parisian by birth and always preferred the city to the country. However, in order to have the quiet solitude he needed to write music, he spent as much time as possible in his home in the Loire Valley. This has led to the misconception that he preferred the country, but in fact he found rustic life boring and he hated walks. He was called to military service twice, the first time beginning January 1918, during which Poulenc served a ten-day sentence in military prison for overstaying a leave in Paris. (Ivry 1996)
Poulenc was gay, openly so from his first serious relationship, that with painter Richard Chanelaire to whom he dedicated his Concert champêtre: ‘You have changed my life, you are the sunshine of my thirty years, a reason for living and working.’ (Ivry 1996) He also once said, ‘You know that I am as sincere in my faith, without any messianic screamings, as I am in my Parisian sexuality.’ (Aldrich 2004) Poulenc was profundly affected later in life by the death of friends. In 1923 he was ‘unable to do anything’ for two days after the death from typhoid fever of his twenty year old partner, novelist Raymond Radiguet. However, two weeks later he had moved on, joking to Diaghilev at the rehearsals he was unable to leave, about helping a dancer ‘warm up’. (Ivry 1996)
Critic Claude Rostand, in a July 1950 Paris-Presse article, described Poulenc simplistically as ‘half bad boy, half monk.’ le moine et le voyou. He was a bridge enthusiast, a dog lover, a hypochondriac, and suffered from low self esteem. At one point he was addicted to barbiturates. (Ivry 1996) Francis Poulenc died in Paris on January 30, 1963 and was interred in Cimetière Père Lachaise, Paris.
Shown in his diverse musical output, a multitude of influences is one of the distinguishing features of Poulenc’s music. Among his formative influences are Igor Stravinsky, Emmanuel Chabrier, and the French popular music and vaudeville. He kept scores of Bela Bartok’s Allegro barbaro, Arnold Schoenberg’s Six Little Pieces, all of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, and Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Le Sacre du Printemps. He attended Le Sacre du Printemps in 1914 conducted by Pierre Monteux at the Casino de Paris, and he wrote of Chabrier’s Idylle from the Pièces pittoresques, ‘Even today I tremble with emotion in thinking of the miracle that was produced: a harmonic universe suddenly opened in front of me, and my music has never forgotten this first loving kiss.’ He heard bals musettes (accordion music), and popular music such as by chansonniers like Vincent Scotto and Henri-Marius Christiné vacationing in Nogent-sur-Marne. He counted Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes as one of his mentors, writing, ‘I owe him everything,’ possibly also because Viñes introduced him to Georges Auric and Erik Satie. (Ivry 1996, p.16-7)

Poulenc was a noticeably visual person, and visual art provided influence and inspiration through his entire career. He attempted, such as in his Cinq Poémes de Paul Éluard, to rigorously reduce some of his music from complexity to simple clear lines as he gathered Matisse did. (Ivry 1996)

Poulenc’s Rapsodie nègre (1917), written for baritone, piano, string quartet, flute, and clarinet, sets nonsense syllables purportedly by a black Liberian poet. The piece, dedicated to Satie, kept him out of the Paris Conservatoire, composition teacher Paul Vidal saying, according to Poulenc, ‘Your work stinks, it’s inept, infamous balls…Ah! I see you’re a follower of the Stravinsky and Satie gang. Well, goodbye!’ Stravinsky, hearing of this story, arranged to have the piece printed by Chester Music. (Ivry 1996)

After the First World War, Poulenc was grouped with a circle of young composers, some his close friends, others mere acquaintances, called Les Six. The group had links to Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau both of whom opposed Impressionism, advocating instead simplicity and clarity and espousing a particularly flippant form of anti-Romanticism. The ‘ultra-easy’ Trois Mouvements perpétuels were written in 1918, sent to Chester by Stravinsky and programmed by Viñes. (Ivry 1996)

Poulenc contributed to the perceived style of Les Six in popular music inspired pieces such as Cocardes (1919), though he would later write heavily religious works antithetical to Cocteau’s aesthetics. He embraced the Dada movement’s techniques, creating melodies that would have been appropriate for Parisian music halls. For Poulenc at this time, a charming vulgarity replaced any sort of romantic sentiment. An outstanding pianist, the keyboard dominated much of his early compositions. He also, throughout his career, borrowed from his own compositions as well as those of mozart and Saint-Saëns among others (Ivry 1996).

But for the use of Chinese trumpets in its prelude, his Jongleurs would have been the first piece for percussion alone. This honour actually went to Edgard Varèse’s later Ionisation. Poulenc’s ‘profane cantana’ Le Bal masqué, text by Max Jacob, was commissioned by Marie-Laure de Noailles. Surrealist art collector Edward James commissioned Poulenc’s Sécheresses for 20,000 francs: ‘I ceded to James because he…paid…me for the work. I wanted him to be happy. You saw the results.’ (Ivry 1996)

His friendships with the leading avant-garde poets of Montparnasse such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, and Paul Eluard led to his writing more than 150 solo French art songs, many of which were set to their words: ‘I had a weakness for Eluard right away, because he was the only surrealist who tolerated music. Also because all his work is a musical vibration.’ He also favored the minor poet Louise de Vilmorin. He also toured constantly throughout his life as piano accompanist, to singers such as baritone Pierre Bernac: ‘It will never be known how much I owe to Eluard, how much I owe to Bernac. It’s thanks to them that lyricism penetrated into my vocal works. The first, because of the warmth of his images. The second, thanks to his admirable musical understanding and above all what he taught me about the art of singing.’ (Journal)

He produced a great deal of orchestral music. In addition to a number of choral works, in 1936 he began creating the more sombre, austere tones of religion after returning to his Catholic faith. These religious works are seen by many as his most significant compositions although his main musical attraction was in the creation of operas.

Poulenc took inspiration from his ‘Saint John of the Cross of music’, Tomas Luis de Victoria, for his Quatre Motets pour un temps de Pénitence. For his first opera, performed for the Paris Opéra-Comique in 1947, Poulenc chose to create something in the same milieu as his songs and again used Apollinaire as his inspiration, choosing his 1917 Les Mamelles de Tiresias (The Breasts of Tiresias).

The 1957 opera, Les Dialogues des Carmélites, commissioned by Ricordi for La Scala, is Poulenc’s most renowned. The story deals with the execution of Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution and is based on Gertrud von le Fort’s novel Die Letzte am Schafott (The Last on the Scaffold). Poulenc’s final opera was a one-act tragedy by Jean Cocteau entitled La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice) that was premiered at the Paris Opéra-Comique on February 6, 1959.

In addition to his three operas, Francis Poulenc composed several concerti for organ, harpsichord, and piano, as well as masses, and chamber music with only a few orchestral works. His Organ Concerto was commissioned by Wanda Landowska in 1938 for 12,500 francs. From the same circle around the Princesse de Polignac the two-piano concerto and the Concert Champêtre were comissioned.

He was particularly fond of the woodwind instruments, and planned a set of sonatas for all of them, yet only lived to complete three: the Flute Sonata (1956), the Oboe Sonata (1962) and the Clarinet Sonata (1962), works of elegiac beauty and technical perfection.

Poulenc wrote the book Journal de mes mélodies after a ‘Horrible day!!!’, November 3, 1939, when, ‘A lady on the radio has just meowed for an entire fifteen minutes, melodies which just might be by me!’ They were indeed by himself, and he felt the need to write some thoughts and indications on his songs and other works. (Ivry 1996)


Francis Poulenc
Date of birth
January 7, 1899

11 albums

81 tracks