Francis Poulenc was born in Paris on 7 January 1899, the son of Emile Poulenc, a director of the pharmaceutical firm Poulenc Frères, and his wife, Jenny Royer. His musical tastes and gifts were drawn largely from his mother, an amateur pianist, who gave him his first piano lessons, when he was five, leading to study, three years later, with Mlle Boutet de Monvel, a niece of César Franck. It was at the same period that he heard Debussy's Danses sacrées et profanes, a work that awoke in him an interest in that composer and a desire to explore the harmonic possibilities he suggested. By 1914 he had discovered the music of Schubert and of Stravinsky and now embarked on lessons with the pianist Ricardo Viñes, his teacher for the next three years. Through Viñes he met Erik Satie and Georges Auric, the first a strong influence on the early form of his composition and the second, his near contemporary, a friend and adviser for many years. Moving in these circles, he met Honegger, Milhaud, Tailleferre, Manuel de Falla and, inevitably, Jean Cocteau, and made friends too with other writers, notably the poets André Breton, Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard, a reflection of his wide reading and general cultural interests.
After military service between 1918 and 1921, Poulenc, whose compositions already included the early Rapsodie nègre, dedicated to Satie, a number of piano works, including the Mouvements perpetuels, the Trois pastorales, a piano sonata for four hands, the Suite in C and Impromptus, as well as settings of Apollinaire and Cocteau, felt the need for formal instruction in the techniques of composition. Already, in an article by the critic Henri Collet in 1920, he had been included as one of a group of six contemporary composers, Les six, an arbitrary choice, according to Milhaud, himself included, together with Poulenc, Durey, Tailleferre, Honegger and Auric. The six had their origin as a group in a song recital given in 1917 by Jane Bathori, at which all six were represented, although then generally associated as Les nouveaux jeunes. The collaboration of the group became a practical one, with concerts and, in composition, with the piano pieces of the Album des six and, now without the older composer Louis Durey, in Cocteau's extravaganza, Les mariés de la tour Eiffel, although they had much less in common than the famous Five of Russian nationalism, whose popular labelling Collet had had in mind. While united socially and professionally as musicians, as composers their interests soon diverged.
In 1921 Poulenc began lessons with Charles Koechlin, having previously failed to find what he needed with Paul Vidal and Ravel. His career in the 1920s brought collaboration with Dyagilev in the ballet Les biches, successfully staged in Monte Carlo in 1924, and a growing national and international reputation. His name, in any case, had become widely known for his earlier popular piano pieces, for the Mouvements perpetuels and the Promenades, works that seemed to embody the spirit of the Groupe des six in a certain elegant light-heartedness, a reaction to the weightier music of the past.
The following decade brought a marked change in Poulenc's life and in his music. In 1935 he met again the singer Pierre Bernac and gave the first recital with him. Their collaboration was to continue over the next 24 years, with some ninety of Poulenc's songs written for him. The following year he was deeply shaken by the death in a car accident of the young composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, an event that revived in him the Catholicism that he had inherited at home, in particular through his father, until the latter's death in 1917. Poulenc was now prompted to visit the shrine of Our Lady at Rocamadour, his religious re-awakening resulting first in his Litanies de la Vierge noire.
The war years brought inevitable difficulties, with Poulenc released from the army after a brief period of compulsory military service once more. As time went on, he spent more time in Touraine at the house he had bought at Noizay, near Amboise, where he had long enjoyed the support and close friendship of his driver, Raymond Destouches, in spite of the distraction of other relationships with younger men, notably with Lucien Roubert, who died as Poulenc was finishing the final pages of his opera Dialogues des Carmélites in 1956 and was the cause of much anguish. War-time, however, had found Poulenc at work on the opéra bouffe, Les mamelles de Tirésias, with a text by Guillaume Apollinaire, completed in 1944 and first staged in Paris three years later, and there were, as always, songs, settings of poems by Apollinaire, Eluard and Cocteau's friend Raymond Radiguet, who had died so young. In particular, he completed in 1943 his cantata for twelve voices, Figure humaine, a setting of words by Eluard, composed in secret against the day when France would be liberated. After the war he was able to return to an active career in partnership with Pierre Bernac in recitals and concert-tours, in the recording studio and, as a composer, most notably with his major operatic work, Dialogues des Carmélites, which received performances abroad, at La Scala, in Cologne, London, Vienna and America, once the worrying problems of copyright had been solved. The opera is based on a play by Georges Bernanos, itself derived from a novel by Gertrud von Le Fort of which an American writer had bought the stage rights.
In post-war Paris Poulenc found himself defending the earlier music of Stravinsky against the hostility of followers of Messiaen. He nevertheless respected the achievement of Messiaen himself and that of Pierre Boulez and, as time went on, appreciated his own position in French music, in spite of earlier doubts and moments of depression. After Pierre Bernac retired from performance, Poulenc continued to appear in recitals with the soprano Denise Duval, who had taken the leading r�le in Les mamelles de Tirésias and that of Blanche in Dialogues des Carmélites. He appeared with her in a concert in Maastricht on 26th January 1963, before returning to Paris two days later. He died after a heart-attack on 30th January.
Poulenc's Suite fran�aise is based on music by the sixteenth-century French musicien compositeur Claude Gervaise, employed as an editor by Pierre Attaingnant for his series of Danceries. In 1935 Poulenc and Georges Auric had been asked by the playwright Edouard Bourdet to provide incidental music for his La Reine Margot, in which Yvonne Printemps took the title-r�le of Marguerite de Valois. Poulenc provided the music for the second act and, on the suggestion of Nadia Boulanger, made use of seven dances taken from the work of Gervaise, scoring them for two oboes, two bassoons, two trumpets, three trombones, percussion and harpsichord. The work became widely known through a piano version, published in the same year, to be followed only in 1948 by the publication of the original score. The dances appear in true neo-classical style, recalling the techniques used by Stravinsky in Pulcinella. The opening Bransle de Bourgogne recalls the Mémoires of the Queen, who mentions the branles of Burgundy and of Champagne, danced by villagers avec le petit-hautboys, le dessus de violon et tambourins de village (with the little oboe, the violin and the village tambourines). The second dance is a solemn Pavane, marked Grave et mélancolique (Serious and sad), with its predominant dactylic rhythm. This is followed by a Petite marche militaire, and Complainte, with its opening oboe solo and gently lilting rhythm. There is a Bransle de Champagne, a gentler Sicilienne and a final rapid Carillon.
Poulenc had first met the Polish pianist and harpsichordist Wanda Landowska in 1923 at the house of the Princesse Edmond de Polignac (née Singer), widow of Prince Edmond de Polignac, a woman whose encouragement and practical patronage had done so much for French music. Wanda Landowska was a pioneer in the study of early music. She taught in Paris and established a centre for the study of early music at Saint-Leu-La-Forêt. Her first meeting with Poulenc had been on the occasion of the first staged performance of Manuel de Falla's El retablo de Maese Pedro and Falla subsequently wrote a harpsichord concerto for her, completed and first performed in 1926. Poulenc's Concert champêtre followed, after various delays, to be given its first performance by Wanda Landowska in Paris on 3rd May 1929 with the Paris Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Monteux, when, it seems, Dyagilev caused trouble by spreading a rumour that Auric and the composer Henri Sauguet were green with envy, jealous of their friend's obvious success. There had been an earlier private performance at Saint-Leu, at which Poulenc had played the orchestral parts on the piano in what seemed to those present magical pastoral surroundings.
Dedicated to Wanda Landowska, the Concert champêtre is scored for an orchestra of double woodwind, with piccolo and cor anglais, four French horns, two trumpets, trombone, tuba and three timpani. The percussion section is large one, including xylophone, snare-drum, side-drum, tambourine, triangle, bass drum and cymbals. The score stipulates a complement of 28 string-players, sixteen violins, and four violas, four cellos and four double basses. Under the heading Allegro molto, the first movement opens with a slow introduction, the woodwind echoed by the horns, before the entry of the soloist, who subsequently introduces the Allegro molto. This demonstrates clearly enough Poulenc's new-found interest in the French clavecinistes, in the music of Couperin and Rameau, for which Wanda Landowska had aroused his enthusiasm. A series of musical ideas are introduced, leading to an abrupt pause followed by a French horn motif, played with bells raised and marked Tragique. Further ideas are introduced, moving forward to slow arpeggiated chords from the soloist and a melancholy modal melody. The Allegro molto resumes, leading to the return of the first material. The slow movement, in characteristic Sicilienne rhythm and mood, shifts in key from the previous D major to G minor, proceeding to a central section in A flat major, all derived, in one way or another, from the prevailing dance rhythm. The last movement starts with the Baroque figuration of a final gigue, its rhythm broken and leading, allusively, to further episodes with changes of meter and key, including a brusque march, moments of lyricism and a solemn passage introduced by French horn and trumpet, over soft string chords. The harpsichord resumes with an Allegro giocoso and music derived from a simple motif. There is a pause and the soloist returns, to offer a melancholy D minor, echoed, in this pastoral scene, by piccolo and oboe, in sad conjunction.
Poulenc's Organ Concerto, scored for organ, timpani and strings, was written in response to a commission from Princesse Edmond de Polignac, to whom the work is dedicated. He was busy with the work by 1936 and it was eventually completed two years later, to be first performed in June 1939 at the Salle Gaveau in Paris by Maurice Duruflé, with the Paris Symphony Orchestra under Roger Désormière. The concerto, with inevitable Baroque associations in its very conception, is in a series of connected movements and sections. The work starts with a slow introductory section, opened by the soloist with a firm statement of the key of G minor. This Andante finds a place for lyrical elements in the string-writing and for the ominous in the timpani. There follows an Allegro giocoso, which has about it an air of dramatic menace, with the soloist offering a series of scale passages. The ensuing Andante moderato, with its antiphonal dialogue between soloist and orchestra, moves through gently lilting figuration to an imposing conclusion, introducing an Allegro, molto agitato. Here the dramatic urgency of the Allegro giocoso returns, to be replaced by a gently lyrical section, marked Très calme, lent. The mood and tempo of the earlier Allegro giocoso returns, followed by those of the slow introduction, here including a moving solo for muted viola and a brief muted comment from solo cello, accompanied by organ chords, over a sustained tonic pedal, supported by the timpani, and the plucked notes of the rest of the strings. The final bars, marked fortissimo and leading to a concluding quadruple forte, assert the tonality of G, without the third of the chord to indicate the mode, although the implication remains that of the minor key.
ReviewsHere is a worthy celebration of Poulenc's Centenery, a delightful feature of last years music-making. - Geoffrey Crankshaw, Musical Opinion, January 2000