"Monk and knave" - there is undoubtedly some truth in Claude Rostand's famous remark about his friend Francis Poulenc, but it has distorted the composer's image in a way Rostand can surely never have intended. Undeniably, Poulenc was paradoxical and self-contradictory - indeed, he did his best to advertise this polarity in himself, which was a permanent clash rather than an alternation of opposite moods. In itself, the clash is perfectly understandable in a composer who was, and still is, subject to a great deal of prejudice and misunderstanding. He wrote Aubade (1929), his "fantaisie chorégraphique" for piano and eighteen instruments, which had been commissioned by Marie-Laure and Charles de Noailles for one of their fancy-dress balls, in w hat he termed a phase of "melancholy and anguish". He wrote his cantata Figure Humaine (1943) and Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1944) in a further phase of anguish engendered by the war years. Yet his contemporaries and some of his later critics leaped at the truculent insouciance of Les Mamelles and ignored the rest. The new generation of musical scribblers discovered a second Mendelssohn in Poulenc: after the "elegant and facile notaire" they hailed their "petit maître of eroticism". The comparison with Mendelssohn - wealthy circumstances, musical "facility" and so on - would be worth pursuing. But the truth of the matter is apparent from what Poulenc himself said about these works: "I regard Les Mamelles as my most authentic work, together with Figure Humaine and my Stabat Mater." In a later radio interview, he added that the choruses in Les Mamelles and those in the Stabat Mater (1950) belonged to the same vein.
The composition of Francis Poulenc's first work for the church dates from 1936. While on "holiday" in Uzerche, he rehearsed his concerts for the 1936-37 season with the baritone Pierre Bernac and the choir conductor Yvonne Gouverné. The news of the death in an accident on 17 August of the composer-critic Pierre-Octave Ferroud reached Poulenc as he was planning a visit to the shrine of the Black Madonna in Rocamadour, a few miles away. When he got back from this decisive visit, he wrote his Litanies à la Vierge Noire in a week - the score is dated 22-29 August 1936. This work for three-part female chorus and organ is essential, but its status as a turning-point in the shift from Poulenc's "knave" phase between 1920 and 1935, when he himself said he was "not greatly concerned by religious matters", to his "monk" phase in the 1950s, when he was in great psychological distress, is not as obvious as has sometimes been claimed. If Mouvements perpétuels (1918), Les Biches (1923) and Concert Champêtre (1927-28) are the only works taken into account, his early period does indeed seem "light". However, if attention is paid to the austere melancholy of the slow movement of the Sonata for two clarinets (1918, also found in one of the interludes in Dialogues des Carmélites), the poem " Hier" from Trois Poèmes de Louise Lalanne (1931), Nocturne No.4 (1934) and even the special kind of anguish found .in certain passages of Bal Masqué (1932), "early" Poulenc was already "en route for the monastery" as he himself put it concerning one of his graver works, the Concerto for organ (1936-39). Whether the Litanies mark a religious revelation or just confirm the composer's innate religious feelings (which his southern father encouraged and his Parisian mother repressed), they mark the beginning of a series of church pieces which constitute one of Poulenc's most interesting and original aspects. The superb Mass (1937), the Motets pour un Temps de Pénitence (1938) and the Motets pour un Temps de Noël (1951) are the key works in his output of a capella church music, which was influenced by the Renaissance polyphonists - his revered Tomàs Luis de Victoria in particular. The scoring of the Stabat Mater (1950) and the Gloria is more like that of the French grand motet. Both works require a petit Chœur (the soprano soloist), a grand Chœur (in Lullyan five-part format in the Stabat Mater) and a large orchestra. However, the grand motet is inevitably associated with ceremony and rhetoric of the Bossuet variety - grave and dignified - which is exactly the tone of the Stabat Mater. Written to commemorate the painter and designer Christian Bérard and to "entrust his soul to Our Lady of Rocamadour", the Stabat Mater, in which the chorus often appears a capella and the orchestra is used with restraint, is grave indeed, even austere on many occasions, despite the alternation of its twelve slow and fast movements. These are arranged almost symmetrically around the pivotal No.6 Vidit suum, the first appearance of the solo soprano, where Poulenc's harmonic and modulatory skill is especially apparent and particularly inventive.
Unexpectedly, the same restraint is found in a section of the Gloria - the Domine Deus set for solo soprano - where the orchestral introduction is reduced to Poulenc's beloved four-part harmony and the instrumental register is the same as in Faure's Requiem. (This is probably a coincidence, as Poulenc loathed Fauré's work as a whole.) The same register returns at the close, when the composer's " Extrêmement calme" is reminiscent of the spiritual elevation of the Dialogues des Carmélite (1953-56) which he composed between the Stabat and the Gloria, when going through a phase of deep depression during which he also composed that other lyric masterpiece La Voix Humaine (1958). Equally magnificent is the Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, where the instrumental introduction looks forward harmonically and melodically to the spirit of the slow movement in the Sonata for clarinet and piano (1962), Poulenc's last work. Nonetheless, the Gloria, in keeping with the words, suggests an immediately jubilatory reading of the religious text. In this connexion, Poulenc said: "My Stabat is an a capella chorus, while my Gloria is a large choral symphony." The Domine Fili unigenite is a throwback to the insolent insouciance of Poulenc at twenty-five, when he wrote Les Biches, while the Laudamus te, which irritated part of the first-performance audience, comes close to sounding like a French cancan. (Not surprising, considering Poulenc's taste in women - "only nuns and whores.") More seriously, he remembered late in life, with his wonderful gift for sincere paradox, having seen "grave Benedictine monks playing football" and pictures by Gozzoli (1420-97) in which "rude angels stick out their tongues."
Nonetheless, the robust "country-priest" religiosity and the earthy jubilation of the Gloria, whose opening fanfare is an undisguised tribute to Stravinsky's Serenade in A, is resolved by a phrase in the solo soprano part borrowed from the Agnus Dei in the Mass (1937) and by an Amen which fades into silence forever, in the absence of one of those dry and undemonstrative final cadences with which Poulenc liked to belie the emotion expressed earlier in the work.
True, Poulenc in 1959 was not the same as in 1923 or even 1936. After the Gloria he w rote a monodrama, La Dame de Monte-Carlo (1961), which has all the cold elegance of despair, two moving sonatas (clarinet / piano and oboe / piano, 1962) and his final, posthumous Sept Répons de Ténèbres (1960-62) which preceded the cold January morning in 1963 when a man who loved the pleasures and pains of life on this earth slipped away with no warning to join God.
Translated by Roger Greaves
ReviewsThe chorus are spirited, with good attack and enunciation, and with sensitive shadings of tone. - Gramophone