Today is the birthday of French composer Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc, born in 1899.
Poulenc has always had a special place in my heart ever since I first heard his music my first year at music school. Prior to my formal music studies my background had been in jazz and R&B. While I had a solid foundation in music theory I had not been exposed to composers as had the other students, e.g. piano, violin, organ or voice students. While I knew well the music of George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Muddy Waters, I was ignorant of all but the most famous classical composers. As a consequence I was far behind my fellow students in the canonic literature and music history but ahead in areas of ear-training and theory. So, I worked very hard to fill in the gaps of my knowledge concerning classical music and it was exciting to discover a composer new to me whose music I found very appealing.
This was the certainly case with Francis Poulenc. Not only did I immediately take to his music but felt a kinship with him from what I read about his life. His wealthy family intended Poulenc for a business career and did not allow him to enroll at a music college. Largely self-educated musically, he studied with the pianist Ricardo Viñes, who became his mentor after the composer’s parents died.
Poulenc behaved like a sophisticated eccentric (he once chatted up a stupefied Cannes bartender about an ingenious harmonic progression he managed to pull off that morning), and the eccentricity not surprisingly showed up in his music. Many have called attention to his split artistic personality, “part monk, part guttersnipe,” but really he has many more sides. Like most French composers of his generation, he fell under the influences of Stravinsky and Satie. Yet he doesn’t imitate either. You can identify a Poulenc composition immediately with its bright colors, strong, clear rhythms, and gorgeous and novel diatonic harmonies. He is warmer and less intellectual than Stravinsky, more passionate and musically more refined than Satie. (Classical.net)
Poulenc soon came under the influence of Erik Satie, under whose tutelage he became one of a group of young composers known collectively as Les Six. In his early works Poulenc became known for his high spirits and irreverence. During the 1930s a much more serious side to his nature emerged, particularly in the religious music he composed from 1936 onwards, which he alternated with his more light-hearted works.
Poulenc’s music is essentially diatonic. In Henri Hell‘s view, this is because the main feature of Poulenc’s musical art is his melodic gift. In the words of Roger Nichols in the Grove dictionary, “For [Poulenc] the most important element of all was melody and he found his way to a vast treasury of undiscovered tunes within an area that had, according to the most up-to-date musical maps, been surveyed, worked and exhausted.”
The commentator George Keck writes, “His melodies are simple, pleasing, easily remembered, and most often emotionally expressive. Poulenc said that he was not inventive in his harmonic language.” The composer Lennox Berkeley wrote of him, “All through his life, he was content to use conventional harmony, but his use of it was so individual, so immediately recognizable as his own, that it gave his music freshness and validity.”
Keck considers Poulenc’s harmonic language “as beautiful, interesting and personal as his melodic writing … clear, simple harmonies moving in obviously defined tonal areas with chromaticism that is rarely more than passing”. Poulenc had no time for musical theories; in one of his many radio interviews he called for “a truce to composing by theory, doctrine, rule!” He was dismissive of what he saw as the dogmatism of latter-day adherents to dodecaphony, led by René Leibowitz, and greatly regretted that the adoption of a theoretical approach had affected the music of Olivier Messiaen, of whom he had earlier had high hopes. To Hell, almost all Poulenc’s music is “directly or indirectly inspired by the purely melodic associations of the human voice”. Poulenc was a painstaking craftsman, though a myth grew up – “la légende de facilité” – that his music came easily to him; he commented, “The myth is excusable, since I do everything to conceal my efforts.”
The pianist Pascal Rogé commented in 1999 that both sides of Poulenc’s musical nature were equally important:
“You must accept him as a whole. If you take away either part, the serious or the non-serious, you destroy him. If one part is erased you get only a pale photocopy of what he really is.” Poulenc recognized the dichotomy, but in all his works he wanted music that was “healthy, clear and robust – music as frankly French as Stravinsky’s is Slav”
- Hell, Henri; Edward Lockspeiser (trans) (1959). Francis Poulenc. New York: Grove Press.
- Chimènes, Myriam and Roger Nichols. “Poulenc, Francis”, Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press
- Keck, George Russell (1990). Francis Poulenc – A Bio-bibliography. New York: Greenwood Press.