Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc (January 7, 1899 - January 30, 1963) was a French composer and a member of the French Group Les Six.
His mother, an amateur pianist, taught him to play, and music formed a part of family life. 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 Noizay, his home in the Loire Valley.
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)
Poulenc contributed to the perceived style of Les Six in pieces inspired by popular music such as Cocardes (1919), though he would later write profoundly religious works. 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).
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) Despite this, he still managed to compose the three miniatures Mouvements perpétuels during his service. They became an instant sensation, and have remained one of his most popular pieces – Alfred Hitchcock featured one of them in his film Rope (1948).
After the First World War, Poulenc studied with composer Charles Koechlin, and befriended a group of young French composers, who were referred to as Les Six by a critic of the time. The name stuck, even though there was little in common between the music of Poulenc, Milhaud, Auric, Durey, Honegger and Germaine Tailleferre. The group had links to Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau, 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 Music by Stravinsky and programmed by Viñes. (Ivry 1996) They became an instant sensation, and have remained one of his most popular pieces - Alfred Hitchcock featured one of them in his film Rope (1948).
Francis Poulenc composed in all major genres,including art song, chamber music, oratorio, opera, ballet music and orchestral music.
His Concert Champêtre 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 Organ Concerto, commissioned by the Princess for her 24-stop Cavaillé-Coll Salon organ, timpani and the small number of orchestral strings which could fit into her music salon, were commissioned.
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 poet Louise de Vilmorin. He also toured constantly throughout his life as piano accompanist for a very select group of singers, first of them 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) Poulenc also counted French soprano Denise Duval as one of his 'muses', and wrote La Voix Humaine for her.
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", Tomás Luis de Victoria, for his Quatre Motets pour un temps de Pénitence.
But Poulenc also wrote vocal music in his earlier populist style. The 'profane cantana' Le Bal masqué, text by Max Jacob, was commissioned by Anna de Noailles in 1932. 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, setting the 1917 comedy Les Mamelles de Tiresias (The Breasts of Tiresias).
The 1957 opera, Les Dialogues des Carmélites, commissioned by G. Ricordi & Co. 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.
Among Poulenc's last series of major works is a series of works for Winds and Piano. He was particularly fond of the woodwind instruments, and planned a set of sonatas for all of them, yet only lived to complete four: the Flute Sonata (1956), the Oboe Sonata (1962) the Clarinet Sonata (1962) and the Elégie for Horn and Piano.
Francis Poulenc died of heart failure in Paris on January 30, 1963 and was interred in Cimetière du Père Lachaise, Paris.
Poulenc was mainly homosexual, openly so. His first serious relationship, was with painter Richard Chanlaire 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) However, Poulenc also had a number of relationships with women, and he also supposedly fathered a daughter, Marie-Ange, although he never formally admitted that he was indeed her father. He was also a friend to the singer Pierre Bernac for whom he wrote many songs and it has been suggested by many sources that this long friendship was a formal relationship. There is perhaps some truth to this, but the relationship was most likely not a sexual one.
Poulenc was profundly affected by the death of friends. First came the death of the young woman he had hoped to make his wife, Raymonde Linossier, the soul-mate of his early years. Then, in 1923 he was "unable to do anything" for two days after the death from typhoid fever of his twenty year old friend, 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) He was also profoundly affected by the death of painter Christian Bérard, who was decapitated in a car accident in the early 30's. This loss, coupled with a pilgrimage to the Black Madonna of Rocamadour, led him to rediscover his profound Catholic faith, which was to inspire him for the rest of his life.
Critic Claude Rostand, in a July 1950 Paris-Presse article, described Poulenc as "half bad boy, half monk" [le moine et le voyou], a tag that was to be attached to his name throughout his career. (Ivry 1996)
Chronological list of works