Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)

Francis Poulenc was born in Paris into a wealthy family. (His father was the director of Rhône-Poulenc, which was one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.) After studying piano with his mother, he became a piano student of famed virtuoso Ricardo Viñes, who premiered many of the works of Debussy, Ravel, and Satie. As a pianist, Poulenc recorded many of his own pieces, such as the Sextet for piano and winds (with the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet). He was also the teacher of pianist Gabriel Tacchino, who has recorded Poulenc’s piano works with his unique understanding of the composer’s style and technique.

Poulenc studied composition with Charles Koechlin. He quickly became associated with the young group of composers known as “Les Six,” that also included Darius Milhaud and Arthur Honegger. This group was greatly influenced by writer-director Jean Cocteau and by the music of Erik Satie. Poulenc’s own style was highly melodic. His musical personality was often equally humorous (even sarcastic) and melancholic. One music critic described him as “half monk, half delinquent,” an appellation that Poulenc enthusiastically endorsed and used to describe himself throughout the rest of his life. Poulenc wrote several pieces for solo piano, as well as concertos for piano, 2 pianos, organ, and even the harpsichord. In addition, Poulenc (along with Samuel Barber), was one of the finest composers of art songs. He recorded many of them with his frequent collaborator, Pierre Bernac.

After the deaths of some close friends, Poulenc made a pilgrimage to Rocamadour, France, (the site of a shrine to Mary known as the “Black Virgin”). As a result, he made a strong commitment to his faith and composed several sacred pieces, beginning with the Litanies to the Black Virgin for women’s chorus and organ or orchestra. He followed this piece with a Mass, the Stabat Mater, his celebrated Gloria, and several smaller sets of motets, including some for various celebrations of the liturgical year, such as Advent and Lent. His embodiment of the sacred and profane is especially evident in the Gloria, where he remarked:

“When I wrote this piece … I had in mind those frescoes by Gozzoli where the angels stick out their tongues. And also some serious Benedictine monks I had once seen revelling in a game of football.”

Poulenc’s sacred output culminated in his opera, The Dialogue of the Carmelites, about the martyrdom of 16 Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution. This landmark work has been recorded multiple times, including two televised productions, and has been sung in French, Italian, and English versions.

Although Poulenc had a lifelong love for the wind instruments of the orchestra and wrote for them throughout his life, (such as the moving Elégie written in memory of horn virtuoso Dennis Brain), he showed a special interest towards them in his later years and planned on writing a sonata for each of them. He only lived to complete three: the sonatas for flute, (premiered by Jean-Pierre Rampal), clarinet, (in memory of Honegger), and oboe, (his last finished composition). Poulenc died from a heart attack in 1963. Although he preferred smaller forms and wrote mostly chamber music and piano works, his output includes 3 operas, several ballets and concertos, and numerous works for orchestra and chorus.

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Viewing:

Dialogues of the Carmelites (Sung in English)

Suggested Reading:

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