Francis Poulenc – French Composer, 1899-1963
Okay – I’ll say it. I love Francis Poulenc. Sure, he’s been criticized. Some have found his music to be too campy. After all, his uncle was involved in the Parisian theatre and apparently exposed him to “less prim manifestations” of that life. (Can you say “Can-Can”?) *** Others have compared him to his immediate predecessors Debussy and Ravel. (How can you not pale in comparison to such stalwarts of turn-of-the-century French music?) Still more have considered his music simply too simple. Poulenc was not known for complex harmonic transitions or subtlety of orchestral color – qualities you might find in the music of Richard Strauss or Gustav Mahler. When he wanted to change the mood, well…he just changed it.
I however, find Poulenc’s music energetic (not campy), uniquely colorful (not impressionistic, per say, but certainly inspired by the myriad of colors that Ravel and Debussy cultivated), and refreshingly straight forward.
I’m also quite inspired by its variety.
This composer – who hung with a band of French composers known as Les Six (including Honneger and Milhaud) – started as a “mom-taught” pianist. Much of his music reflects this first exposure to music. Here is his Mouvements Perpétuels, the first by Poulenc I ever played - or heard, come to think of it. Listen to the quick change of mood around 1:43; the rhythmic, pianistic accompaniment throughout; the uncomplicated bits of melody; and at 3:12 the joyous conclusion with startling but unpretentious juxtapositions of character. Is this humor or naiveté?
Poulenc also had a great love for woodwind instruments, and is responsible for torturing, er…I mean inspiring, countless oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and flute players. Here’s the Clarinet sonata. Again – several fast changes of character, dynamics, key, and range.
Early on in his career, he experienced a spiritual awakening and began to find inspiration in the music of the church, specifically the a cappella music of the middle ages and the Renaissance. This is one of my all time favorite choral works – Poulenc’s O Magnum Mysterium. No campiness, no pianistic accompaniment, no fast melismas (runs). Still, even in the beautiful, chant-inspired lines, you will hear quick changes of phrase and mood. Here, these changes of mood aren’t merely composed on whim - they help highlight and clarify the text.
And, he had an affinity for theatre music. (One writer I read called his theatre music “absurd.” Okay…I won’t disagree, but there’s really nothing wrong with absurd, right?) Here’s a film of La voix humaine: a “40-minute solo scena, one side of the telephone conversation between a young woman and the lover who is abandoning her.” Here, his ability to change mood in an instant helps him portray the despair and emotional imbalance of the main character.
Of course, one thing that makes his music so brilliant is his ability to combine all of these styles. The Gloria, for example, is a sacred piece with elements of the Moulin Rouge, tied together with a pianistic-style chordal accompaniment and inspired woodwind writing. Here’s the Laudamus Te:
All of this styling can be found in his Sinfonietta, which we’re performing this Friday at Bon Air Baptist, Saturday in Staunton, and Sunday at Randolph Macon.
No YouTubes for the Sinfonietta – you’ll just have to come hear it.
*** my quotations come from the amazingly useful New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, a 20 volume set of academic articles on music. Consider buying it for the music lover in your life!