This week, Top Ear presents its featured composer who is best known as “half monk, half thug”, wrote both French art songs and sacred works, and was the youngest in the infamous Les Six in the early 20th century.
The very debonair Francis Poulenc (1899-1963).
Poulenc was born in Paris at the turn of the century – 7th January, 1899. The fin de siècle Paris was a city of immense cultural and artistic complication: Richard Wagner’s chromaticism took over Europe by storm and forever changed the history of music, but while his tonal experiments stimulated the French with infinite possibilities, his Germanic essence also led to defiant adventures, pioneered most notably by Claude Debussy, who sought to develop a new, French musical language by harmonies free from the German doctrine. Debussy and, later, Ravel struck back by what is (arguably) defined as “impressionism”, but by the late 1910s the Parisian avant-garde was no longer satisfied by it. The new century seemed to have set countless creative minds on fire, and among them Erik Satie and (in the non-musical circles) Jean Cocteau found a way against everything precedent to their new path. Satie’s and Cocteau’s intellecual advocacy for dadaist aesthetics resulted in the blooming of a new generation of French artists, Les Six being the foremost exponent of music and was characterized by their musical simplicity, acerbity, and a stark, unsentimental demeanour that truly left Romanticism behind their backs.
Amidst the tide of innovation, Poulenc’s music retained a speciously romantic profile that marked his ambivalent musical inclinations. While Satie’s dry, modernistic style still hanged overhead, and the writing of Milhaud’s and Honegger’s grew increasingly austere, Poulenc merged the acerbic sonorities of the avant-garde with meltingly romantic materials. Poulenc was constantly switching – between the avant-garde and romanticism, as well as between the religious and the profane. He was the perfect embodiment of the heterogenous modern artist, caught between multiple artistc trends and unable to conform to any single one. “Half monk, half thug” was a fitting characterizatoin: traces of the pure and the mundane intermix in many of his works. Nowhere is this heterogeneity clearer than in his magnificent Gloria, premiered in 1961. Here, robust declamations in “Gloria in excelsis Deo” gives way to the jocund “Laudamus te”, and the cheeky “Domine Fili unigenite” is succeeded by the deeply elegiac “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei”: the alternation of both worlds to which Poulenc felt so dear. In his earlier Mass in G (1937), an air of buoyancy prevails in the opening “Kyrie” and “Sanctus”, and sweet harmonies reminiscent of chansons infuse the intimate “Benedictus”.
Elsewhere, Poulenc remains very much a post-Stravinskian French composer of his own distinctive melodic flavour. His chamber works such as the woodwind sonatas (only three of which he completed: for flute, clarinet and oboe) are much loved for their freshness and melodic beauty, and if his Stravinsky-Ravel-Mozart-mixing Concerto for Two Pianos is more played, both of us on Top Ear are completely bowed over by his unbelievably romantic and uniquely vivacious Piano Concerto (1949). Two of the most popular concertos for their respective instruments were also composed by Poulenc: the Organ Concerto (1938) and the Concert champêtre (1928, for harpsichord and orchestra). Poulenc himself was a proficient pianist and has recorded some of his piano music (including the Two Piano Concerto with Jacques Fevrier), and his piano pieces (such as the Trois Novelettes) are among the loveliest ever to be composed in the 20th century. This 15th Improvisation “Hommage a Edith Piaf” should win anyone’s heart at the first hearing:
Two comprehensive sets now dominate the market: Georges Prêtre (EMI) and Charles Dutoit (Decca), their contents including mainly orchestral works (Prêtre’s set also includes the stunning Stabat Mater, while Dutoit’s is only available separately on Austrian Eloquence). Both are excellent ways to get to know Poulenc’s music. Prêtre’s recordings may be harder to find, but he brings out Poulenc’s rawness and mercurial character more while Dutoit tends to smoothen out the contour of the music. Generally, the same holds true between the two foremost Poulenc pianists: Gabriel Tacchino and Pascal Rogé (the former being Poulenc’s only piano student; likewise, Prêtre enjoys a working relationship with the composer).
Individual recordings recommendable are listed below: