Francis Poulenc

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Poulenc and harpsichordist Wanda Landowska

Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc (French: [fʁɑ̃sis ʒɑ̃ maʁsɛl pulɛ̃k]; 7 January 1899 – 30 January 1963) was a French composer and pianist, associated with the French group Les Six. He composed art songs, solo piano music, chamber music, oratorios, choral music, operas, ballet music, and orchestral music.

Early life and education[edit]

Poulenc was born in Paris in 1899.[1] His father Émile Poulenc was a second-generation director of the Poulenc, and later Rhône-Poulenc, chemical corporation.[2] His mother, an amateur pianist, gave him his first lessons on the instrument. In 1914 he was introduced to the Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes, a champion of the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Poulenc became his pupil shortly afterwards[3] and developed into a capable pianist[4] whose early compositions were dominated by the keyboard.

In 1916 a childhood friend, Raymonde Linossier (1897–1930), introduced Poulenc to Adrienne Monnier's bookshop, the Maison des Amis des Livres.[5] There he met avant-garde poets such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Paul Éluard and Louis Aragon.[6] He later set many of their poems to music.


Early works and Les Six[edit]

His first surviving composition, Rapsodie Nègre (1917), caught the attention of the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.[7] Stravinsky was later instrumental in having the work published in London.[7]

Le bestiaire, ou Le cortège d'Orphée (1917) is a cycle of mélodies on poems by Guillaume Apollinaire. In 1918, Poulenc performed the premiere of his Sonata for Piano Four Hands with a fellow Viñes pupil, Marcelle Meyer.[8]

Poulenc gave first performances of several of his new pieces, the Sonata for Two Clarinets, the Sonata for Piano Four Hands, a Sonata for Violin and Piano, and Trois mouvements perpétuels, at a series of concerts held from 1917 to 1920 in the studio of the painter Émile Lejeune in Montparnasse.[9] There Poulenc met other young composers, and together they formed Erik Satie's Les nouveaux jeunes, followed by Jean Cocteau's Les Six, a loose-knit group of young French and French-Swiss composers. Poulenc composed his Valse en ut for L'Album des Six (1920). He contributed to Les mariés de la tour Eiffel (1921) with Discours du Général and La Baigneuse de Trouville.

During the 1920s, Poulenc's most immediate influences were Chabrier, Debussy, Satie, and Stravinsky. He generally followed the irreverent, flippant aesthetic stance of Les Six with melodies influenced by Parisian music halls.

Les biches and first major works[edit]

Between 1921 and 1925, Poulenc received his first formal training in composition when he studied with Charles Koechlin (1921–25).[10] He remained a mostly self-taught composer.

Sergei Diaghilev commissioned ballet music from Poulenc for Les biches. This was performed by the Ballets Russes in January 1924, with settings by Marie Laurencin.

In 1926 Poulenc met the baritone Pierre Bernac, who became a very close friend. A great many of the chansons and melodies Poulenc wrote were composed for Bernac. They gave recitals throughout the world together from 1935 until 1959. In 1927, Poulenc bought Le grand coteau, a house close to Noizay in the Touraine, where he enjoyed the quiet atmosphere he needed to work.

In 1928 he composed the Concert champêtre, a piece for harpsichord and orchestra commissioned by Wanda Landowska. It was dedicated to Poulenc's lover, the painter Richard Chanlaire. Also in 1928, Poulenc recorded his Trois mouvements perpétuels and the Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon, and then Le bestiaire. He also started publishing musical reviews in Les arts phoniques.

He first performed his Concerto for two pianos and orchestra with Jacques Février in 1932. Also in 1932 Le Bal Masqué, a lighter piece, was performed privately at the home of Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles.

In 1936 Poulenc came to a religious reawakening after the deaths of several friends and the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, followed by a pilgrimage to Rocamadour in 1935. Poulenc continued to compose light music, such as the Quatre chansons pour enfants (1934) on texts by Jean Nohain(fr) (1934).

Some of his works were more sombre and austere. This is exemplified by his first sacred pieces, Litanies à la vierge noire ("Litanies to the Black Madonna") (1936) and the Mass in G (1937). The trend toward "new dimensions and greater depth" in the composer's style was continued by the song cycle Tel jour, telle nuit (1937) and Concerto in G minor for organ, strings, and timpani (1938).

World War II[edit]

During World War II Poulenc, Durey and Auric joined the Comité de Front National des Musiciens, created at the instigation of the French Communist Party in May 1941, and led by Elsa Barraine and Roger Désormière.

One of his most popular songs is "Les chemins de l'amour". It was originally written as part of the incidental music for Jean Anouilh's play Léocadia (1940), but it achieved fame outside that context. The remainder of the Léocadia music is lost.[11]

In his humorous ballet, Les animaux modèles (1942, with Serge Lifar), Poulenc used the theme of a French patriotic song performed without the German officers noticing. In 1943, he set to music Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon, although the poet was a communist and a member of the French Resistance. This piece was given at the salle Gaveau in December 1943. The cantata Figure humaine(fr) was finished in 1943, but it was not publicly performed until 1945, in London. It set to music poems by Paul Éluard, notably Liberté, thousands of copies of which had been dropped over French territory in 1942 by the Royal Air Force. Poulenc dedicated this cantata to his companion, Raymond Destouches (a driver who died in 1988). It is also in 1945 that Poulenc composed L’histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant (The Story of Babar the Elephant, based on a popular children's book).

The post-war years[edit]

Although the score of his only opera bouffe, Les mamelles de Tirésias ("Tiresias' Breasts", after Guillaume Apollinaire's surrealist drama) was completed in 1945, it was not performed until 1947, after Poulenc met soprano Denise Duval. She also sang the roles of Blanche in Dialogues of the Carmelites (1956) and Elle in La voix humaine (1958). Poulenc wrote the song cycle La courte paille for her (and her child) in 1960, and La dame de Monte Carlo in 1961.

Poulenc's compositions continued, including chansons accompanied on the piano, choral music, secular (Huit chansons françaises, 1945) and religious (Stabat Mater, 1950) works, orchestral pieces (Sinfonietta, 1947), chamber music (particularly for wind instruments), works for one or two pianos such as L'embarquement pour Cythère, a valse musette (1951). He also composed film music, including La Duchesse de Langeais (1942) and Jean Anouilh's Le voyageur sans bagage.

Between 1947 and 1949, he became a radio host for À bâtons rompus. His choice of music was very diverse, including many pieces from the French repertoire.

Poulenc gave the first of his many concerts in the United States in 1948 with Pierre Bernac. During his time in the US, he met the American soprano Leontyne Price, who sang his chansons, and the composer Samuel Barber. His Mélodies passagères were performed in Paris in February 1952 by their dedicatees, Bernac and Poulenc.

In 1952,[12] Poulenc started working on what was to become the opera Dialogues of the Carmelites, based on a play by Georges Bernanos. Poulenc soon became obsessed with this work. He likened the sad fate of Blanche de la Force to the long agony of his companion Lucien Roubert, a travelling salesman (1909–55) who was ill and died on the same day as Poulenc finished the piano version of the Dialogues. Poulenc adapted Bernanos' text for the libretto. The opera was first performed at La Scala in Italian, in January 1957 with Virginia Zeani singing the principal soprano role of Blanche. In June 1957, it was produced at the Paris Opera with Denise Duval as Blanche and Régine Crespin as Madame Lidoine. In September of that year, it was produced in San Francisco in English starring Leontyne Price as Mme Lidoine; this was her first stage opera.

He followed the opera with La voix humaine (1958), a lyric tragedy based on Jean Cocteau's play. It was dedicated to his lover, Louis Gautier (a manual worker he met in 1957). They stayed together until Poulenc died.

Poulenc travelled to the US in 1960–61 for the American premieres of Les mamelles de Tirésias and La voix humaine. Commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation, his Gloria (1961) for soprano solo, choir and orchestra was premiered in both Boston, by the soprano Adele Addison and conducted by Charles Munch, and in Paris, conducted by Georges Prêtre.

Poulenc published a book on Emmanuel Chabrier in 1961. He composed Sept répons des ténèbres in 1962. His last two works were premiered posthumously, in April and June 1963: the Sonata for Oboe and Piano was given by Pierre Pierlot and Jacques Février and the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein. Poulenc was particularly fond of woodwind instruments: having planned a set of sonatas for all of them, he lived to complete only four, for flute, oboe, clarinet, and the Elégie for French horn.

Poulenc had only one piano student, Gabriel Tacchino; he has performed and recorded all his teacher's piano music.[13] Poulenc was the pianist in many of his recordings, including some of his own songs (with Pierre Bernac, recorded in 1947, and Rose Dercourt) and the Concerto for Two Pianos (recorded in May 1957). He supervised the 1961 world premiere recording of his Gloria, which was conducted by Georges Prêtre. His recordings were released by RCA Victor and EMI. The RCA Victor recording by the Robert Shaw Chorale in the United States in 1965 won a Grammy Award for the "Best Choral Performance."

Aesthetic and style[edit]

Critic Claude Rostand(fr) underlined the coexistence or alternation in Poulenc of the Catholic faith with artistic freedom. He wrote in a July 1950 Paris-Presse article that Poulenc was "A lover of life, mischievous, 'bon enfant,' tender and impertinent, melancholy and serenely mystical, half monk and half delinquent [le moine et le voyou]."[14] When the second part of his Gloria caused a scandal, Poulenc said, "I was thinking when I composed it of these frescoes by Gozzoli with angels sticking out their tongues, and of those grave benedictines I saw once playing football."

Poulenc's music is fundamentally tonal, although he made use of harmonic innovations such as pandiatonicism and chromatically altered chords. In some of his last works he used 12-tone rows, but Poulenc never questioned the validity of traditional tonic-dominant harmony. Lyrical melody pervades his music and underlies his important contributions to vocal music, particularly French art song.

Personal life[edit]

Poulenc lived at 5, rue de Médicis, Paris.

Some writers consider Poulenc one of the first openly gay composers.[15] His first serious relationship was with painter Richard Chanlaire, to whom he wrote on his Concert champêtre score: "You have changed my life, you are the sunshine of my thirty years, a reason for living and working".[16] 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."[17]

In 1923, Poulenc was "unable to do anything" for two days after the death from typhoid fever of twenty-year-old novelist Raymond Radiguet, a close friend of Jean Cocteau. However, two weeks later he made lewd jokes about a male ballet dancer to Sergei Diaghilev at the rehearsals of Les Biches.[18] In 1930 Raymonde Linossier died, a woman to whom he had proposed a marriage of convenience in 1928 and who had remained a "cherished friend" until her death.[19]

In 1936, Poulenc was profoundly affected by the death of another composer, Pierre-Octave Ferroud. This led him to his first visit to the shrine of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour. Here, before the statue of the Madonna with a young child on her lap, Poulenc experienced a life-changing transformation. Thereafter, he produced a sizeable amount of liturgical music or compositions based on religious themes.

In 1949, Poulenc suffered the death of a friend, the artist Christian Bérard, for whom he composed his Stabat Mater (1950).

During the completion of his opera Dialogues des Carmelites, Poulenc suffered severe depression due to copyright issues related to Georges Bernanos' libretto. This eventually drove him to nervous breakdown.[20] However, this is arguably the point at which his later style emerged; following his descent into anxiety and depression, his subsequent recovery can be seen as the source of the serenity and lyricism in much of his later work.[21]

Poulenc died of heart failure in Paris on 30 January 1963 and is buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery.[22]


See List of compositions by Francis Poulenc.



  • Francis Poulenc, Moi et mes amis, confidences recueillies par Stéphane Audel. Paris: La Palatine Ligugé, 1963, 206pp.
  • Francis Poulenc, Journal de mes mélodies. Cicero, 1993, 160pp.
  • Francis Poulenc, À bâtons rompus (écrits radiophoniques, Journal de vacances, Feuilles américaines), écrits édités par Lucie Kayas. Arles: Actes Sud, 1999.
  • Francis Poulenc, J'écris ce qui me chante, textes et entretiens, réunis, présentés et annotés par Nicolas Southon, Fayard, 2011, 920 p.


  • Francis Poulenc Echo and Source. Selected Correspondence 1915–1963, translated and edited by Sidney Buckland. London: Gollancz, 1991, 448pp.
  • Francis Poulenc, Correspondance 1910–1963, éditée par Myriam Chimènes. Paris: Fayard, 1994, 1128pp. ISBN 978-2-213-03020-3


In chronological order:

  • Roy, Jean. Francis Poulenc. Paris: Seghers, 1964.
  • Hell, Henri. Francis Poulenc. Paris: Fayard, 1978.
  • Bernac, Pierre. Francis Poulenc et ses mélodies. Paris: Buchet-Chastel, 1978.
  • Daniel, Keith W. Francis Poulenc: His Artistic Development and Musical Style. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982. ISBN 978-0-8357-1284-2.
  • Bloch, Francine. Phonographie de Francis Poulenc. Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale, 1984.
  • Mellers, Wilfrid. Francis Poulenc. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-816337-1.
  • Renaud Machart, Poulenc. Paris: Seuil, 1995.
  • Ivry, Benjamin. Francis Poulenc. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1996. ISBN 0-7148-3503-X.
  • Buckland, Sidney, and Myriam Chimènes, eds. Poulenc: Music, Art and Literature. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999.
  • Carl B. Schmidt, Entrancing Muse: A Documented Biography of Francis Poulenc. London: Pendragon Pr, 2001.
  • Burton, Richard. Francis Poulenc. Absolute Press, 2002.[full citation needed]
  • Ramaut, Alban. Francis Poulenc et la voix. Lyon: Symétrie, 2005.
  • Basinger, Simon. Les Cahiers de Francis Poulenc. Paris: Collectif de l'Association F.Poulenc, 2008.
  • Lacombe, Hervé. Francis Poulenc. Paris: Fayard, 2013.


  1. ^ Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Classical Musicians. New York: Schirmer Books, 1997.
  2. ^ Schmidt, p.4
  3. ^ Schmidt, pp.19–20
  4. ^ Myriam Chimènes: 'Poulenc, Francis', Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed [25 December 2006]), [1]
  5. ^ Schmidt, p.26
  6. ^ Schmidt, p.27
  7. ^ a b L'Avant-scène opéra, no. 52, 1983, p. 7
  8. ^ Jean-Marc Harari / Glenn Armstrong (2003). "OR V – Marcelle Meyer". Coup d'archet. Retrieved 2013-10-07. 
  9. ^ Schmidt, p.55
  10. ^ "Francis Poulenc (biography)". Naxos. Retrieved 2011-12-07. 
  11. ^ Classical Archives
  12. ^ Ned Rorem, The Paris Diary, Da Capo Press, New York, R/1998, p. 120
  13. ^ Bach Cantatas
  14. ^ Ivry 1996, p. 156.
  15. ^ Champagne, Mario (2002). "Poulenc, Francis". 
  16. ^ Ivry 1996, pp. 65, 68.
  17. ^ Aldrich, Robert and Wotherspoon, Gary (Eds.) (2001). Who's Who in Contemporary Gay & Lesbian History: From World War II to the Present Day. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-22974-X.
  18. ^ Ivry 1996, p. 58.
  19. ^ Ivry 1996, pp. 63, 74.
  20. ^ Daniel 1980, p. 50.[full citation needed]
  21. ^ Daniel 1980, p. 51.[full citation needed]
  22. ^ "Francis Poulenc". Music Academy. Retrieved 21 February 2011. 

External links[edit]