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"What He Did, He Did Perfectly” —
Reflections on Francis Poulenc

February 8, 2013

Fifty years after his death, this great French composer continues to delight, amuse, and embrace audiences with his music.

by James M. Keller

For Francis Poulenc, the year 1963 began in unremarkable fashion, but already by the end of January he surprised everyone by dying. Much of his final month was documented by the Swiss radio journalist Stéphane Audel, who had met the composer a decade earlier and in the ensuing years had conducted fourteen extended interviews produced and broadcast by Radio Suisse Romande— informative, captivating, frank, and delightful conversations often centering on illustrious persons in Poulenc’s circle. Four more interviews were to be recorded beginning January 30, 1963; their topics would be the ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, the Second Viennese School of composers (Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg), and opera. Much groundwork went into these sessions, and as part of the preparation Audel traveled to Noizay, just outside Amboise in the Loire Valley, where Poulenc maintained an ample country home (named Le Grand Coteau) complete with formal gardens and productive vineyards. Poulenc had acquired it in 1927, and when not touring he divided his time between Noizay and his Paris apartment on rue de Médicis, overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens.

Poulenc had retreated to Le Grand Coteau at the beginning of the new year. There he celebrated his sixty-fourth birthday (on January 7) and busied himself correcting proofs of his Sept répons des ténèbres, a major work for chorus and orchestra that the New York Philharmonic had commissioned to celebrate the opening of Lincoln Center, and which Leonard Bernstein was going to conduct in its premiere three months hence. Plotting his interviews with Audel provided Poulenc with stimulating distraction from proofreading, though a bittersweet moment invaded their visit when Poulenc received word that an elderly cousin had died suddenly on a platform in the Paris Métro. His reaction: “What a lovely death! That’s how I’d want to go, instantly, without suffering.” Having completed the tasks he had set for himself in Noizay, he headed back to Paris on January 14. Audel remembered: “The evening before our return to Paris Francis lit a great wood-fire on the hearth, settled himself comfortably into his chair, and gave himself up to the pleasure of conversation. He was dazzling. Once again I admired the range of his culture. His knowledge of music, painting and literature was bewildering.”

Audel pressed him about his memories of Arnold Schoenberg, and Poulenc responded by recalling a visit he had paid to Schoenberg’s home in Mödling, just south of Vienna, in 1922. “He lived there with his first wife, who was very unaffected, in a charming house with a garden. On the walls were pictures he’d painted, very obviously inspired by Kokoschka. And just think, the moment we sat down to table in the drawing-room with its open window—the weather was superb—a little boy who was playing in the garden threw his ball so awkwardly, or skillfully—you never know with children—that it fell right in the middle of the soup tureen. The soup spurted up like a geyser, flooding the tablecloth and … the guests.”

During the last week of January Poulenc made a short concert tour in Holland, accompanying Denise Duval, his most beloved soprano, and he made arrangements to have lunch with her back in Paris on January 30 before he plunged into his radio interviews in the evening. That morning, however, he awoke with a sore throat and called to postpone both engagements. At one o’clock in the afternoon, instead of enjoying a meal with Duval, he dropped dead at home of a heart attack. “He had exactly the death he had hoped for,” observed Audel.

Fifty years have now passed since Poulenc reached his end, and his music has aged very well. Indeed, much of it seems not to have aged at all; it springs to life with ebullient freshness, with the same spirit of youthful exuberance it has always had. Perhaps its enduring popularity is related to the fact that he was never really an avant-garde composer, much though he sometimes might have wished to be. He was almost on the cutting edge when he first gained attention, at the onset of the Roaring Twenties. Born into a family of comfortable circumstances (his father and uncles had founded a chemical firm that grew into the pharmaceutical giant Rhône-Poulenc), he was encouraged in his musical interests by his mother, an accomplished pianist. Interested parties exerted well-meaning efforts to have him sent off for a proper education at the Paris Conservatory or the Schola Cantorum, France’s most esteemed finishing schools for the musically inclined, but Poulenc managed to avoid either route. It was for the best: Both were so hidebound in their pedagogy that they might have crushed his audacious spirit. Instead, he worked privately with the composer Charles Koechlin, a respected maverick who made the rounds of Parisian cultural circles clad in sandals and a floppy hat, even when formal attire was de rigueur. He concurrently fell under the sway of the Erik Satie, another peculiar soul, an iconoclast around whom Poulenc and five of his colleagues clustered, declaring themselves to be a Société des Nouveaux Jeunes (“Society of Young Up-and-comers”). That label gave way to the more informal Groupe des Six, a sobriquet supplied by the music critic Henri Collet. Their bond was more convivial than aesthetic, but the names of Les Six would remain linked in history: Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey. They would all go their separate ways as composers, but Poulenc never entirely relinquished the extroverted brashness they shared during the 1920s. It was probably the closest he ever came to being truly in the avant garde, though even then he and his high-kicking colleagues were always running in the slipstream of Stravinsky, a few paces behind.

Still, most of what was musically edgy in Poulenc lay on the surface of his scores. While the musical mainstream grew increasingly fixated on the liberation of tonality, the twelve-tone method, serialism, and mathematically derived music, Poulenc remained resolutely tonal in his compositions. He found twelve-tone music interesting and kept up with it in his listening and score-reading; his planned radio interview on Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg was in no way intended to be a rebuttal. But he didn’t find the twelve-tone system useful for what he was interested in expressing. That didn’t prevent an occasional flirtation. In 1951 he wrote his Thème varié for solo piano, a very beautiful (though rarely played) set of variations on an original theme that owes much to Brahms, and he reported in a letter to his fellow-composer and Satie dévoté Henri Sauguet: “The coda of the last variation is strictly the theme backwards. You see, Mr. Leibowitz, that we too ….” His reference was to René Leibowitz, high priest among the French acolytes of Schoenberg, and to the beloved dodecaphonic process of presenting a theme both forward and backward—or, as they put it, in retrograde.

Poulenc could remain tonal and still show considerable originality in his harmony. He was, after all, a twentieth-century composer. He was drawn to rich chords and touches of bitonality. At the heart of it, his harmonic procedures can resemble jazz superimposed over a classical foundation. Listening to Poulenc, we sometimes glimpse what might have been if George Gershwin had succeeded in convincing Maurice Ravel to take him on as a pupil. It is true that Poulenc, when asked for his thoughts about jazz, could voice distaste for it as an influence on classical composition. His music, however, suggests more common ground than he liked to admit. 

Poulenc was naturally receptive to jazz and popular music. From an early age, much of his social life was entrusted to his “Uncle Papoum” (in actuality named Marcel Royer, his mother’s bachelor brother), a theater and opera fanatic who took his charge along as he made the rounds of café concerts and other Parisian nightspots. Good humor coursed through Poulenc’s veins, and even though he went through periods of dejection and even despair—usually involving boyfriends whose charms seem to have existed largely in his imagination—his default setting was cheerful. His comic propensities were reinforced by the fact that he was a dead ringer for Fernandel (1903-71), French comic star of stage and screen. “His physiognomy,” wrote the composer Ned Rorem, “showed a cross between weasel and trumpet, and featured a large nose through which he wittily spoke.” In photographs, Poulenc almost always looks as if he is giggling, or about to be. It seems inevitable that Poulenc should have become quite a cut-up as an artist. Few composers inspire their listeners to laugh as frequently as he does. “Clearly,” wrote his biographer Wilfrid Mellers, “Poulenc was a composer for whom music was a friendly act.”

Comedy rarely gets the critical respect it deserves, and it was easy for critics to write off Poulenc as a lightweight, a jester who was amusing to have around the court but who in no way was a rival to whomever they had enthroned as the true aristocrats of music, whether Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Boulez, or some other breaker of barriers. And yet, audiences appreciated him. So did performers. He filled a niche that the more exalted envelope-pushers tended to avoid, and he filled it with notable finesse. Interviewed recently on the subject of Poulenc, the venerable composer Henri Dutilleux observed: “Poulenc was ‘a point of reference,’ and in this capacity, France needed a musician like him following Chabrier, whom he adored.” In a memorial tribute, the New York Times critic Harold Schoenberg summed up why Poulenc was an essential composer:

He was one of the most personal composers of the century, in that he cultivated a specific style in an extremely personal way. … Poulenc was not a “big” composer, for his emotional range was too restricted. But what he did, he did perfectly, and his music shows remarkable finish, style and refinement. Unlike most of the internationally known composers of his generation, he was a fluent and natural melodist. … Other composers drifted into dodecaphonism, into serial technique, into neoclassicism. Poulenc ended where he began—broader and more secure, to be sure, and a thorough technician; but still a composer to whom melody and harmony in the 19th-century sense were the building blocks of music. An amazing thing about Poulenc was that despite his use of romantic—old fashioned, if you will—techniques, he managed to retain an individuality that enters into every note of his music. Equally amazing is the fact that in his hands the 19th-century technique sounded new and fresh. Poulenc’s music was very much of the 20th-century in its chic, its wit and sophistication, its use of certain modern textures spiked with dissonance.

“Happiness! It was, together with sadness, the basis of his character,” wrote Audel. There was indeed a serious side to Poulenc, and it increasingly found an outlet in his music in the aftermath of a traumatic shock he experienced in 1936, when one of his closest friends was decapitated in an automobile accident. Poulenc’s response was to plunge into introspection, and this led to a renewed interest in certain spiritual aspects of Roman Catholicism and to the production of numerous sacred compositions. Some of these emanate nothing but devoutness: His Litanies à la Vierge noire (Notre-Dame de Roc-Amadour), for chorus with organ or orchestra, written shortly after the accident, seems like a frightened wake-up call, a shower of cold-water Catholicism. But Poulenc’s spirituality would comprise his full personality, and that meant it needed to make room for laughter as well as piety, for jokes as well as prayers, and sometimes both at once. When he composed his famous Gloria in 1959-60, some eyebrows were raised over the uninhibited jollity that inhabits some of its pages. “When I wrote this piece,” Poulenc explained in a 1962 lecture, “I had in mind those frescoes by Gozzoli with angels sticking out their tongues. And also some serious Benedictine monks I had once seen reveling in a game of soccer.”

It is surely unfair to ask one single second of music to sum up the oeuvre of a composer as productive and multifaceted as Poulenc. Nonetheless, his Stabat Mater, which the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus performs this month as a tribute to the semicentenary of the composer’s passing, does offer a quintessential moment in which sacred and profane overlap in his unique way. The work’s seventh section, Eja Mater, is an allegro movement that is more cheery than we might expect, given that the text reads “Ah Mother, fountain of love, make me feel the force of your sorrow, so that I may mourn with you.” At least the singers deliver the words forthrightly, with no overweening irony. They end their declaration by retreating to a thoughtful stance via a decrescendo, but then the orchestra misbehaves. In two quick beats, a rude sound emanates from a small handful of instruments, the most prominent of which is a trombone, muted to sound a bit pinched, letting loose a slight upward glissando. The effect is as if a priest had audibly broken wind at precisely the moment when worshipers were expecting solemnity, the ecclesiastical equivalent of a child lobbing a ball into Schoenberg’s soup tureen. In 1950, the musicologist and critic Claude Rostand coined the description that best captured Poulenc’s particular combination of piety and impudence: le moine et le voyou, “half monk, half delinquent.”

Poulenc reconciled himself to the fact that critics did not place him among the first rank of composers. In a 1961 letter to his biographer Henri Hell, he wrote: “I know very well that I am not exactly in vogue but I need at least to be recognized. And this has happened. In any case, I think that in the future I will be played more often than Barraqué or Pousseur. After all, my music is not all that bad, although every now and then I do ask myself why I continue composing, and for whom? … The important thing is that these old compositions should stand the test of time. What counts is not what is played but what is played again and again!” In this regard, he needed not have worried. Here are some of Poulenc’s compositions that continue to be played “again and again”: among his orchestral works, his Piano Concerto, Organ Concerto, and Concerto for Two Pianos, as well as his music for the ballet Les biches; in his output of chamber music, his sonata for flute, for clarinet, and for oboe (in every case with piano), his Sonata for Piano Four-hands, his Sextet for Piano and Winds, and his Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano; from his solo-piano music, his Mouvements perpetuels and his Suite française. The choral repertory maintains a place of honor for his Gloria, Stabat Mater, Salve Regina, Litanies à la Vierge noire, Motets pour le temps de Noël, and Petites prières de St. François d’Assisi. Vocal recitalists regularly program his songs, touching hearts with such items as “C’est ainsi que tu es” and instigating smiles with that perpetual encore “Les chemins de l’amour.” His Dialogues des Carmélites, premiered in 1957, is a mainstay of the opera house; in fact, it is the most recent opera to have truly achieved international repertory status.

Francis Poulenc refused to be pigeonholed, although he entertained various aesthetic affiliations through the years. Still, he was adamant: “I am not a cubist musician, even less a futurist, and certainly not an impressionist. I’m a musician without a label.” He was not, however, a musician without a face. Usually his music is recognizable instantly. Certain phrase contours resurface throughout his work, seeming to follow him as a comforting presence from cradle to grave. In the grand scheme of music history, he did not move things forward. But where he stopped to rest, listeners have wanted to stop and rest with him.