Poulenc: Gloria


Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc was born January 7, 1899, in Paris, France, and died there January 30, 1963. He composed his Gloria from May 1959 through June 1960 on commission from the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress, and he dedicated it to the memory of Serge and Nathalie Koussevitzky. It received its first public performance January 20, 1961, at Boston’s Symphony Hall, with Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chorus Pro Musica (Alfred Nash Patterson, director), and soprano Adele Addison. The first San Francisco Symphony performances of Gloria, in April 1971, were led by Seiji Ozawa and featured soprano Lois Marshall, the Stanford University Choir, and the Stanford University Chorus. The most recent SFS performances, in September 1996, were conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, with the SFS Chorus and soprano Heidi Grant Murphy. The score calls for piccolo and two flutes (second also doubling piccolo), two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, strings, a four-part mixed chorus (sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses), and soprano soloist. Performance time: about twenty-five minutes.

Music lovers are accustomed to think of Francis Poulenc as a good-humored composer. Even so famous a work as his Gloria provides no impetus to revise that point of view, as the piece is largely ebullient rather than merely pious. It was this high-spirited aspect that defined Poulenc when he first gained public notice, at the moment when the deprivation of World War I was ceding to the buoyancy of the Roaring Twenties. That’s when he and five of his iconoclastic colleagues declared themselves to be a Société des nouveaux jeunes, a label that would give way to the more informal Groupe des Six. Though each of Les Six—Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey—ended up pursuing distinct paths, the jovial brashness they all shared in the early 1920s remained forever a part of Poulenc’s style.

But beginning in the 1930s, Poulenc also began to display a more introspective side. This development seemed to be sparked by the death, in 1930, of his close friend Raymonde Linossier, the only woman with whom he ever fell deeply in love. The sudden decease of another close friend, the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, sent Poulenc into a period of soul-searching and sparked his renewed interest in the Catholicism into which he had been born but which he had largely set aside. One result was his impulse to write religious music, an interest that would lead to a corpus of sacred choral music, both a cappella and accompanied, that includes his Litanies à la vierge noire (1936), Mass in G major (1937), Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (1938-39), Stabat Mater (1950-51), Gloria (1959-60), and finally his Sept répons des ténèbres (1962).

Certainly the sacred did not replace the secular in Poulenc’s output. Instead, we find him sometimes writing devoutly religious pieces, sometimes unabashedly worldly ones, and not infrequently allowing the aesthetics of those styles to intermingle. In a speech he delivered in 1962, he emphasized this cross-fertilization when describing how the character of his Gloria coalesced. Speaking of the work’s second movement (“Laudamus te”), he said: “The second movement caused a scandal. I wonder why? I was simply thinking, in writing it, of the Gozzoli frescoes in which the angels stick out their tongues; I was thinking also of the serious Benedictines whom I saw playing soccer one day.” He expanded on the fresco image, which relates to the decorations Benozzo Gozzoli painted circa 1460 in the Chapel of the Magi of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence: “If you go to Florence, if you go to the Riccardi Palace, if you go to admire the sublime Gozzoli frescoes of the angels, you will see a whole series of angels. And if you look at the angels very closely, there is one who is sticking out his tongue at his neighbor, right? I take the position that angels are not always well-behaved.” Whether this exact image actually exists may be open to question. Nonetheless, these angels are far from solemn. Instead, they resemble a children’s choir that has just returned to rehearsal and is still stoked up on recess. Inattention reins, and ones senses that the whole bunch of them could erupt into chaos at any moment. The important thing, though, is that Poulenc believed that one of them was sticking out its tongue at another, that it was real in his memory. In spirit, he was on the mark, and it is probably far from incidental that the golden halos of those very angels are inscribed with words plucked from the Gloria.

When the Koussevitzky Foundation first approached Poulenc about a commission, a wish was expressed that he might undertake a symphonic work. The idea didn’t appeal to him. After some back and forth, the foundation proposed that he write something entirely of his own choosing. Poulenc accepted, and in April 1959 his Gloria began to take form, even before the terms of the commission were formalized. That month, his devoted friend and musical partner Pierre Bernac sent him the Latin text of the Gloria along with a French translation. By the end of year the work was complete in piano score, and it reached it final, orchestrated state in June 1960.

It was decided that the Boston Symphony, the late Koussevitzky’s one-time orchestra, would perform the premiere, and that orchestra moved into action to put the piece on its schedule. In the ensuing flurry of correspondence, Poulenc expressed enthusiasm that the choral work would be entrusted to Boston’s Chorus Pro Musica, since its director, Alfred Nash Patterson, had previously conducted a number of the composer’s compositions. Apparently Leontyne Price was desired as the soloist, but when she proved unavailable the job went instead to Adele Addison; in the event, she magnificently fulfilled Poulenc’s admonition that “the soloist should have the exact voice of Desdemona, which is to say a warm but pianissimo high register.” Poulenc signed on to appear in the same concert as one of the two soloists in his Concerto for Two Pianos, and he agreed to attend and advise at the rehearsals for the Gloria, at which he was looking forward to crossing paths again with his old friend Charles Munch, who had succeeded Koussevitzky as the Boston Symphony’s conductor.

The reviews of the premiere were ecstatic, and they may have meant more to the composer than almost any others in his career. “Thank the Lord the Gloria was considered important,” he wrote to the French critic Henri Hell, who had recently published a Poulenc biography. “I know full well that I am not considered in vogue but at least I need to be recognized. And this has happened.”

Poulenc divides the liturgical text of the Gloria into six sections that are organized rather in pairs. The second and fourth movements reveal Poulenc in his lighthearted mood, while the third and fifth are pious in their bearing. These are framed by the first movement, in which a positive spirit is ennobled by a degree of monumentality, and the sixth, which makes use of both of these contrasting attitudes and recalls some music from the opening section, which provides a nice balance to what the composer described as “a large choral symphony.”

Not infrequently, the Gloria bespeaks Poulenc’s admiration of Stravinsky, who had been the lodestar for all the composers of Les Six when they came of age circa 1920. The opening movement has something of that earlier flavor, its forthright neo-classicism here extending to double-dotted, maestoso fanfare figures that summon up the idea of a French Baroque overture. The two measures (scored for winds alone) that conclude the orchestra’s introduction could almost have been plucked from Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments. These herald the entry of the chorus, which wends its way fluidly through a thicket of harmonic centers, always preserving a tone of jubilation.

Already in the first movement Poulenc has doled out his music in relatively short phrases. This tendency becomes even more pronounced in the playful “Laudamus te.” The brief phrases are constantly revisited and reassembled, though Poulenc often injects slight changes are they recur, which keeps performers on their toes and listeners on the alert.

Small cells of music continue to be the norm throughout the piece. In the “Domine Deus” movement, their material is perfectly in tune with the prayerful posture of the soprano soloist. If the music up to this point has reminded us of an earlier, somewhat obstreperous Poulenc, this movement could only be a work of his more sobering maturity. After this expanse of entreaty, the “Domine fili unigenite” breaks forth with vibrant buoyancy and passes by in a flash. Now the “pious Poulenc” returns, in “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei.” In its opening measures, the clarinet proposes an embellished octave leap that is one of Poulenc’s musical fingerprints, frequently encountered in his scores and soon to appear with heartbreaking purpose in his end-of-life sonatas for oboe and for clarinet. The soprano soloist also takes up a variant on the same, to haunting, mystical effect. The concluding section,” Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris”—again opening maestoso—includes not only references to music heard earlier, but also provides some new sounds. At the words “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” the choir sings a cappella in tight four-part harmony, much in the mode of Poulenc’s more severe choral compositions. In the work’s closing minutes, the soprano intones a fervent “Amen” and joins with the chorus to conclude in a spirit of harmonic luxury (reminiscent of Ravel), ardent sincerity, and transcendent calm.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Charles Dutoit conducting the of French Radio Chorus, French National Orchestra, and soprano Françoise Pollet (Decca)  |  Stephen Layton conducting the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, the Polyphony vocal ensemble, the Britten Sinfonia, and soprano Susan Gritton (Hyperion)  |  Georges Prêtre conducting the ORTF National Orchestra and Chorus, with soprano Rosanna Carteri (EMI, either on its own or as part of a recommendable bargain-priced, 20-CD set of Poulenc’s complete works)  |  Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with soprano Sylvia McNair (Telarc)

Reading: Entrancing Muse: A Documented Biography of Francis Poulenc, by Carl B. Schmidt (Pendragon Press)  |  The Music of Francis Poulenc: A Catalogue,by Mr. Schmidt (Oxford)  |  Francis Poulenc, by Wilfred Mellers (Oxford)  |  Francis Poulenc: Music, Art, and Literature,edited by Sidney Buckland and Myriam Chimènes (Ashgate)  |  “Echo and Source”: Selected Correspondence 1915-1968, letters translated and edited by Buckland (Gollancz)

(May 2014)