Poulenc: Stabat Mater

Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc was born January 7, 1899, in Paris, France, and died there on January 30, 1963, fifty years ago last week. He composed his Stabat Mater during the summer of 1950 in Noizay, in the Loire Valley, and completed its orchestration on April 22, 1951. It received its first public performance on June 13, 1951, at the Strasbourg Festival, with Fritz Münch conducting the Choeurs de Saint-Guillaume, the Orchestre Municipal de Strasbourg, and soprano Geneviève Moizan. These are the first San Francisco Symphony performances.  The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, two harps, strings, a five-part mixed chorus (sopranos, altos, tenors, baritones, and basses), and soprano soloist. Performance time: about thirty-five minutes.

Music lovers are trained to think of Francis Poulenc first and foremost as a comic composer. Through much of his career he provided an outpouring of entertaining works that trigger appreciative chortles, forthright guffaws, and even eruptions of uncontrolled hilarity. 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 shared in the early 1920’s remained forever a part of Poulenc’s style.

But beginning in the 1930s Poulenc also began to display a more introspective side, a development that 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. In 1936, the sudden decease of another friend, the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, sent Poulenc into a period of soul-searching and a renewed interest in the Catholicism he had largely set aside. One immediate result was a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Rocamadour in Quercy, renowned for its wooden carving of the Black Madonna and its presumed capacities for miraculous healing. Another was his impulse to write religious music, an interest that would lead to a corpus of sacred choral music, both a-cappella and accompanied.

Certainly the sacred did not replace the secular in Poulenc’s output. Instead, from that time on we find him sometimes writing devoutly religious pieces, sometimes unabashedly worldly ones—and often allowing the aesthetics of those styles to intermingle. We find Poulenc adhering to an essentially devout stance almost throughout his Stabat Mater, but even this solemn work breaks character just a bit, most noticeably in the “Eja Mater” section. This short movement is not at all what we would expect as a setting of words, “Ah Mother, fountain of love, make me feel the force of your sorrow, so that I may mourn with you.” It is perky and positive, and it ends with a little glissando fillip from the first trombone that sounds downright disrespectful. One recalls the comment Poulenc would make about his Gloria; he explained its frivolity with the explanation, “I was thinking when I composed it of these frescoes by Gozzoli with angels sticking out their tongues ….”

Nonetheless, the Stabat Mater remains an overwhelmingly serious and pious work. “I feel very much at home with it,” he wrote to his friend the pianist Marguerite Long as he was finishing the piece, “and I hope I can touch those who like prayers.” The immediate impetus for its composition was the passing of the artist Christian Bérard, who died suddenly at the age of forty-six, on February 11, 1949. Bérard, who was widely identified by the nickname Bébé, was well known as a fashion illustrator (producing work for Coco Chanel, Nina Ricci, and Elsa Schiaparelli, among others) and as a theatrical designer, most memorably for Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et le Bête.

In an interview with the French journalist Paul Guth, published in 1952 in Le Figaro littéraire, Poulenc explained: “A requiem would have looked like a funeral service for Bérard, the grandson of the undertaker of Borniol. A Stabat Mater, as a prayer of intercession, seemed to me more suitable. I thought about it for a long time, but I wrote it very quickly during the summer of 1950, just after writing a piano concerto in a very irreverent style, which provoked a lot of biting criticism.” Poulenc seemed surprised by the fluency with which the piece unrolled. On August 29, 1950, he wrote to the baritone Pierre Bernac, his lifelong confidant, “The Stabat is going at such a speed that it is certainly a miracle of Rocamadour.”

A hymn of great sanctity in the Roman Catholic Church, the Stabat Mater seemingly dates to the thirteenth century. The verse poem, which describes Mary the Mother mourning her crucified son, has often been attributed to the friar and poet Jacopone da Todi (ca.1230-1306), but few scholars give credence to that today. By the fifteenth century, the Stabat Mater began to be used liturgically as a sequence connected with the Mass of the Compassion of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was excised from the liturgy in the mid-sixteenth century by the Council of Trent but was restored by Pope Benedict XIII in 1727. At that time the piece took its place as a hymn at two points of the liturgical year, in the Offices of the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary (September 15) and of the Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent (i.e., the Friday before Palm Sunday). Today it remains as an optional text for the former celebration. It is no longer used as a formal part of Lenten liturgies, but it is nonetheless often recited or sung at that season in connection with observations of the Stations of the Cross. Many notable composers have set the Stabat Mater, with memorable examples coming from the pens of Josquin, Palestrina, Lassus, both Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Haydn, Rossini, Liszt, Dvořák, Verdi, Szymanowski, and Penderecki, to select from a list that numbers in the hundreds. Even in such a roster, Poulenc’s Stabat Mater stands as irreplaceable.

Poulenc divides the poem into twelve movements and he invests each with a distinctive character, every section assuming a fresh stance in terms of orchestration, tempo, and even key, with consecutive movements sometimes pitched a semitone distant from one another. The result is a quick-moving work that never allows the listener to settle into a single mood for a long expanse. Half the movements typically run less than three minutes each, and the remaining ones are not much longer.

The sober opening section, “Stabat Mater dolorosa,” invites an attitude of quietude and contemplation. The orchestral strings announce a melodic-rhythmic pattern of eighth-notes in slurred pairs, suggestive of sighing, and when the chorus enters it, too, employs wavering motifs and a melody that includes falling intervals of thirds. Poulenc has chosen to use a five-part chorus, expanding the standard four-voice disposition by dividing the men into tenors, baritones, and basses. The result is a choral texture in which the center of gravity is moved toward lower pitch levels, with a concomitant increase in the warmth of the overall choral timbre. Throughout this work, the choral and instrumental parts are essentially independent; on the rare occasions when instruments double a choral line, the overlap is brief, sometimes not even persisting for an entire phrase.

Intervals of thirds also inform the second movement, “Cujus animam gementem,” but the character changes to a vicious outburst that describes the suffering of the son. “O quam tristis” focuses on the chorus, the orchestral punctuations seeming secondary in this gentle expanse. Listening to “Quae moerebat” without taking note of the text, one would not imagine that the topic is a mother mourning, trembling at the sight of her suffering son. Still, Poulenc’s graceful setting is as beautiful as it is unlikely.

In “Quis est homo” the tonality is characteristically unsettled, combining with the frenetic tempo and the variegated melodic material to suggest the hysteria and confusion suggested by the words. At the end of every movement, by the way, Poulenc notes whether the performers should observe a short or a long silence—or a very short one, or none at all. Here he asks for a long one; he is preparing his audience for something entirely new in “Vidit suum.” The “something new” is the solo soprano, who is heard in only three movements of the Stabat Mater yet contributes immensely to the overall flavor of the piece. “The Agnus Dei of my Mass was a soprano solo in a disembodied style,” he told an interviewer. “The soprano solos of my Stabat are, to the contrary, in a very human style, very expressive . . . .”

The good-humored “Eja mater” follows, with its flippant ending, then the formal, restrained “Fac ut ardeat” for a cappella chorus except for cadential punctuation from the muted orchestra. “Sancta Mater” includes some of the most dramatic scene-painting in this work, its beseeching words being underscored by a succession of transitory musical ideas.

The opening measures of “Fac ut portem” provide a fleeting allusion to Bach, and particularly to the Saint Matthew Passion.

A sense of terror returns with “Inflammatus et accensus,” which follows without any break. Indeed, the last three movements unfurl attacca, as a single unit. The final movement, “Quando corpus,” rises to the level of ecstatic transcendence at the words “Paradisi gloria,” where the poet prays for the salvation of his own soul.

Poulenc retained deep fondness for his Stabat Mater until the end of his life. On March 26, 1962, less than a year from his death, he wrote to Bernac: “I have finished Les Ténèbres. . . . With Gloria and the Stabat I think I have three good religious works. May they spare me a few days of purgatory, if I do narrowly avoid going to hell.”

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Charles Dutoit conducting the French National Radio Chorus, French National Orchestra, and soprano Françoise Pollet (Decca)  │  Georges Prêtre conducting the René Duclos Chorus, ORTF National Orchestra, and soprano Régine Crespin (EMI)  │  Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting the BBC Singers, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and soprano Janice Watson (Chandos)

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