“Like his name he was both dapper and ungainly. His clothes came from Lanvin but were unpressed; his hands were scrubbed, but the fingernails were bitten to the bone. His physiognomy showed a cross between weasel and trumpet, and featured a large nose through which he wittily spoke.” So begins American composer Ned Rorem’s tribute to Francis Poulenc, written shortly after Poulenc’s death in 1963 from a sudden heart attack at the age of sixty-four. Rorem, ever the astute observer of character, knew Poulenc’s smorgasbord of contradictions only too well, having experienced any number of them first hand.
As the man, so the art: Francis Poulenc wrote music that is deliberately, decidedly, and deliciously bipolar. Master of the mood swing, self-contradictory and sometimes maddeningly inconsistent, he nevertheless developed an overall style that is utterly unmistakable. He had no truck with the arcane ruminations of the Second Viennese School, nor did he ever stray far from elemental tonality, even preferring the ancient Gregorian modes over chromaticism. “I know perfectly well that I’m not one of those composers who have made harmonic innovations like Stravinsky, Ravel, or Debussy,” he wrote in 1942, “but I think there’s room for new music which doesn’t mind using other people’s chords. Wasn’t that the case with Mozart–Schubert?”
Poulenc was more a winds guy than a strings guy when it came to instrumental music. Having abandoned numerous attempts at a string sonata, he required abundant encouragement (i.e.,constant nagging) from violinist Ginette Neveu to finish his one and only violin sonata, which he referred to as “the monster.” Written in memory of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (1899–1936), the sonata threads a distinctly bittersweet affect throughout Poulenc’s typically lyrical and gracious style. The second-place Intermezzo stands at the sonata’s heart, with its redolent Spanish ambiance and tragic overall mood that reflects the García Lorca quote at its head: “The guitar makes dreams cry.”—Scott Foglesong
Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.
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