This Week in Music History: Francis Poulenc is born (1899)

The start of a year, the end of a century: Francis Poulenc was born on January 7, 1899.

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark.

The start of a year, the end of a century: Francis Poulenc was born in Paris on January 7, 1899. He believed that he inherited his artistic talents from his mother, while from his father, originally from Aveyron in the south of France, he took his Catholic faith. But his musical style, formed in the chaotic early decades of the 20th century, was his own.

Les Six, by J. E. Blanche, 1922.

Poulenc’s teacher in the 1910s was the pianist Ricardo Viñes, renowned as a champion of the music of Debussy and Ravel. Through him, the young composer made the acquaintance of many luminaries of Paris’s artistic world—including the influential yet mysterious Erik Satie. Poulenc became a part of the group known as “Les Six”—six more or less like-minded composers, somewhat guided by Jean Cocteau as well as Satie, whose musical styles diverged from the “Impressionism” that was de rigeur at the time.

There’s a hint of Stravinsky about much of Poulenc’s work, especially the Neoclassical Stravinsky of the 1920s and later: they share a fondness for clear textures and a desire to avoid the extremes of harmonic complexity typical of, for instance, Arnold Schoenberg. And there’s also a very distinctive emphasis on melody in Poulenc’s music. His slow movements, especially, often contain simple melodies that are heartbreakingly wistful. That’s as true of the Concerto for Two Pianos, written in 1932, as it is of the Flute Sonata of 1957. He performed both of these works himself, as you can see from the archival footage above and below:

Given his melodic gifts, it’s perhaps no surprise that he was a particularly fine composer of mélodies, or French songs. He was the ideal composer to set the brilliant poets of his generation such as Apollinaire and Cocteau, and singers and pianists alike have long loved to interpret these witty miniatures. “Les gars qui vont à la fête,” to words by Maurice Fombeure, is a typically sprightly example:

Poulenc’s apparent light-heartedness conceals a more earnest undercurrent. He wrote much beautifully soulful sacred music, and among his operas is Dialogues des Carmélites, which is startling proof that his easygoing compositional style can support a tragic story. A contradiction? Perhaps it wasn’t to Poulenc himself. “Remaining true to my nature, I do what touches my heart, what suits me, what pleases me,” he said in 1961.

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