Francis Poulenc had little formal training as a composer and once declared proudly: “Mon canon, c’est l’instinct” (My model is my instinct). Whatever the case, he was associated closely with some of the most important composers of pre-World War II Paris, including Darius Milhaud and Arthur Honegger. Poulenc, who lived in France under the Nazis, resisted the occupation through his music, composing throughout the war, and including patriotic themes in his works. His works are still often performed today, and his opera, Dialogues des Carmelites, in particular is regularly programmed in many opera houses. Poulenc is also famous for his collaborative performances with the renowned baritone Pierre Bernac
Growing up in Paris
Francis Poulenc was born to a well-to-do family in Paris on January 7, 1899. His father, Emile Poulenc, and his two brothers headed a chemical-pharmaceutical plant. Jenny Poulenc, Francis’s mother, who sang and played the piano, arranged for him to have piano lessons when he was five. However, his father wished for him to focus on academic pursuits; as a result, Poulenc never attended the conservatory.
Nonetheless his environment served as his music school. Living in Paris in the early twentieth century, Poulenc was at the heart of a tremendous amount of artistic activity and he was surrounded by friends and family who favored the avant-garde movements of the day. It was his uncle, for example, who took him to live performances of Igor Stravinsky’s ballets Petrouchka and the Rite of Spring.
Poulenc was still a teenager when, within two years, he lost both of his parents. At the age of eighteen and orphaned, the Parisian artistic circles became his new family. The creation of this new family was facilitated by the Spanish Catalan pianist Ricardo Viñes, to whom Poulenc was introduced at the age of fifteen by a friend of his mother. From 1914 to 1917, Viñes served as Poulenc’s mentor.
Viñes introduced the teenager to famous artists including the musicians Erik Satie, Manual de Falla, and Georges Auric, and the writer Jean Cocteau. A childhood friend, Raymonde Linossier, also took Poulenc to the salon-bookstore La Maison des Amis des Livres where he met, among others, the surrealist poets Louis Aragon, André Breton, Paul Eluard, and the celebrated Guillaume Apollinaire. The texts of Eluard and Apollinaire became a major source of inspiration for the composer throughout his life. It is also from this time period that several precious, life-long friendships between Poulenc and other talented French artists came into being. The contact with these artistic personalities as a teenager undoubtedly fostered Poulenc’s interest in composition, even though he lacked formal training in the discipline.
Successful Debuts as a Composer
In 1917, Poulenc’s song, Rapsodie Nègre, a work which emerged from the contemporary interest in “exotic” subjects and pseudo-primitive art, and which indeed pleased the audience, was performed at a concert. The work was dedicated to Satie, whom it delighted. Ravel attended the concert as well and is reported to have said, “what’s nice with Poulenc is that he makes up his own folklore.” Encouraged by this success, Poulenc continued to write music despite a three year period of mandatory military service.
Following a 1920 concert featuring works by Poulenc and his friends Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, and Germaine Tailleferre, music critic Henri Collet, coined the term “Groupe des Six,” in an allusion to the Russian “Group of Five.” However, this was not a formal group. Although the “Six” shared common artistic views, they never seemed especially willing to combine their strong individual characteristics as a group. Whatever the case, in the early 1920s Poulenc did participate in several group projects, namely ballets and theatrical productions, some of which involved all of the “Six.”
Around that time, Poulenc’s first attempts at orchestral writing, more demanding and complex than the small ensembles Poulenc had written up to that point, forced the composer to acknowledge some of his weaknesses as a self-trained musician. Thus, Poulenc turned to the music pedagogue Charles Koechlin for help and studied with him until 1925. Koechlin especially prescribed the study of J.S. Bach. Even with this additional and beneficial training, however, throughout his life Poulenc often stated that he did not wish to apply any fixed system when writing music.
His works from the 1920s include the ballet Les Biches (1923), commissioned by the Russia impresario Sergei Diaghilev, a Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano (1926), the harpsichord concerto, Concert champêtre, and the choreographed piano concerto, Aubade (1929). Poulenc also composed several works for solo piano and several cycles of mélodies (French art songs).
Adversity and Providence
On January 30, 1930, his dear friend Raymonde Linossier died. She and Poulenc had been the closest of friends since childhood, made comrades by their similar artistic natures (she had started her career as a lawyer, but soon devoted herself to writing and art history). Perhaps it was the realization in his late twenties that he was gay, along with a sincere attachment to her that compelled Poulenc to believe Raymonde to be the only woman he could possibly marry. In a 1929 letter to her sister, he confessed his intention to marry Raymonde and, terrified at the idea of losing her friendship if he revealed his feelings, begged her sister for some help. In all likelihood, Raymonde died before Poulenc could gather the courage to declare his love. Losing her, he also lost all sentimental interest in women and found himself practically unable to compose for the entire year. He returned to work only after receiving several commissions and consequently Poulenc’s reputation grew, resulting in invitations to foreign music festivals.
Unfortunately, these commissions did not prevent the composer from being troubled by financial difficulties. However, a new turn in his career occurred thanks to a fortuitous meeting with the French baritone Pierre Bernac. Following an impromptu collaboration in 1934, the two decided to form a piano-voice duo. They performed, toured and recorded extensively for the next twenty-five years; Poulenc composed most of his art songs specifically for these recitals.
In 1936 another personal experience generated important changes in Poulenc’s musical output. The accidental death of a young composer he knew caused him to reflect on the fragility of life. Poulenc was also disheartened by the general political climate of the time. It was under these circumstances that he decided to visit the sanctuary of Rocamadour, a visit that appears to have prompted a strong religious awakening in the composer. After this visit, Poulenc immediately devoted himself to composing sacred choral music.
Aside from piano music and an organ concerto, most of Poulenc’s output from the 1930s was vocal music. He wrote numerous mélodies, including the cycles, Tel jour telle nuit (1937) and Fiancailles pour rire (1939). For chorus he wrote the Litanies à la Vierge Noire (1936), the Messe en Sol (1937), and, written as the composer felt a new war approaching, Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (1938-9).
Poulenc was forty at the start of the Second World War and, being still being eligible, anticipated being drafted. Fortunately, the Ministry of Arts enrolled him and Bernac in a campaign of “musical propaganda.” After about a year at the Central Organization of Anti-Aerial Artillery in Bordeaux, Poulenc was decommissioned in July 1940, and spent the rest of the war composing in Noizay where he had owned a home since 1928.
During the war he undertook the writing of a series of large-scale works. Before the end of the war he had composed a new ballet, Les animaux modèles and the secular a cappella cantata for double chorus, Figure Humaine, which at the time he declared to be his best work so far. In both works, Poulenc was able to express his intellectual resistance to the occupation. The ballet, which premiered in the unavoidable presence of German officers in Paris (1942), contained a patriotic French theme, which, fortunately, remained unnoticed by them. The second work was much more explicit in its resistance. The text of Figure Humaine was a series of war poems by Paul Eluard. Thus the premiere was delayed until after the war.
Just after the war came the Mamelles de Tiresias, a comic opera (opéra bouffe), which some people felt was inappropriate for the post-war era, and therefore it was half-heartedly received. The next endeavors were another Piano Concerto (1949), the Stabat Mater (1950-1) and, from 1953 to 1956, the opera Dialogue des Carmélites was written.
While his professional life was blossoming, his personal life, however, entered a time of crisis. First, Poulenc faced a substantial amount of self-doubt when composing these works, especially Dialogue des Carmélites, even though he was by then a mature composer. Additionally, as he was progressing on the composition of the opera, a complex affair over the rights of the original play on which the opera was based compromised publication and production of the work. Overly stressed by the situation, Poulenc, who had some hypochondriac tendencies, convinced himself he was suffering from a serious illness. The final blow to his stability came when his male companion Lucien Roubert considered ending their six-year relationship.
By 1954 the composer, worn down from depression and subject to severe insomnia, was forced to seek medical help. Yet it was Lucien’s health that was ultimately quite frail. In 1955 he was diagnosed with cancer. The fact that his friend was facing death, just as the Carmelites of his opera were, strongly affected Poulenc. To the composer it seemed that Lucien’s fate was linked to the opera, a feeling reinforced when, after having finished recopying his final draft, he learned that Lucien had died that very morning.
After this painful episode, Poulenc struggled to find peace of mind. Yet, until 1959, his activities showed no sign of slowing down. That year, he and Bernac, who were both sixty-years-old, decided to retire from their combined performing careers, which had taken them all around Europe and, on several occasions, to New York City. Poulenc continued to accompany younger performers, especially his favorite soprano Denise Duval.
He completed his two last large-scale works, the “solo-opera” La Voix Humaine in 1958 and the choral piece Gloria in 1960. Between 1957 and 1962 he wrote mostly chamber music. The final Déploration (“Lament”) of his Oboe Sonata seems to have been his last piece of writing. On January 30, 1963, on the anniversary of Raymonde Linossier’s death, Poulenc died in his Parisian apartment. The cause of death was a heart attack.
- Muriel Gibala Maharidge
Chimène, Myriam: ‘Poulenc, Francis’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 20 August 2005), <http://www.grovemusic.com>
Ivry, Benjamin. Francis Poulenc. London: Phaidon, 1996.
Poulenc, Francis. My Friends and Myself: Conversations with Francis Poulenc. Ed. Stephane Audel. Trans. James Harding. London: Dobson, 1978.
Schmidt, Carl B. Entrancing Muse: A Documented Biography of Francis Poulenc. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2001.