Poulenc was born in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, the son of Émile Poulenc and his wife, Jenny, née Royer. Émile Poulenc was a joint owner of the Poulenc Frères, a successful manufacturer of pharmaceuticals (later Rhône-Poulenc). He was a member of a pious Roman Catholic family from Espalion in the département of Aveyron. Jenny Poulenc was from a Parisian family with wide artistic interests. In Poulenc's view, the two sides of his nature grew out of this background: a deep religious faith from his father's family and a worldly and artistic side from his mother's. The critic Claude Rostand later described Poulenc as "half monk and half naughty boy".[n 1]
The Place des Saussaies, Paris, where Poulenc was born
Poulenc grew up in a musical household; his mother was a capable pianist, with a wide repertoire ranging from classical to less elevated works. In the words of biographer Henri Hell, this gave him a lifelong taste for what he called "adorable bad music".[n 2] He took piano lessons from the age of five; when he was eight he first heard the music of Debussy and was fascinated by the originality of the sound. Other composers whose works influenced his development were Schubert and Stravinsky: the former's Winterreise and the latter's The Rite of Spring made a deep impression on him. At his father's insistence, Poulenc followed a conventional school career, studying at the Lycée Condorcet in Paris rather than at a music conservatory.
In 1916 a childhood friend, Raymonde Linossier (1897–1930), introduced Poulenc to Adrienne Monnier's bookshop, the Maison des Amis des Livres. There he met the avant-garde poets Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Paul Éluard and Louis Aragon. He later set many of their poems to music. In the same year he became the pupil of the pianist Ricardo Viñes. The biographer Henri Hell comments that Viñes's influence on his pupil was profound, both as to pianistic technique and the style of Poulenc's keyboard works. Poulenc later said of Viñes:
He was a most delightful man, a bizarre hidalgo with enormous moustachios, a flat-brimmed sombrero in the purest Spanish style, and button boots which he used to rap my shins when I didn't change the pedalling enough. ... I admired him madly, because, at this time, in 1914, he was the only virtuoso who played Debussy and Ravel. That meeting with Viñes was paramount in my life: I owe him everything ... In reality it is to Viñes that I owe my fledgling efforts in music and everything I know about the piano.
When Poulenc was sixteen his mother died; his father died two years later. Viñes became more than a teacher: he was, in the words of Myriam Chimènes in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the young man's "spiritual mentor". He encouraged his pupil to compose, and he later gave the premieres of three early Poulenc works.[n 3] Through him Poulenc became friendly with two composers who helped shape his early development: Georges Auric and Erik Satie.
Auric, who was the same age as Poulenc, was an early developer musically; by the time the two met, Auric's music had already been performed at important Parisian concert venues. The two young composers shared a similar musical outlook and enthusiasms, and for the rest of Poulenc's life Auric was his most trusted friend and guide. Poulenc called him "my true brother in spirit". Satie, an eccentric figure, isolated from the mainstream French musical establishment, was a mentor to several rising young composers, including Auric, Louis Durey and Arthur Honegger. After initially dismissing Poulenc as a bourgeois amateur, he relented and admitted him to the circle of protégés, whom he called "Les Nouveaux Jeunes". Poulenc described Satie's influence on him as "immediate and wide, on both the spiritual and musical planes". The pianist Alfred Cortot commented that Poulenc's Trois mouvements perpétuels were "reflections of the ironical outlook of Satie adapted to the sensitive standards of the current intellectual circles".
First compositions and Les Six
Poulenc made his début as a composer in 1917 with his Rapsodie nègre, a ten-minute, five-movement piece for baritone and chamber group;[n 4] it was dedicated to Satie and premiered at one of a series of concerts of new music run by the singer Jane Bathori. There was a fashion for African arts in Paris at the time, and Poulenc was delighted to run across some published verses purportedly Liberian, but full of Parisian boulevard slang. He used one of the poems in two sections of the rhapsody. The baritone engaged for the first performance lost his nerve on the platform, and the composer, though no singer, jumped in. This jeu d'esprit was the first of many examples of what Anglophone critics came to call "leg-Poulenc".[n 5] Ravel was amused by the piece and commented on Poulenc's ability to invent his own folklore. Stravinsky was impressed enough to use his influence to secure Poulenc a contract with a publisher, a kindness that Poulenc never forgot.
In 1917 Poulenc got to know Ravel well enough to have serious discussions with him about music. He was dismayed by Ravel's judgments, which exalted composers whom Poulenc thought little of above those he greatly admired.[n 6] He told Satie of this unhappy encounter; Satie replied with a dismissive epithet for Ravel who, he said, talked "a load of rubbish".[n 7] For many years Poulenc was equivocal about Ravel's music, though always respecting him as a man. Ravel's modesty about his own music particularly appealed to Poulenc, who sought throughout his life to follow Ravel's example.[n 8]
From January 1918 to January 1921 Poulenc was a conscript in the French Army in the last months of the First World War and the immediate post-war period. Between July and October 1918 he served at the Franco-German front, after which he was given a series of auxiliary posts, ending as a typist at the Ministry of Aviation. His duties allowed him time for composition; the Trois mouvements perpétuels for piano and the Sonata for Piano Duet were written at the piano of the local elementary school at Saint-Martin-sur-le-Pré, and he completed his first song cycle, Le bestiaire, setting poems by Apollinaire. The sonata did not create a deep public impression, but the song cycle made the composer's name known in France, and the Trois mouvements perpétuels rapidly became an international success. The exigencies of music-making in wartime taught Poulenc much about writing for whatever instruments were available; then, and later, some of his works were for unusual combinations of players.
At this stage in his career Poulenc was conscious of his lack of academic musical training; the critic and biographer Jeremy Sams writes that it was the composer's good luck that the public mood was turning against late-romantic lushness in favour of the "freshness and insouciant charm" of his works, technically unsophisticated though they were. Four of Poulenc's early works were premiered at the Salle Huyghens in the 14th arrondissement of Paris (Montparnasse area), where between 1917 and 1920 the cellist Félix Delgrange presented concerts of music by young composers. Among them were Auric, Durey, Honegger, Darius Milhaud and Germaine Tailleferre who, with Poulenc, became known collectively as "Les Six". After one of their concerts, the critic Henri Collet published an article titled, "The Five Russians, the Six Frenchmen and Satie". According to Milhaud:
In completely arbitrary fashion Collet chose the names of six composers, Auric, Durey, Honegger, Poulenc, Tailleferre and myself, for no other reason than that we knew each other, that we were friends and were represented in the same programmes, but without the slightest concern for our different attitudes and our different natures. Auric and Poulenc followed the ideas of Cocteau, Honegger was a product of German Romanticism and my leanings were towards a Mediterranean lyrical art ... Collet's article made such a wide impression that the Groupe des Six had come into being.[n 9]
Cocteau, though similar in age to Les Six, was something of a father-figure to the group. His literary style, "paradoxical and lapidary" in Hell's phrase, was anti-romantic, concise and irreverent. It greatly appealed to Poulenc, who made his first setting of Cocteau's words in 1919 and his last in 1961. When members of Les Six collaborated with each other, they contributed their own individual sections to the joint work. Their 1920 piano suite L'Album des Six consists of six separate and unrelated pieces. Their 1921 ballet Les mariés de la tour Eiffel contains three sections by Milhaud, two apiece by Auric, Poulenc and Tailleferre, one by Honegger and none by Durey, who was already distancing himself from the group.
In the early 1920s Poulenc remained concerned at his lack of formal musical training. Satie was suspicious of music colleges, but Ravel advised Poulenc to take composition lessons; Milhaud suggested the composer and teacher Charles Koechlin.[n 10] Poulenc worked with him intermittently from 1921 to 1925.
1920s: increasing fame
From the early 1920s Poulenc was well received abroad, particularly in Britain, both as a performer and a composer. In 1921 Ernest Newman wrote in The Manchester Guardian, "I keep my eye on Francis Poulenc, a young man who has only just arrived at his twenties. He ought to develop into a farceur of the first order." Newman said that he had rarely heard anything so deliciously absurd as parts of Poulenc's song cycle Cocardes, with its accompaniment played by the unorthodox combination of cornet, trombone, violin and percussion. In 1922 Poulenc and Milhaud travelled to Vienna to meet Alban Berg, Anton Webern and Arnold Schönberg. Neither of the French composers was influenced by their Austrian colleagues' revolutionary twelve-tone system, but they admired the three as its leading proponents. The following year Poulenc received a commission from Serge Diaghilev for a full-length ballet score. He decided that the theme would be a modern version of the classical French fête galante. This work, Les biches, was an immediate success, first in Monte Carlo in January 1924 and then in Paris in May, under the direction of André Messager; it has remained one of Poulenc's best-known scores. Poulenc's new celebrity after the success of the ballet was the unexpected cause of his estrangement from Satie: among the new friends Poulenc made was Louis Laloy, a writer whom Satie regarded with implacable enmity. Auric, who had just enjoyed a similar triumph with a Diaghilev ballet, Les Fâcheux, was also repudiated by Satie for becoming a friend of Laloy.
As the decade progressed, Poulenc produced a range of compositions, from songs to chamber music and another ballet, Aubade. Hell suggests that Koechlin's influence occasionally inhibited Poulenc's natural simple style, and that Auric offered useful guidance to help him appear in his true colours. At a concert of music by the two friends in 1926, Poulenc's songs were sung for the first time by the baritone Pierre Bernac, from whom, in Hell's phrase, "the name of Poulenc was soon to be inseparable." Another performer with whom the composer came to be closely associated was the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. He heard her as the soloist in Falla's El retablo de maese Pedro (1923), an early example of the use of a harpsichord in a modern work, and was immediately taken with the sound. At Landowska's request he wrote a concerto, the Concert champêtre, which she premiered in 1929 with the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris conducted by Pierre Monteux.
The biographer Richard D. E. Burton comments that, in the late 1920s, Poulenc might have seemed to be in an enviable position: professionally successful and independently well-off, having inherited a substantial fortune from his father. He bought a large country house, Le Grande Coteau, at Noizay, Indre-et-Loire, 140 miles (230 km) south-west of Paris, where he retreated to compose in peaceful surroundings. Yet he was troubled, struggling to come to terms with his sexuality, which was predominantly homosexual. His first serious affair was with the painter Richard Chanlaire, to whom he sent a copy of the Concert champêtre score inscribed, "You have changed my life, you are the sunshine of my thirty years, a reason for living and working". Nevertheless, while this affair was in progress Poulenc proposed marriage to his friend Raymonde Linossier. As she was not only well aware of his homosexuality but was also romantically attached elsewhere, she refused him, and their relationship became strained. He suffered the first of many periods of depression, which affected his ability to compose, and he was devastated in January 1930 when Linossier died suddenly at the age of 32. On her death he wrote, "All my youth departs with her, all that part of my life that belonged only to her. I sob ... I am now twenty years older". His affair with Chanlaire petered out in 1931, though they remained lifelong friends.
1930s: new seriousness
At the start of the decade, Poulenc returned to writing songs, after a two-year break from doing so. His "Epitaphe", to a poem by Malherbe, was written in memory of Linossier, and is described by the pianist Graham Johnson as "a profound song in every sense".[n 11] The following year Poulenc wrote three sets of songs, to words by Apollinaire and Max Jacob, some of which were serious in tone, and others reminiscent of his earlier light-hearted style, as were others of his works of the early 1930s. In 1932 his music was among the first to be broadcast on television, in a transmission by the BBC in which Reginald Kell and Gilbert Vinter played his Sonata for clarinet and bassoon. At about this time Poulenc began a relationship with Raymond Destouches, a chauffeur; as with Chanlaire earlier, what began as a passionate affair changed into a deep and lasting friendship. Destouches, who married in the 1950s, remained close to Poulenc until the end of the composer's life.
, which inspired Poulenc to compose religious works
Two unrelated events in 1936 combined to inspire a reawakening of religious faith and a new depth of seriousness in Poulenc's music. His fellow composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud was killed in a car crash so violent that he was decapitated, and almost immediately afterwards, while on holiday, Poulenc visited the sanctuary of Rocamadour. He later explained:
A few days earlier I'd just heard of the tragic death of my colleague ... As I meditated on the fragility of our human frame, I was drawn once more to the life of the spirit. Rocamadour had the effect of restoring me to the faith of my childhood. This sanctuary, undoubtedly the oldest in France ... had everything to captivate me ... The same evening of this visit to Rocamadour, I began my Litanies à la Vierge noire for female voices and organ. In that work I tried to get across the atmosphere of "peasant devotion" that had struck me so forcibly in that lofty chapel.
Other works that followed continued the composer's new-found seriousness, including many settings of Éluard's surrealist and humanist poems. In 1937 he composed his first major liturgical work, the Mass in G major for soprano and mixed choir a cappella, which has become the most frequently performed of all his sacred works. Poulenc's new compositions were not all in this serious vein; his incidental music to the play La Reine Margot, starring Yvonne Printemps, was pastiche 16th-century dance music, and became popular under the title Suite française. Music critics generally continued to define Poulenc by his light-hearted works, and it was not until the 1950s that his serious side was widely recognised.
In 1936 Poulenc began giving frequent recitals with Bernac. At the École Normale in Paris they gave the premiere of Poulenc's Cinq poèmes de Paul Éluard. They continued to perform together for more than twenty years, in Paris and internationally, until Bernac's retirement in 1959. Poulenc, who composed 90 songs for his collaborator, considered him one of the "three great meetings" of his professional career, the other two being Éluard and Landowska.[n 12] In Johnson's words, "for twenty-five years Bernac was Poulenc's counsellor and conscience", and the composer relied on him for advice not only on song-writing, but on his operas and choral music.
Throughout the decade, Poulenc was popular with British audiences; he established a fruitful relationship with the BBC in London, which broadcast many of his works. With Bernac, he made his first tour of Britain in 1938. His music was also popular in America, seen by many as "the quintessence of French wit, elegance and high spirits". In the last years of the 1930s, Poulenc's compositions continued to vary between serious and light-hearted works. Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (Four Penitential Motets, 1938–39) and the song "Bleuet" (1939), an elegiac meditation on death, contrast with the song cycle Fiançailles pour rire (Light-Hearted Betrothal), which recaptures the spirit of Les biches, in the opinion of Hell.
1940s: war and post-war
Poulenc was briefly a soldier again during the Second World War; he was called up on 2 June 1940 and served in an anti-aircraft unit at Bordeaux. After France surrendered to Germany, Poulenc was demobilised from the army on 18 July 1940. He spent the summer of that year with family and friends at Brive-la-Gaillarde in south-central France. In the early months of the war, he had composed little new music, instead re-orchestrating Les biches and reworking his 1932 Sextet for piano and winds. At Brive-la-Gaillarde he began three new works, and once back at his home in Noizay in October he started on a fourth. These were L'Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant for piano and narrator, the Cello Sonata, the ballet Les Animaux modèles and the song cycle Banalités.
, Paris, where Les Animaux modèles
was premiered in 1942
For most of the war, Poulenc was in Paris, giving recitals with Bernac, concentrating on French songs.[n 13] Under Nazi rule he was in a vulnerable position, as a known homosexual (Destouches narrowly avoided arrest and deportation), but in his music he made many gestures of defiance of the Germans. He set to music verses by poets prominent in the French Resistance, including Aragon and Éluard. In Les Animaux modèles, premiered at the Opéra in 1942, he included the tune, repeated several times, of the anti-German song "Vous n'aurez pas l'Alsace et la Lorraine".[n 14] He was a founder-member of the Front National (pour musique) which the Nazi authorities viewed with suspicion for its association with banned musicians such as Milhaud and Paul Hindemith. In 1943 he wrote a cantata for unaccompanied double choir intended for Belgium, Figure humaine, setting eight of Éluard's poems. The work, ending with "Liberté", could not be given in France while the Germans were in control; its first performance was broadcast from a BBC studio in London in March 1945, and it was not sung in Paris until 1947. The music critic of The Times later wrote that the work "is among the very finest choral works of our time and in itself removes Poulenc from the category of petit maître to which ignorance has generally been content to relegate him."
In January 1945, commissioned by the French government, Poulenc and Bernac flew from Paris to London, where they received an enthusiastic welcome. The London Philharmonic Orchestra gave a reception in the composer's honour; he and Benjamin Britten were the soloists in a performance of Poulenc's Double Piano Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall; with Bernac he gave recitals of French mélodies and piano works at the Wigmore Hall and the National Gallery, and recorded for the BBC. Bernac was overwhelmed by the public's response; when he and Poulenc stepped out on the Wigmore Hall stage, "the audience rose and my emotion was such that instead of beginning to sing, I began to weep." After their fortnight's stay, the two returned home on the first boat-train to leave London for Paris since May 1940.
In Paris, Poulenc completed his scores for L'Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant and his first opera, Les mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias), a short opéra bouffe of about an hour's duration. The work is a setting of Apollinaire's play of the same name, staged in 1917. Sams describes the opera as "high-spirited topsy-turveydom" concealing "a deeper and sadder theme – the need to repopulate and rediscover a France ravaged by war". It was premiered in June 1947 at the Opéra-Comique, and was a critical success, but did not prove popular with the public.[n 15] The leading female role was taken by Denise Duval, who became the composer's favourite soprano, frequent recital partner and dedicatee of some of his music. He called her the nightingale who made him cry ("Mon rossignol à larmes").
Shortly after the war, Poulenc had a brief affair with a woman, Fréderique ("Freddy") Lebedeff, with whom he had a daughter, Marie-Ange, in 1946. The child was brought up without knowing who her father was (Poulenc was supposedly her "godfather") but he made generous provision for her, and she was the principal beneficiary of his will.
In the post-war period Poulenc crossed swords with composers of the younger generation who rejected Stravinsky's recent work and insisted that only the precepts of the Second Viennese School were valid. Poulenc defended Stravinsky and expressed incredulity that "in 1945 we are speaking as if the aesthetic of twelve tones is the only possible salvation for contemporary music". His view that Berg had taken serialism as far as it could go and that Schoenberg's music was now "desert, stone soup, ersatz music, or poetic vitamins" earned him the enmity of composers such as Pierre Boulez.[n 16] Those disagreeing with Poulenc attempted to paint him as a relic of the pre-war era, frivolous and unprogressive. This led him to focus on his more serious works, and to try to persuade the French public to listen to them. In the US and Britain, with their strong choral traditions, his religious music was frequently performed, but performances in France were much rarer, so that the public and the critics were often unaware of his serious compositions.[n 17]
In 1948 Poulenc made his first visit to the US, in a two-month concert tour with Bernac. He returned there frequently until 1961, giving recitals with Bernac or Duval and as soloist in the world premiere of his Piano Concerto (1949), commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
1950–63: The Carmelites and last years
Poulenc began the 1950s with a new partner in his private life, Lucien Roubert, a travelling salesman. Professionally Poulenc was productive, writing a seven-song cycle setting poems by Éluard, La Fraîcheur et le feu (1950), and the Stabat Mater, in memory of the painter Christian Bérard, composed in 1950 and premiered the following year.
In 1953, Poulenc was offered a commission by La Scala and the Milanese publisher Casa Ricordi for a ballet. He considered the story of St Margaret of Cortona but found a dance version of her life impracticable. He preferred to write an opera on a religious theme; Ricordi suggested Dialogues des Carmélites, an unfilmed screenplay by Georges Bernanos. The text, based on a short story by Gertrud von Le Fort, depicts the Martyrs of Compiègne, nuns guillotined during the French Revolution for their religious beliefs. Poulenc found it "such a moving and noble work", ideal for his libretto, and he began composition in August 1953.
During the composition of the opera, Poulenc suffered two blows. He learned of a literary rights dispute between Albert Béguin, Bernanos' literary executor, and the American writer Emmet Lavery, who had previously secured all rights to theatrical adaptations of von Le Fort's novel from her in April–May 1949, which caused him to cease work temporarily on his opera. In addition, Roubert became gravely ill.[n 18] Intense worry pushed Poulenc into a nervous breakdown, and in November 1954 he was in a clinic at L'Haÿ-les-Roses, outside Paris, heavily sedated. When he recovered, and the literary rights and royalty payments disputes with Lavery were settled, he resumed work on Dialogues des Carmélites in between extensive touring with Bernac in England. As his personal wealth had declined since the 1920s he required the substantial income earned from his recitals.
While working on the opera, Poulenc composed little else; exceptions were two mélodies, and a short orchestral movement, "Bucolique" in a collective work, Variations sur le nom de Marguerite Long (1954), to which his old friends from Les Six Auric and Milhaud also contributed. As Poulenc was writing the last pages of his opera in October 1955, Roubert died at the age of forty-seven. The composer wrote to a friend, "Lucien was delivered from his martyrdom ten days ago and the final copy of Les Carmélites was completed (take note) at the very moment my dear breathed his last."
The opera was first given in January 1957 at La Scala in Italian translation. Between then and the French premiere Poulenc introduced one of his most popular late works, the Flute Sonata, which he and Jean-Pierre Rampal performed in June at the Strasbourg Festival. Three days later, on 21 June, came the Paris premiere of Dialogues des Carmélites at the Opéra. It was a tremendous success, to the composer's considerable relief. At around this time Poulenc began his last romantic relationship, with Louis Gautier, a former soldier; they remained partners to the end of Poulenc's life.
It's not that I'm consumed by the idea of being a grrrrreat musician,[n 19]
but all the same it has exasperated me to be, for so many people, simply an erotic petit maître
. ... From the Stabat Mater
to La Voix humaine
I must say that it hasn't been all that amusing.
Poulenc in a 1959 letter
In 1958 Poulenc embarked on a collaboration with his old friend Cocteau, in an operatic version of the latter's 1930 monodrama La Voix humaine.[n 20] The work was produced in February 1959 at the Opéra-Comique, under Cocteau's direction, with Duval as the tragic deserted woman speaking to her former lover by telephone. In May Poulenc's 60th birthday was marked, a few months late, by his last concert with Bernac before the latter's retirement from public performance.
Poulenc visited the US in 1960 and 1961. Among his works given during these trips were the American premiere of La Voix humaine at Carnegie Hall in New York, with Duval, and the world premiere of his Gloria, a large-scale work for soprano, four-part mixed chorus and orchestra, conducted in Boston by Charles Munch. In 1961 Poulenc published a book about Chabrier, a 187-page study of which a reviewer wrote in the 1980s, "he writes with love and insight of a composer whose views he shared on matters like the primacy of melody and the essential seriousness of humour." The works of Poulenc's last twelve months included Sept répons des ténèbres for voices and orchestra, the Clarinet Sonata and the Oboe Sonata.
On 30 January 1963, at his flat opposite the Jardin du Luxembourg, Poulenc suffered a fatal heart attack. His funeral was at the nearby church of Saint-Sulpice. In compliance with his wishes, none of his music was performed; Marcel Dupré played works by Bach on the grand organ of the church. Poulenc was buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery, alongside his family.
Poulenc's grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery