Francis Poulenc | music


Poulenc's music is essentially diatonic. In Henri Hell's view, this is because the main feature of Poulenc's musical art is his melodic gift. [114] In the words of Roger Nichols in the Grove dictionary, "For [Poulenc] the most important element of all was melody and he found his way to a vast treasury of undiscovered tunes within an area that had, according to the most up-to-date musical maps, been surveyed, worked and exhausted." [3] The commentator George Keck writes, "His melodies are simple, pleasing, easily remembered, and most often emotionally expressive." [115]

Poulenc said that he was not inventive in his harmonic language. The composer Lennox Berkeley wrote of him, "All through his life, he was content to use conventional harmony, but his use of it was so individual, so immediately recognizable as his own, that it gave his music freshness and validity." [116] Keck considers Poulenc's harmonic language "as beautiful, interesting and personal as his melodic writing ... clear, simple harmonies moving in obviously defined tonal areas with chromaticism that is rarely more than passing". [115] Poulenc had no time for musical theories; in one of his many radio interviews he called for "a truce to composing by theory, doctrine, rule!" [117] He was dismissive of what he saw as the dogmatism of latter-day adherents to dodecaphony, led by René Leibowitz, [118] and greatly regretted that the adoption of a theoretical approach had affected the music of Olivier Messiaen, of whom he had earlier had high hopes. [n 21] To Hell, almost all Poulenc's music is "directly or indirectly inspired by the purely melodic associations of the human voice". [121] Poulenc was a painstaking craftsman, though a myth grew up – "la légende de facilité" – that his music came easily to him; he commented, "The myth is excusable, since I do everything to conceal my efforts." [122]

The pianist Pascal Rogé commented in 1999 that both sides of Poulenc's musical nature were equally important: "You must accept him as a whole. If you take away either part, the serious or the non-serious, you destroy him. If one part is erased you get only a pale photocopy of what he really is." [123] Poulenc recognised the dichotomy, [123] but in all his works he wanted music that was "healthy, clear and robust – music as frankly French as Stravinsky's is Slav". [124] [n 22]

Orchestral and concertante

Four mugshots of old composers
Influences on Poulenc: from top left clockwise, Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Chabrier

Poulenc's principal works for large orchestra comprise two ballets, a Sinfonietta and four keyboard concertos. The first of the ballets, Les biches, was first performed in 1924 and remains one of his best-known works. Nichols writes in Grove that the clear and tuneful score has no deep, or even shallow, symbolism, a fact "accentuated by a tiny passage of mock- Wagnerian brass, complete with emotive minor 9ths". [3] The first two of the four concertos are in Poulenc's light-hearted vein. The Concert champêtre for harpsichord and orchestra (1927–28), evokes the countryside seen from a Parisian point of view: Nichols comments that the fanfares in the last movement bring to mind the bugles in the barracks of Vincennes in the Paris suburbs. [3] The Concerto for two pianos and orchestra (1932) is similarly a work intended purely to entertain. It draws on a variety of stylistic sources: the first movement ends in a manner reminiscent of Balinese gamelan, and the slow movement begins in a Mozartian style, which Poulenc gradually fills out with his own characteristic personal touches. [125] The Organ Concerto (1938) is in a much more serious vein. Poulenc said that it was "on the outskirts" of his religious music, and there are passages that draw on the church music of Bach, though there are also interludes in breezy popular style. The second ballet score, Les Animaux modèles (1941), has never equalled the popularity of Les biches, though both Auric and Honegger praised the composer's harmonic flair and resourceful orchestration. [126] Honegger wrote, "The influences that have worked on him, Chabrier, Satie, Stravinsky, are now completely assimilated. Listening to his music you think – it's Poulenc." [127] The Sinfonietta (1947) is a reversion to Poulenc's pre-war frivolity. He came to feel, "I dressed too young for my age ... [it] is a new version of Les biches but young girls [biches] that are forty-eight years old – that's horrible!" [69] The Concerto for piano and orchestra (1949) initially caused some disappointment: many felt that it was not an advance on Poulenc's pre-war music, a view he came to share. The piece has been re-evaluated in more recent years, and in 1996 the writer Claire Delamarche rated it as the composer's finest concertante work. [128]


Poulenc, a highly accomplished pianist, usually composed at the piano and wrote many pieces for the instrument throughout his career. In Henri Hell's view, Poulenc's piano writing can be divided into the percussive and the gentler style reminiscent of the harpsichord. Hell considers that the finest of Poulenc's music for piano is in the accompaniments to the songs, a view shared by Poulenc himself. [3] [129] The vast majority of the piano works are, in the view of the writer Keith W Daniel, "what might be called 'miniatures'". [130] Looking back at his piano music in the 1950s, the composer viewed it critically: "I tolerate the Mouvements perpétuels, my old Suite en ut [in C], and the Trois pieces. I like very much my two collections of Improvisations, an Intermezzo in A flat, and certain Nocturnes. I condemn Napoli and the Soirées de Nazelles without reprieve." [131]

Of the pieces cited with approval by Poulenc, the fifteen Improvisations were composed at intervals between 1932 and 1959. [n 23] All are brief: the longest lasts a little more than three minutes. They vary from swift and balletic to tender lyricism, old-fashioned march, perpetuum mobile, waltz and a poignant musical portrait of the singer Édith Piaf. [132] Poulenc's favoured Intermezzo was the last of three. Numbers one and two were composed in August 1934; the A flat followed in March 1943. The commentators Marina and Victor Ledin describe the work as "the embodiment of the word 'charming'. The music seems simply to roll off the pages, each sound following another in such an honest and natural way, with eloquence and unmistakable Frenchness." [133] The eight nocturnes were composed across nearly a decade (1929–38). Whether or not Poulenc originally conceived them as an integral set, he gave the eighth the title "To serve as Coda for the Cycle" (Pour servir de Coda au Cycle). Although they share their generic title with the nocturnes of Field, Chopin and Fauré, Poulenc's do not resemble those of the earlier composers, being "night-scenes and sound-images of public and private events" rather than romantic tone poems. [133]

The pieces Poulenc found merely tolerable were all early works: Trois mouvements perpétuels dates from 1919, the Suite in C from 1920 and the Trois pièces from 1928. All consist of short sections, the longest being the "Hymne", the second of the three 1928 pieces, which lasts about four minutes. [132] Of the two works their composer singled out for censure, Napoli (1925) is a three-movement portrait of Italy, and Les Soirées de Nazelles is described by the composer Geoffrey Bush as "the French equivalent of Elgar's Enigma Variations" – miniature character sketches of his friends. Despite Poulenc's scorn for the work, Bush judges it ingenious and witty. [134] Among the piano music not mentioned, favourably or harshly, by Poulenc, the best known pieces include the two Novelettes (1927–28), the set of six miniatures for children, Villageoises (1933), a piano version of the seven-movement Suite française (1935), and L'embarquement pour Cythère for two pianos (1953). [135]


In Grove, Nichols divides the chamber works into three clearly differentiated periods. The first four sonatas come from the early group, all written before Poulenc was twenty-two. They are for two clarinets (1918), piano duo (1918), clarinet and bassoon (1922) and horn, trumpet and trombone (1922). [136] They are early examples of Poulenc's many and varied influences, with echoes of rococo divertissements alongside unconventional harmonies, some influenced by jazz. All four are characterised by their brevity – less than ten minutes each – their mischievousness and their wit, which Nichols describes as acid. Other chamber works from this period are the Rapsodie nègre, FP 3, from 1917 (mainly instrumental, with brief vocal episodes) and the Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano (1926). [3]

The chamber works of Poulenc's middle period were written in the 1930s and 1940s. The best known is the Sextet for Piano and Wind (1932), in Poulenc's light-hearted vein, consisting of two lively outer movements and a central divertimento; this was one of several chamber works that the composer became dissatisfied with and revised extensively some years after their first performance (in this case in 1939–40). [137] [n 24] The sonatas in this group are for violin and piano (1942–43) and for cello and piano (1948). Writing for strings did not come easily to Poulenc; these sonatas were completed after two unsuccessful earlier attempts, [n 25] and in 1947 he destroyed the draft of a string quartet. [n 26] Both sonatas are predominantly grave in character; that for violin is dedicated to the memory of Federico García Lorca. [3] Commentators including Hell, Schmidt and Poulenc himself have regarded it, and to some extent the cello sonata, as less effective than those for wind. [140] The Aubade, "Concerto choréographique" for piano and 18 instruments (1930) achieves an almost orchestral effect, despite its modest number of players. [n 27] The other chamber works from this period are arrangements for small ensembles of two works in Poulenc's lightest vein, the Suite française (1935) and the Trois mouvements perpétuels (1946). [142]

The final three sonatas are for woodwind and piano: for flute (1956–57), clarinet (1962), and oboe (1962). They have, according to Grove, become fixtures in their repertoires because of "their technical expertise and of their profound beauty". The Elégie for horn and piano (1957) was composed in memory of the horn player Dennis Brain. [3] It contains one of Poulenc's rare excursions into dodecaphony, with the brief employment of a twelve-note tone row. [143]


Middle-aged man in French military uniform of the First World War
Guillaume Apollinaire, whose poems Poulenc frequently set

Poulenc composed songs throughout his career, and his output in the genre is extensive. [n 28] In Johnson's view, most of the finest were written in the 1930s and 1940s. [145] Though widely varied in character, the songs are dominated by Poulenc's preference for certain poets. From the outset of his career he favoured verses by Guillaume Apollinaire, and from the mid-1930s the writer whose work he set most often was Paul Éluard. Other poets whose works he frequently set included Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, and Louise de Vilmorin. [146] In the view of the music critic Andrew Clements, the Éluard songs include many of Poulenc's greatest settings; [147] Johnson calls the cycle Tel Jour, Telle Nuit (1937) the composer's "watershed work", and Nichols regards it as "a masterpiece worthy to stand beside Fauré's La bonne chanson". [3] Clements finds in the Éluard settings a profundity "worlds away from the brittle, facetious surfaces of Poulenc's early orchestral and instrumental music". [147] The first of the Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon (1943), titled simply "C", is described by Johnson as "a masterpiece known the world over; it is the most unusual, and perhaps the most moving, song about the ravages of war ever composed." [148]

In an overview of the songs in 1973, the musical scholar Yvonne Gouverné said, "With Poulenc, the melodic line matches the text so well that it seems in some way to complete it, thanks to the gift which the music has for penetrating the very essence of a given poem; nobody has better crafted a phrase than Poulenc, highlighting the colour of the words." [149] Among the lighter pieces, one of the composer's most popular songs is a setting of Jean Anouilh's "Les Chemins de l'Amour" (1940) as a Parisian waltz; [150] by contrast his "monologue" "La Dame de Monte Carlo", (1961) a depiction of an elderly woman addicted to gambling, shows the composer's painful understanding of the horrors of depression. [151]


Apart from a single early work for unaccompanied choir ("Chanson à boire", 1922), Poulenc began writing choral music in 1936. In that year he produced three works for choir: Sept chansons (settings of verses by Éluard and others), Petites voix (for children's voices), and his religious work Litanies à la vierge noire, for female or children's voices and organ. [152] The Mass in G major (1937) for unaccompanied choir is described by Gouverné as having something of a baroque style, with "vitality and joyful clamour on which his faith is writ large". [149] Poulenc's new-found religious theme continued with Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (1938–39), but among his most important choral works is the secular cantata Figure humaine (1943). Like the Mass, it is unaccompanied, and to succeed in performance it requires singers of the highest quality. [3] Other a cappella works include the Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël (1952), which make severe demands on choirs' rhythmic precision and intonation. [153]

Poulenc's major works for choir and orchestra are the Stabat Mater (1950), the Gloria (1959–60), and Sept répons des ténébres (Seven Responses of the Darkness) (1961–62). All these works are based on liturgical texts, originally set to Gregorian chant. [67] In the Gloria, Poulenc's faith expresses itself in an exuberant, joyful way, with intervals of prayerful calm and mystic feeling, and an ending of serene tranquillity. [67] Poulenc wrote to Bernac in 1962, "I have finished Les Ténèbres. I think it is beautiful. With the Gloria and the Stabat Mater, I think I have three good religious works. May they spare me a few days in Purgatory, if I narrowly avoid going to hell." [67] Sept répons des ténèbres, which Poulenc did not live to hear performed, uses a large orchestra, but in Nichols's view it displays a new concentration of thought. [3] To the critic Ralph Thibodeau, the work may be considered as Poulenc's own requiem and is "the most avant-garde of his sacred compositions, the most emotionally demanding, and the most interesting musically, comparable only with his magnum opus sacrum, the opera, Dialogues des Carmélites." [67]


Stage design, fairly abstract
Design by Sylvain Lhermitte for Les mamelles de Tirésias

Poulenc turned to opera only in the latter half of his career. Having achieved fame by his early twenties, he was in his forties before attempting his first opera. He attributed this to the need for maturity before tackling the subjects he chose to set. In 1958 he told an interviewer, "When I was 24 I was able to write Les biches [but] it is obvious that unless a composer of 30 has the genius of a Mozart or the precociousness of Schubert he couldn't write The Carmelites – the problems are too profound." [35] In Sams's view, all three of Poulenc's operas display a depth of feeling far distant from "the cynical stylist of the 1920s": Les mamelles de Tirésias (1947), despite the riotous plot, is full of nostalgia and a sense of loss. In the two avowedly serious operas, Dialogues des Carmélites (1957) and La Voix humaine (1959), in which Poulenc depicts deep human suffering, Sams sees a reflection of the composer's own struggles with depression. [3]

In terms of musical technique the operas show how far Poulenc had come from his naïve and insecure beginnings. Nichols comments in Grove that Les mamelles de Tirésias, deploys "lyrical solos, patter duets, chorales, falsetto lines for tenor and bass babies and ... succeeds in being both funny and beautiful". [3] In all three operas Poulenc drew on earlier composers, while blending their influence into music unmistakably his own. In the printed score of Dialogues des Carmélites he acknowledged his debt to Mussorgsky, Monteverdi, Debussy and Verdi. [154] The critic Renaud Machart writes that Dialogues des Carmélites is, with Britten’s Peter Grimes, one of the extremely rare operas written since the Second World War to appear on opera programmes all over the world. [155]

Even when he wrote for a large orchestra, Poulenc used the full forces sparingly in his operas, often scoring for woodwinds or brass or strings alone. With the invaluable input of Bernac he showed great skill in writing for the human voice, fitting the music to the tessitura of each character. [154] By the time of the last of the operas, La Voix humaine, Poulenc felt able to give the soprano stretches of music with no orchestral accompaniment at all, though when the orchestra plays, Poulenc calls for the music to be "bathed in sensuality". [156]


Poulenc was among the composers who recognised in the 1920s the important role that the gramophone would play in the promotion of music. [3] The first recording of his music was made in 1928, with the mezzo-soprano Claire Croiza accompanied by the composer at the piano, in the complete song cycle La bestiaire for French Columbia. [157] He made numerous recordings, mainly for the French division of EMI. With Bernac and Duval he recorded many of his own songs, and those of other composers including Chabrier, Debussy, Gounod and Ravel. [158] He played the piano part in recordings of his Babar the Elephant with Pierre Fresnay and Noël Coward as narrators. [159] In 2005, EMI issued a DVD, "Francis Poulenc & Friends", featuring filmed performances of Poulenc's music, played by the composer, with Duval, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Jacques Février and Georges Prêtre. [160]

Middle-aged man looking towards camera
Benjamin Britten, friend and interpreter of Poulenc

A 1984 discography of Poulenc's music lists recordings by more than 1,300 conductors, soloists and ensembles, including the conductors Leonard Bernstein, Charles Dutoit, Milhaud, Eugene Ormandy, Georges Prêtre, André Previn and Leopold Stokowski. Among the singers, in addition to Bernac and Duval, the list includes Régine Crespin, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Nicolai Gedda, Peter Pears, Yvonne Printemps and Gérard Souzay. Instrumental soloists include Britten, Jacques Février, Pierre Fournier, Emil Gilels, Yehudi Menuhin and Arthur Rubinstein. [161]

Complete sets of Poulenc's solo piano music have been recorded by Gabriel Tacchino, who had been Poulenc's only piano student (released on the EMI label), Pascal Rogé ( Decca), Paul Crossley ( CBS), Eric Parkin ( Chandos) and Olivier Cazal ( Naxos). [162] [163] Integral sets of the chamber music have been recorded by the Nash Ensemble ( Hyperion), and a variety of young French musicians (Naxos). [123] [164]

The world premiere of Dialogues des Carmélites (in Italian, as Dialoghi delle Carmelitane) was recorded and has been released on CD. The first studio recording was soon after the French premiere, and since then there have been at least ten live or studio recordings on CD or DVD, most of them in French but one in German and one in English. [165]