On a blizzardy weekend in January of 1961, the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered Francis Poulenc’s Gloria at Symphony Hall with the composer in attendance. The performance was spectacular. In his review for the Boston Globe, Cyrus Durgin wrote that the “cheers that Poulenc received . . . were thoroughly merited.” Durgin also speculated about the influences on Poulenc’s sound. He detected “traces” of earlier French composers such as Debussy and Ravel, but he concluded that the “prevailing” voice was Poulenc’s own. A similar conclusion was reached by Harold C. Schonberg in The New York Times. Schonberg attended the BSO’s April performance at Carnegie Hall and wrote that the “score is full of his fingerprints.” “The stronger the composer,” he added, “the more pronounced his personality.”
Poulenc’s personality in and outside his music is plumbed in Poulenc: A Biography by Roger Nichols, a celebrated British scholar. As a composer, Poulenc is best known for songs, choral pieces, and operas; he also wrote instrumental works that have become part of the standard repertory. Regardless of genre or instrumentation, his music is characterized by supple melodic lines. His harmonic language is crisp, even astringent, but avoids the sharper dissonances favored by many other contemporary composers.
Born in Paris on January 7, 1899, Poulenc grew up in comfortable circumstances. His father, Émile, was a devout Catholic who wished for his only son to succeed him in the family’s flourishing chemical firm. Poulenc recalled that his mother, Jenny, agnostic and inclined to the arts, “revealed music to me”: she was his first piano teacher. Also influential was Poulenc’s godfather, Jenny’s brother Marcel (“Papoum”), who encouraged the boy’s interests in painting and theater. Among Marcel’s friends was a band of opera singers, and so familiar did the world of opera become to Poulenc—so much a part of the natural flow of things—that, as he put it, it soon “held no secrets.”
Poulenc was seven when he first heard the music of Debussy. Here was a world of sound strikingly different from Bach and Mozart, the usual fare served to young pianists. Poulenc was enchanted. Soon he began composing, though his earliest efforts, Nichols admits, “[demonstrated] no signs of precocity.” More work was needed, more encouragement. Thanks to his friend Geneviève Sienkiewicz, Poulenc was able to meet Ricardo Viñes, a Spanish pianist who premiered many works by Debussy and Ravel. Viñes helped Poulenc strengthen his piano technique, urged him to keep writing music, and introduced him to some of the composers who would form the circle known as Les Six. Rapsodie nègre (1917) was the first piece of Poulenc’s that exhibited, in Nichols’s view, “the unmistakable sound of an individual voice.” Trois mouvements perpétuels (1918) was the first to be played around the world. Dedicated to Viñes, this charming piano work retains every bit of its original freshness.
As he worked on new pieces, Poulenc in his early twenties sensed a deficiency in his compositional craft. He hadn’t pursued conservatory training in music, in keeping with his father’s wishes. To compensate, he studied counterpoint and vocal writing privately for more than four years. It was during this time of assimilation that Poulenc was asked by Serge Diaghilev to write the score for the ballet Les Biches (1924). The music was so winning, according to one contemporaneous reviewer quoted by Nichols, that “from the first numbers, applause burst forth from every corner of the theater.” The key to Poulenc’s success, Nichols argues, was “the tunes: surely not since Tchaikovsky’s ballets had they poured forth in such abundance, instantly delightful, persistently memorable.”
An abundance of “tunes,” of memorable melodies, Poulenc always seemed to have. So too a feel for words. This made him a natural at writing songs. Poulenc felt a close kinship with the poets whose texts he set, especially Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Éluard; he mined their work repeatedly and fruitfully. Tel jour telle nuit, Poulenc’s 1937 setting of Éluard poems, demonstrates his uncanny gift of fashioning musical analogues for poetic images and atmospheres. For example, in the final song of the cycle, “Nous avons fait la nuit,” Poulenc captures the exhilaration of the phrase “Je ris encore” with a bold ascending leap on the second word. Near the end of the poem, when emotion is at its most intense, he responds with music that is similarly pitched. The final words, “toujours nouveau,” open to a piano postlude in a new tonality, Schubert-like in its breadth, that encapsulates the cycle as a whole.
In the year before the composition of Tel jour telle nuit, Poulenc was going through a bleak period. Worrying about the value of his work, wondering about the purpose of his life, he found solace in religion. He traveled to Rocamadour in the south of France to visit the shrine of the Black Virgin. About this religious turn, Nichols acknowledges, much remains uncertain. The evidence “is scattered and sometimes contradictory,” with Poulenc’s “attitude [depending] to no small extent on his mood.” Even so, Nichols suggests that his embrace of Catholicism was less a “return” than “an epiphany, the reappearance of something long hidden beneath worldly cares.” There followed a run of compositions on religious themes, among them Litanies à la Vierge Noir (1936), the Mass in G major (1938), and Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence (1939).
Three large-scale religious pieces are among the highlights of Poulenc’s later life. Stabat Mater (1951), dedicated to the artist Christian Bérard, depicts the suffering of the Virgin Mary at the crucifixion of Christ. Nichols’s analysis of the work is astute. In this twelve-movement work for orchestra, chorus, and soprano, he explains, “Poulenc the dramaturge” heightens the effect of the Virgin Mary’s entrance by delaying it until the sixth movement; the soprano and chorus then alternate lines of text, the chorus taking those words the Virgin is “too horrified . . . to pronounce.” Dialogues des Carmélites (1957) is a three-act opera based on the execution of a group of sixteen Carmelite nuns in the waning days of Robespierre’s Terror. Nichols devotes an entire chapter to this work, claiming it was “vital” to the composer that it succeed, given his investment of time (more than three years) and psychic energy. Succeed it did, with one critic calling its La Scala premiere a “great international event.” More modest in scale than the Dialogues, the Gloria (1961) enjoyed an “instant and lasting success,” Nichols writes. Scored for orchestra, chorus, and soprano, the Gloria is suffused with an “utterly joyful atmosphere” that belied Poulenc’s painstaking efforts and moments of doubt.
Nichols’s approach in this superb biography resembles the one he took in his earlier studies of Debussy, Ravel, and Messiaen. He treats Poulenc’s life sympathetically while detailing the genesis of his works. A highly cultivated listener with a keen musical memory, Nichols is able to enumerate instances of the composer’s self-quotations and his allusions to pieces by other composers. Having previously translated Poulenc’s writing, he brings to his work a thorough familiarity. When he passes judgment, he does so with authority and discretion.
Toward the end of Poulenc: A Biography, Nichols cites a 1961 letter from Sienkiewicz. Praising a book Poulenc had just published, Sienkiewicz wrote that she sensed his personality, “so alive, so characteristic, irreplaceable,” permeating every page. That same personality shone through his music. “Three notes of Poulenc, three notes of Schubert, three notes of Mozart, three notes of Stravinsky, they’re unmistakable,” she concluded. Originality, for her, is what counted, “and what can’t be had for the asking.” So long as music lovers prize distinct personalities in sound, there will always be an audience for the works of Francis Poulenc.