Francis Poulenc

Francis Poulenc

Francis Poulenc

Francis Poulenc


Once considered as little more than the froth in the wake of the First World War, a witty boy-hedonist who, in the giddy Twenties, tweaked the noses of moribund establishmentarians, Poulenc has in fact proved unexpectedly durable--more so than any of his colleagues among Les Six, including those who developed more grandiose ambitions. Here is a survey of Poulenc's music, based on careful selection of his works, and written by an authoritative guide. After placing Poulenc in the context of French life and society after the First World War and considering him in relation to his masters and mentors, especially Satie and Chabrier, Mellers turns to Poulenc's Diaghilev ballet, Les Biches, to important sequels to it, such as Concert champetre and Aubade, and to works of transition, such as the Concerto for two pianos and orchestra. The next section discusses the "social" music of Poulenc's middle years--especially the music for piano (for Poulenc a domestic instrument), written during the Thirties, and the centrality of song in his work; some account is offered of his relationship with his main poets, Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Eluard, and Louise de Vilmorin. Mellers next considers the impact on Poulenc of the Second World War, especially as manifest in the great choral work Quatre Motets de Penitence and the Organ Concerto. Adopting a broadly chronological approach, Mellers traces Poulenc's development as a composer from enfant terrible to a mature composer both for secular society and for the liturgy of the Catholic Church; in so doing he points to the reasons for the durability and pertinacity of his appeal. Mellers further assesses Poulenc's place in the French tradition, and, in a Postlude, pays tribute to the warm regard with which Poulenc was held by so many of his fellow musicians.


The standard biography of Poulenc, that by Henri Hell, is now regrettably out of print. The major recent study of him -- Francis Poulenc: His Artistic Development and Musical Style, by Keith W. Daniel -- was published in 1982 by UMI Research Press. This small volume, contributed to a series of studies of composers, cannot compete with, and barely refers to, the major works of Hell and Daniel. It rather attempts to discover Poulenc's heart by way of commentary on a number of works that seem to me to be not only representative, but also good. Although by the standards of a Koechlin or a Villa-Lobos Poulenc is not a prolific composer, he wrote far more music than could be encompassed in a book of this size. In concentrating on the better works I've not stressed critical 'placing': Poulenc's warts are not lingered over, for the writing of this book was an act of love. As I've grown old, this seems to me to be increasingly the main, if not the only, justification for writing about a creator and his or her creations. This is especially the case with an artist who works in a nonverbal language like music. Yet although love is apt to be submerged in a sea of technicalities, what one says about music cannot mean much if it is not backed by musical evidence. I have tried to maintain a balance between technical description and experiential interpretation, and hope that people sufficiently interested to read the book will refer to the scores of the pieces -- such as Les Biches, Aubade, Dialogues des Carmélites, and the last three wind sonatas -- that are discussed in some detail.

My main debt is to the collection of Poulenc's Selected Correspondence 1915-1963, superbly translated and meticulously edited by Sidney Buckland, and published by Gollancz in 1991. I have also made use of Poulenc Diary of My Songs, published by Gollancz in the original French and in English translation by Winifred Radford, in 1985; of a volume of Poulenc's 'conversations' assembled by Stéphane Audel and translated by James Harding ; and of Poulenc's affectionate book on Emmanuel Chabrier, published in English translation by Cynthia Jolly.

W. M.

Oliver Sheldon House, Aldwark, York 27August 1992 . . .

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