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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Life and Work of Francis Poulenc

Today we focus on a single composer, “a monk and a rogue”. The composer in question is Francis Poulenc.

Let’s start by dealing with the issue of how his name is pronounced. Our pronunciation guide at the ABC (based on information provided by people who knew the composer and his preferred pronunciation) gave us the following:

fr(ong)-SEES POOHL-(ang)k

This makes it quite clear that the final syllable of his surname is not unlike “lank” in English, as opposed to “lonk”, which one often hears. So you’ve been told.

Born in Paris on 7 January 1899, Francis Poulenc was Averyronnais by descent through his father (who was the director of a pharmaceutical business) and Parisian though his mother (who came from a family of artist-craftsmen). All his life, Poulenc felt that he had a dual nature and he attributed this to his heredity. His strong Catholic faith he associated with his Aveyron roots; his liberal, artistic nature he attributed to his mother’s family. The article on Poulenc in Grove, which was my main source for this, points out that a strong polarity between religious and profane can be seen in Poulenc’s music. The famous remark by Claude Rostand sums it up perfectly: “In Poulenc there is something of the monk and something of the rascal”.

In accordance with his father’s wishes, Poulenc undertook a formal classical education before he would be permitted to enter the Paris Conservatoire. The deaths of his parents while he was still in his teens and the first world war interrupted his plans. During the war he studied with the pianist Ricardo Viñes (a famed Ravel interpreter) and Poulenc cited Viñes as an important influence on his career both as a pianist and as a composer.

Ricardo Viñes (c. 1900)

The urge to compose came early to Poulenc but he destroyed all his earliest attempts at composition. The work with which he made his public debut was the curious Rapsodie nègre (Negro Rhapsody), which was performed in 1917. This is the work of an anarchic 18 year old, scored for flute, clarinet, string quartet, piano and voice. It comprises five little movements. [listen]

Such music gives little indication of the depth or refinement which the mature Poulenc would produce, but the war years were pivotal to his development as a composer. During this time his friendships with major figures in French music developed. These included Darius Milhaud and Erik Satie, as well the other members of the group of French composers who with Poulenc would in the early 20s become known as “Les Six” (in addition to Milhaud, this group included Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger and Germaine Tailleferre).

Francis Poulenc (1922)

During his post-war military service Poulenc continued to compose. His Three Perpetual Motions for piano was written in 1918 and it was an immediate success. These three short pieces display the hallmarks of what would make Poulenc stand apart: a gift for melody and an intriguing use of conventional harmony. [listen]

A setting of Apollinaire’s Bestiary (Le Bestiaire) came about in 1919. Originally scored for voice and instrumental ensemble, Poulenc almost immediately made an arrangement of the accompaniment for piano. It’s a tiny cycle of six movements which takes less than five minutes to perform. In later years it became a regular part of the repertoire performed by the baritone Pierre Bernac, with Poulenc at the piano. Poulenc and Bernac began working together as a duo in 1935 and were professional recital partners for more than two decades. [listen]

Up until the early 20s, Poulenc was largely self-taught as a composer. He undertook lessons in composition with Charles Koechlin in 1921. During the early period of study with Koechlin Poulenc wrote one of his earliest chamber works, a Sonata for clarinet and bassoon. There are hints of jazz - which would have been very new in 1922 - in this piece, as well as passages of bitonality (where the two instruments play in different keys). It’s rather tongue-in-cheek throughout, as the first movement amply demonstrates. [listen]

Francis Poulenc

Poulenc was still studying with Koechlin when he received a commission from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes for an orchestral ballet score. The result was Les biches, Poulenc’s first major orchestral work. The title is said by some to be untranslatable; it’s sometimes rendered as “The Darlings” or “The Does” (as in the plural of “doe”). First performed in Monte Carlo in 1924, this infectious and fun score has remained in the orchestral repertoire by virtue of its concert suite. The 18th century plot, such as it is, clearly suggested a neo-classical approach, but the score is full of wit and frippery, again in line with the ballet’s thin scenario of flirting young men and women. It’s a remarkable achievement for the young composer. [listen]

By the mid-1920s Poulenc was developing a reputation for finely crafted, witty and elegant music. His meeting with the famed Wanda Landowska led to her commissioning from him a concerto for the instrument she was pioneering and bringing back into use: the harpsichord. Poulenc’s Concerto champêtre, like Les biches, captures an 18th century elegance while at the same time being very fun, taking unexpected turns of harmony and indulging in all the orchestral colours available. Landowska was the harpsichord soloist in the premiere, which took place in 1929. [listen]

Wanda Landowska (1920s)

In the late 20s, about the time he wrote this delicious music, Poulenc suffered his first serious bout of depression. He’d become fully aware of his homosexuality at this time, but he had a rich, complex emotional life. The soprano Denise Duval said that “he adored women, but loved men”, and he had been shattered by the sudden death, in 1930, of Raymonde Linossier, whom he claimed was the only woman he ever loved. His first serious relationship was with the painter Richard Chanlaire, whom he called “a reason for living and working”, and to whom the Concerto champêtre was dedicated.

Poulenc’s letters reveal his complicated emotional states, and they seem to indicate a tendency to what we might call a bipolar state of mind. He had further relationships with women, and his letters also reveal the existence of a daughter, who was born in 1946.

The 1930s was an important decade for Poulenc professionally. The bulk of his music for his own instrument, the piano, dates from this decade, although he later said that his best piano writing was to be found in his song accompaniments. Nevertheless, the piano works are an important part of his output. Poulenc’s own favourites among them were the fifteen Improvisations which were written between 1932 and 1959. They’re dedicated to a wide range of people, including members of Les Six; even Edith Piaf has one (the fifteenth) dedicated to her. [listen]

The beginning of the duo partnership with Pierre Bernac in 1935 provided Poulenc with not only an important outlet for his considerable skills as a pianist, but also a perfect environment to write songs. The composition of some 90 songs specifically for performance with Bernac was the means by which Poulenc exercised his considerable gift for melody and developed a deeper and more personal voice as a composer. Here are Bernac and Poulenc performing the beautiful cycle entitled Tel jour, telle nuit (Such a day, such a night). This was composed in 1936-37, not long after they started working together. This recording was made in London in 1946. [listen]

Pouenc with Pierre Bernac

The other really important development in Poulenc’s life in the 30s was the rekindling of his religious faith. He himself referred to 1936 as “a date of primal importance in my life and my career”. The death of the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud in a car accident in 1936 affected him very deeply; a day or two later Poulenc made a pilgrimage to the Black Virgin of Rocamadour, and he was led, again in his own words, “back to the faith of my childhood”. These feelings were expressed immediately in the Litanies of the Black Virgin for three-part soprano and alto voices and organ (some years later he arranged the accompaniment for strings and timpani). He said, “In this work I have tried to express the feeling of ‘peasant devotion’ which had so strongly impressed me in that lovely place”. [listen]

Altar containing the Black Virgin of Rocamadour

One of my favourite Poulenc sacred works was written the following year, 1937. The Mass in G for unaccompanied choir is one of the gems of all of Poulenc’s music, extremely challenging to any choir brave enough to tackle it. It’s fascinating that Poulenc claimed that the death of his father, twenty years before, was the reason he left the church. Now, having found his faith again, he dedicated this work to his father’s memory. [listen]

The 1930s saw the production of two of Poulenc’s most important - and dazzling - concertos: the Concerto for 2 Pianos (in 1932) [listen] and the Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani (in 1938) [listen]

One of his major chamber works was also written in the 30s, the Sextet for piano and wind quintet. This was begun in 1932 but not completed until 1939, so it spans all of the momentous events of the 30s I’ve just referred to. [listen]

Poulenc spent the majority of the second world war at his house in Touraine, which was in the area under Nazi occupation. The works produced during the war included Les animaux modèles (The Model Animals), a ballet designed to celebrate the French spirit in those dark times. Based on the fables of La Fontaine, Poulenc has the animals take on human characteristics. The ballet was premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1942 and was a huge success. This music, representing the amorous lion, was retained in the suite which Poulenc compiled from the score in the same year. [listen]

In total contrast was the moving cantata for unaccompanied double choir composed in 1943, Figure humaine (Human Figure, or The Face of Man), which sets poems by Paul Éluard. Poulenc said that into this work in particular he had poured “a very different density” compared to his other works. [listen]

Poulenc’s muse didn’t take long to swing back to its roguish side, something evident in his first opera, which was premiered in Paris in 1947. Les mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tirésias) is a farcical romp which plays with the themes of gender roles and feminism. In the first act Thérèse decides to become a man and releases her breasts out of her blouse. They turn out to be balloons and she pops them with her cigarette lighter. The second act opens with this music in which her husband announces that he’s just given birth to 40,049 children in a single day. [listen]

The Breasts of Tirésias gave Poulenc his first opportunity to work with the gifted soprano Denise Duval, who quickly became established as his preferred female interpreter. (She died in 2016 at the age of 94.)

Denise Duval

The 1950s began with the composition of a major song cycle, La Fraîcheur et le feu (The Coolness and the Fire). This remarkable, serious set of seven songs is in fact a setting of a single poem, divided into seven sections with interconnected tempo markings. [listen]

The human voice seemed to preoccupy Poulenc in the 50s as his major works in that decade were either songs, operas or choral works. The Stabat Mater was completed in April 1951, and was written as a response to the tragic death of a friend, Christian Bérard. Rather then write a Requiem, Poulenc’s choice fell on the more intimate text of the Stabat Mater, which describes the grief of Mary at the foot of the cross. It’s a staggeringly beautiful work. [listen]

The Stabat Mater clearly prepared Poulenc for his next major work, which is one of his most important legacies, the opera Dialogues of the Carmelites. Commissioned by La Scala, Milan, this magnificent work rapidly gained international success for Poulenc. It was composed between 1953 and 1956, and premiered at La Scala in January 1957. This is an intense, serious work which shows a profound understanding of human emotion in a story dealing with a group of nuns who are condemned to death during the French Revolution. The final scene, where the nuns are led off the stage to the guillotine as they sing the Salve Regina, is one of the most shattering experiences in all musical theatre. The reduction of the nuns’ voices one by one as each is decapitated is gripping in the extreme.

You can see a video of the final scene here.

A production of the entire opera is here. This is the justly famous Elijah Moshinsky production given at the Sydney Opera House (in English) in 1984.

The plight of an abandoned woman in very different circumstances was the subject of Poulenc’s next and final opera, La voix humaine (The Human Voice), which was composed in 1958. It lasts only 40 minutes and requires only one singer; the role was conceived for Denise Duval. It gives, most powerfully, the woman’s side of a telephone conversation in which the she’s being jilted by her lover. Here is the opening of the opera in a film featuring Duval. [listen]

And to hear Denise Duval herself reminisce about Poulenc, watch this fascinating video.

Poulenc with Denise Duval

Poulenc’s last big setting of a sacred text followed soon after. The Gloria, finished at the end of 1959, could not be more different to the earlier Stabat Mater, despite the similarities in their scoring. In the Gloria Poulenc seeks to reconcile the serious and the jovial; certainly its dazzling brilliance has made it one Poulenc’s most popular works. [listen]

Francis Poulenc

But it was on a very intimate scale that Poulenc ended his composing career. The Oboe Sonata of 1962 was written in memory of Sergei Prokofiev. The function of the work as a memorial is made clear by the title of the first movement (”Elegy”) and especially of the last (that special French word “Déploration”). It was a beautiful piece to go out on. [listen]

Francis Poulenc died very suddenly, of a heart attack in his Paris apartment on 30 January, 1963. His musical legacy from start to finish was immaculate, accessible and honest; it has been accurately said that for him the most important element of all was melody. The article on Poulenc in Grove finishes by quoting the composer’s own words, written in 1942:

I know perfectly well that I’m not one of those composers who have made harmonic inventions like Stravinsky, Ravel or Debussy, but I think there’s room for new music which doesn’t mind using other people’s chords. Wasn’t that the case with Mozart-Schubert?

The article continues: “If Poulenc was not quite a Schubert, he is among the 20th century’s most eligible candidates for the succession”.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in April, 2007.

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