Poulenc (from 20 Century Concertos)



In his series on the Twentieth century Concerto Matthew is devoting one lecture to three concertos by the French composer Francis Poulenc to represent the 1920’s and 30’s, Concert Champêtre, a harpsichord concerto written for Wanda Landowska (1929), the double piano concerto (1932) and the concerto for organ timpani and strings (1938). Poulenc is an undervalued composer demonstrated by the fact that in 2013, big years for Verdi (200th anniversary) and Britten’s centenary, there was little on show to commemorate the death fifty years previously of probably the most entertaining and most melodic of composers since Mozart.


To begin with let’s get the name right. It is not, as often pronounced, Pool (as in puddle) ONK (as in klaxon horn) but Pull (as in pullover) and ANC (as in Anchor). His father was one of the founders of the pharmaceutical company Poulenc Frères, later to become the industrial giant Rhône Poulenc. Now I do not know whether Sir Thomas Beecham ever conducted anything by Poulenc. He should have done so, as much of Poulenc, Les Biches for example, could have turned out to be first rate Beecham lollipops. The interesting connection is that Beecham too had a father who also founded a pharmaceutical giant, in his case with pills to relieve constipation.


Francis Poulenc was born in Paris in 1899 and was educated at the lycée Condorcet. There wasn’t anything spectacular about his musical beginnings. His mother first taught him the piano from the age of 5. His uncle introduced him to vaudeville and other popular aspects of Parisian theatre. From 1915 he took piano lessons from Ricardo Viñes through whom he got to meet Satie, Debussy and Ravel. He was 18 when he gained his first success, his Rapsodie Nègre, a bluesy work for solo baritone voice, string quartet, piano, flute, clarinet and piano. This was enough to block any entrance to the conservatoire but its success came to the attention of Stravinsky who had it published in London, something for which Poulenc remained grateful. This connection would lead in 1924 to Poulenc meeting Diaghilev which led to the commission for the ballet, Les Biches.


Meantime back in 1917 Satie had formed around him the small group including Honegger, Milhaud and Auric called Les Nouveaux Jeunes which would metamorphose into a new group led by Jean Cocteau with the name of Les Six. It included also Germaine Tailleferre and Louis Durey and Poulenc is said to have been included without being consulted. At the time he was serving on military duty from 1918 to 1921 and had remained young enough just to miss the war. Satie had dropped out, may be because Cocteau had taken over. The ideal of Groupe de Six was to re-act against German romanticism (Wagner) and French impressionism (Debussy and Ravel) although the later Ravel was moving into much the same spirit. That spirit was that of Chabrier and a back to Français basics as developed by Satie as in his Parade of 1917. Another inspiration was the poet Guillaume Appolinaire, who invented the concept and name of surrealism. Poulenc had first met him at a leftist bookshop in 1916 and would set to song a number of his works as well as the opera Les Mamelles de Tiresias. Apollinaire who suffered head wounds on the Western Front died on 9th November 1918 not from war wounds but the Spanish flu. The name of Les Six was chosen by the critic Henri Collet based on the name of the Russian nationalist Groupe de Cinq. Like them it had one who slipped below the horizon. For the Russians it was Cui. For the French it was Durey. The French had an extra man, or rather a woman, Germaine Tailleferre whose harp concerto is a delight. The fact is that the group had very little cohesion and it was less a school than a publicity stunt to attract attention with each going his/her separate ways. The six collaborated twice, first with an Album of piano pieces and then in a ballet, Les Mariés (« the bridal couples ») de la Tour Eiffel, devised by Cocteau with music by five of them. Durey had dropped out to pursue his socialist ideals. The ballet is a surreal wedding party on the Eiffel Tower where appear a cyclist, someone chasing an ostrich, a lion and a sea bather.


Poulenc was largely self taught and described his music as instinctive. He was aware that something more was needed. He took lessons from 1921 to 1924 with Charles Koechlin, an eccentric composer proud of his Alsace origins but who did not acquire the fame of that of Arsene Wenger. Koechlin settled in Villers sur Mer in Normandy. His output was enormous and included orchestral settings of Kipling’s Jungle Book – I have to say I prefer the Kipling – and, as well as watching all the films at his local cinema, writing also music suitable to accompany Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks.


Now in 1924 Diaghiliev’s attention had been drawn to Poulenc. Diaghilev sought from Poulenc a new ballet for the Ballets Russes’ Monte Carlo season as a modern sequence to Les Sylphides by Glazunov. The subject did not appeal to Poulenc who came up with the proposal for Les Biches, not an easily translatable title. A biche is a doe, the female deer, a slang term also for certain coquettish women. Poulenc chose to base his work on paintings of Watteau that depicted Louis XV and various women in his deer park, “Parc aux biches”. He described the work as a “contemporary drawing room party suffused with an atmosphere of wantonness”. It represented a 1920’s contemporary house party – the bright young things – with the sexual identity of its characters intended to be ambiguous. This was right up Diaghilev’s street. It was choreographed by Nijinska. It was also Poulenc’s entry into neo-classicism. Stravinsky had previously introduced this movement with Pulcinella based on pieces by Pergolesi but here Poulenc went further, plus royaliste que le roi, quoting and dressing up several composers in the same work including Scarlatti, Rossini Tchaikovsky and Mozart, so fast that before you can think, where have I heard that before?, you are fast plunged into the next quote, and to cap it all Poulenc quotes from Stravinsky’s own Soldier’s Tale. What chutzpah indeed! Les Biches remains Poulenc’s best known work, fun, catchy and always tasteful.


In 1926, Poulenc would meet Pierre Bernac, a fine baritone and teacher. He gave the first performances of the Chansons gaillardes in 1926. The two began appearing in recital and recording with Poulenc as the accompanist in 1934 and they continued performing together until Bernac withdrew from performing in public in 1960. Poulenc wrote the majority of his songs for Bernac. Their musical relationship might be compared to Britten and Pears but whilst Poulenc himself was openly gay their relationship does not seem to have encompassed this side of Poulenc’s life.


In 1927 Poulenc had met Wanda Landowska, famous for her playing of the modern harpsichord at a time before the baroque revival and period instruments. Landowska was responsible for the composition of several other new pieces of music for the instrument, notably the harpsichord concerto of Manuel da Falla and his puppet theatre play “El Retablo de Maese Pedro” at the first performance of which she and Poulenc met. She demanded of him a concerto for her. She was a dominant woman to whom one could not say no. The Concert Champêtre (the Pastoral Concerto) was the result. This is the first of three concertos which Matthew will be dealing with in his lectures. Landowska said she “adored” playing it as it made her “insouciant and gay!” It is typically maverick of Poulenc that he pits the harpsichord against the combined resources of a full orchestra whilst in his later organ concerto he balances the much more powerful organ against only timpani and strings. The work is in three movements and as usual includes typical Poulenc cheeky chappie tunes. It is interspersed with reveille horn calls said to have been heard by Poulenc from the barracks at the nearby Chateau de Vincennes. Why pastoral? Chateau de Vincennes, where Landowska was living, is at the end of Line 1 of the Paris Métro and about as near as Poulenc would get to be a rustic. The work itself is a skittish combination of the baroque and Stravinsky.


The concerto for two pianos was written in 1932 and played (and later recorded) by Poulenc with his childhood friend Jacques Février. It was written in two months and first played at an ISCM festival at Venice. It contains both high spirits and thoughtfulness. There is an especial section where there is a clear Balinese influence. Poulenc had heard Balinese music in the Paris Expo of 1931 and, like Debussy before him and Britten after him, the introduction was revelatory. Its neoclassical tag derives from the second movement which is a loving tribute to Mozart. One feels the tune to be a slow movement taken from one of Mozart’s own concertos but I had to play all 27 of them before realizing it was pure Poulenc.


The organ concerto, like the double piano concerto, was commissioned by Princess Polignac in 1934, as a chamber orchestra piece with an easy organ part that she could manage herself. However Poulenc abandoned this idea for something much more grandiose and ambitious. He wrote to Jean Françaix, “The concerto is not the amusing Poulenc of the Concerto for two pianos, but more like a Poulenc en route for the cloister.” Following the death of his friend and composer, Ferroud, in 1936 Poulenc went on a pilgrimage to the Black Virgin of Rocamadour where he would rediscover his father’s Christian faith. This reconversion added a religious dimension to much of the music he would write including also his incomplete organ concerto. Poulenc never having composed for the organ before would study works of Bach and Buxtehude which reflect in the work’s neo-baroque leanings. The darker hues of the organ concerto clearly reflect the new religiosity, a serious side to Poulenc’s personality but having been completed in 1938, the year of the Munich crisis, I just wonder if, like Martinu’s double concerto, it reflects also the gathering storm.


From now on there will be the Janus side of Poulenc’s character. Alongside the fun and games of the twenties and thirties with Poulenc sharing friendships and associations with the likes of Jean Gabin, Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier he was able to release a number of devotional works including a Stabat Mater, his Gloria, his Litanies à la Vièrge Noire. It made him a more complete composer. One saw the same with his friend of the period, Sergei Prokofiev who could also switch between buffoonery and deep seriousness. Yet with Poulenc there remains in his most spiritual of works a touch or brushstroke somewhere of the other Poulenc who can still display the humour of his alter ego.


The war years did not interrupt his activities. In 1941with Durey and Auric he joined the national Front of Musicians organized by the French communist party. The following year he wrote a humorous ballet, Les Animaux Modèles, based on fables by La Fontaine in which he included the tune of an old popular song “You’ll Never Have Alsace and Lorraine”, an act of defiance unrecognized by the Germans. On the other hand he wrote “Figure Humaine” in 1943 but, with its conclusion called Liberté, it had to wait till 1945 for its first performance in London. At the end of the war he wrote Babar the Elephant, every bit as popular as Paddington Bear and, orchestrated by Jean Françaix, worthy of a place alongside Peter and The Wolf and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.


With the post-war years it was back to Apollinaire with the surrealist opera-ballet Les Mamelles de Tiresias urging women to make babies – women’s lib was more than a decade away – and this put the mockers on it for the first two sopranos cast for the role who each became pregnant!. This was old Poulenc of the profane variety. In stark contrast there followed his opera The Carmelites concerning nuns of that order during the French Revolution, each of whom is guillotined in a chilling sequence. You takes your choice. Poulenc and Bernac embarked on several American tours. For his second visit to the States Poulenc wrote his delightful piano concerto although it was not what American audiences expected despite his slipping in “Way Down Upon the Swanee River”. Poulenc never wrote a symphony but he did write his sinfonietta on a commission from the BBC to celebrate the first anniversary of the Third Programme in 1947. It is a little back to Les Biches and a work played far too little.


Throughout his career Poulenc wrote chamber music, not your common or garden string quartets or sonatas but usually music for one or two wind instruments accompanied always by piano with works dedicated to Prokofiev and Honegger.


Francis Poulenc died from a sudden heart attack aged 64. For him fun had been a way of life. What Constant Lambert said of Chabrier would have been more appropriate for Poulenc, “He was the first important composer since Mozart to show that seriousness is not the same as solemnity, that profundity is not dependent upon length, that wit is not always the same as buffoonery, and that frivolity and beauty are not necessarily enemies” . One could add that no-one in modern times could write a better melody than Francis Poulenc. He, more than anyone else, was the tunesmith of the twentieth century.


Lastly, apart from his wit and charm many of the critiques and programme notes I have read refer to Poulenc being so Gallic. I have to question this adjective particularly since my dear French wife once commented “What is Gallic when it’s at home? No-one in France would know what you are talking about”. It is true. It happens only with music, not painting. The impressionist painters were French but for some reason composers, like Fauré and Ravel amongst others, are attributed with a Gallic quality. There is Gallic wit, Gallic esprit, Gallic verve and Gallic élan. We don’t refer to Britten as ever so Anglo Saxon nor Hamish McCunn’s Land of the Mountain and Flood as being so Celtic. The only object of culture which can lay claim to the term Gallic is the Asterix Theme Park. I did Caesar’s Gallic Wars for my ‘O’ levels and I can tell you that old Julius never attributed wit, esprit, verve or élan to the Gauls. The next time I read yet another programme note referring to Gallic I will send it back to its author marked “Gallic, mon cul”.