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Francis Poulenc

On the great modern French composer.


At the climax of Francis Poulenc’s opera Dialogues des Carmelites, there is a touching moment of recognition: the fearful young novice Blanche finds the courage at the last moment to rejoin her sister nuns who have been sentenced to death by guillotine. In the chaos of the crowd, Blanche sees her friend Soeur Constance, and the music suddenly pauses. The two women’s gazes meet, and the orchestra plays a series of gentle chords as Constance smiles at Blanche. Nothing more needs to be said; the ties of friendship between the two nuns have been re-affirmed, and the tormented Blanche has found the inner peace she needs to accept martyrdom. The scene is an unforgettable masterstroke, one of the greatest moments of twentieth-century drama in any medium —and the music at its core is a direct quotation from Poulenc’s Nocturne No. 1 in C, a sleazy-sounding piece of lounge piano music that he had written more than twenty years earlier.

Poulenc’s status as one of the great twentieth-century composers is by now secure, but critical comment on his work remains curiously ambivalent. Writers on Poulenc usually divide his career into secular and religious halves, following the lead of the critic Claude Rostand who described him as “un moine et un voyou” (“a monk and a rascal”). Poulenc the voyou is a perpetual adolescent, the composer of salon piano pieces, the ballets Les biches and Les animaux modèles, and the music for L’histoire du Babar, le petit éléphant. Poulenc the moine is a man wracked by depression, deeply conscious of mortality and the passage of time, a devotee of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour, and the composer of the Stabat mater and Motets pour un temps de penitence. Such contradictions are only puzzling to those who still believe in a watertight separation of sacred and secular, popularity and profundity, agapē and érōs. But Poulenc seems to have been more than usually self-conscious about his inner divisions, writing to an American acquaintance that “at the moment I am a dual personage, and Poulenc despises with all his might the all-too-vulnerable Francis.”

This fascination with duality plays itself out in Poulenc’s constant habit of self-quotation. The soprano melody “Domine Deus” from his Gloria reappears in the oboe sonata; the final chords of his choral piece Figure humaine, based on Surrealist poems by Paul Éluard, are quoted precisely in his Quatre petites prières de Saint François d’Assise; the Christmas motet O magnum mysterium provides the opening melody for the slow movement of a flute sonata. These are not subtle, concealed references; Poulenc wants his listeners to be struck, perhaps unsettled, by the resemblances between his sacred and secular works. Another favored technique is juxtaposing pieces of wildly different characters: the 1943 song cycle Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon opens with a heartfelt elegy for the former glory of France and closes with a cabaret-style patter song matter-of-factly describing the horrifying banalities of life under the Occupation (the tempo marking is Incroyablement vite, or “unbelievably fast”). When his former landlord commissioned him to write music for his wedding, Poulenc produced the exuberant choral showpiece Exsultate Deo and the muted, sorrowful Salve regina, one of the simplest of all his works. Neither piece was ever sung in its intended context: the wedding was cancelled.

Born in 1899, Poulenc was the heir to a profitable business enterprise through the Poulenc Frères pharmaceutical company, and his parents seemed to have discouraged him from pursuing a musical career. The deaths of both his mother and father left him free to pursue a career as a composer, but his enthusiasm for the cutting-edge music of Debussy and Stravinsky marked him as an outsider, and his interview with a professor at the Paris Conservatory ended in disaster (“your work’s disgusting, inept, a load of tasteless garbage”). Poulenc became a rare example of a French autodidact, whose craftsmanship was the result of correspondence with Satie, Stravinsky, and Ravel, private lessons with the maverick composer Charles Koechlin, conversations with the young composers in the circle of Jean Cocteau, and his own work as a pianist and music critic. The brief Mouvements perpétuels of 1919 illustrate the qualities that set the young Poulenc’s music apart: clarity, melodiousness, and a certain witty insouciance; like almost all his piano music, it sounds as though it were written for performance in a bar filled with cigarette smoke.

All accounts of Poulenc’s life mention the death of the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud in 1936 as a turning point in his musical career. Ferroud, almost exactly a year younger than Poulenc, was killed unexpectedly in a horrific accident, walking down the street in a small Hungarian town when a passing car struck him with such force that he was instantly decapitated. As the usual story goes, the death of his close friend led the carefree young composer to a crisis, which in turn inspired a religious reawakening, a subsequent pilgrimage to the Marian shrine of Rocamadour, and a turn to greater seriousness and emotional depth. But much of this account is simply not true: far from being a close friend, Ferroud was a casual acquaintance, and Poulenc’s attitude towards him during his life seems to have been one of irritated condescension. Poulenc’s most recent biographer, Roger Nichols, suggests that the feeling aroused by Ferroud’s death were mostly egocentric: the need to secure his own posthumous legacy by creating a body of work worthy of remembrance, unlike the “emptiness” of Ferroud’s meager musical output. Indeed, such thoughts were already a preoccupation; for several years an increased sense of seriousness and artistic ambition had been perceptible in his music.

However unworthy the motives may have been that brought Poulenc in pilgrimage to Rocamadour, the trip inspired the famous Litanies à la Vierge noire, one of his best-known works (and one of the composer’s own favorites in later life). The piece, however, is as enigmatic as the icon of the Black Virgin herself. Written for three-part treble choir with organ accompaniment, the piece sets a French litany text that Poulenc found in a pamphlet at the shrine, which mixes the petitions of the traditional litany with French nationalistic supplications (“Queen, to whom Roland consecrated his sword, pray for us”). The music is fragmentary, discontinuous; the short prayerlike invocations of the choir are interrupted by violent and increasingly dissonant interjections on the organ. A good performance of the work is deeply unsettling and occasionally frightening; the urgent prayers of the choir evoke a sense of distress and inquietude whose source is unknown to us. This emotional urgency is almost entirely untethered from the text that the choir is singing. The litany to the Black Virgin is merely the occasion for the expression of emotion, not its cause; we are overhearing the prayer of a troubled penitent without knowing what it is that he prays for when he says “Priez pour nous.” In Poulenc’s music, some private sorrow is brought to Mary and, in the hypnotically beautiful final pages, some emotional resolution is achieved, but the nature of the sorrow and its resolution are forever inaccessible. Like anyone who calls on Our Lady for aid, we have been changed, but we do not know how.

Before we go too far in hailing Poulenc for his apophatic mysticism, however, we should recall that all of his sacred works have a secular mirror image: the mysterious disturbances, private sorrows, and ambiguous emotional resolutions that characterize Poulenc’s Litanies are also the stock-in-trade of his beloved surrealist poets. The same year that produced the Litanies also produced Sept chansons for mixed choir, the second of which sets a poem by Éluard that offers a kind of mordant commentary on the transience of grief (“Adieu tristesse / Bonjour tristesse”). There is no question that, of the two, the Litanies is the better piece, but one should not be too hasty to subsume the secular entirely into the sacred with a composer as elusive as Poulenc.

Why has Poulenc’s faith remained so difficult to capture, despite the fame of his sacred music? One reason, perhaps, is that his sacred works often evoke a persona quite different from the composer himself. Poulenc spoke of a “peasant devotion” that he wanted to capture in his Litanies, and a “rough, direct,” and Romanesque style in his Mass in G, corresponding to his paternal ancestry in the Aveyron region of southern France. But Poulenc himself was an urban sophisticate, born in the eighth arrondissement of Paris, a cultivated reader of poetry and a friend of the great modern artists of the period. His mother was a native Parisian, and although his paternal ancestors were from the provinces they were pharmaceutical executives, not peasant farmers. The faith expressed in Poulenc’s sacred works seems to be that of an ancestor many generations removed from the present, a native of a past “age of faith” that is more imagined than real. The few letters in which Poulenc speaks of his faith express doubt, ambivalence, and a persistent sense of sinfulness. He is simultaneously attracted and repelled by the representatives of the institutional Church. On the one hand, “intelligent priests depress me—Dominicans would turn me into a lifelong atheist.” On the other hand, the instructions for his funeral Mass include the request “if possible, Dominicans and Benedictines because I should so much have liked, if I had had their faith, to have been one of them.”

The same conflicts and contradictions that obscure Poulenc’s faith also obscure his troubled romantic life, which included one ill-fated relationship after another with partners of both sexes—primarily men but also women, including a brief liaison in 1946 that produced an illegitimate daughter whom Poulenc would acknowledge only in his will. This instability must have caused him immense grief. Most lamentable of all, perhaps, was the destruction caused by his later-life involvement with Lucien Roubert, a much younger man whose serial unfaithfulness would trigger Poulenc’s nervous breakdown during a concert tour of Germany. Yet aside from occasional references to his “Parisian sexuality,” Poulenc was as unforthcoming about his romantic life as he was about his faith; there are whole decades during which practically nothing at all is known about his private life, despite the best efforts of biographers. In his reticence and self-concealment, Poulenc was following a time-honored French tradition. An article he wrote in 1941 eulogizing the notoriously private composer Maurice Ravel might apply equally well to Poulenc himself:

I went into the church where the baby Maurice was baptized. In this Basque church, fitted with wooden balconies and where the word ‘nave’ truly recaptures its maritime meaning, it was already quite dark. A few candles were burning on the altar of the Virgin. Then Ravel, I prayed for you; do not smile, dear skeptic, because if I am sure you had a heart, I am even more certain that you had a soul.

One of the crucial moments of Poulenc’s life was his discovery, at the age of eleven, of Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise, an enigmatic masterpiece of vocal writing. Schubert’s songs, which individually seem simple and naïve, follow the “winter’s journey” of a rejected lover whose journey into the snow parallels his increasing alienation and despair. The encounter with Winterreise sparked Poulenc’s love for vocal writing, but its central image of a lonely, inhuman winter landscape seems to have haunted him in later life. The frozen, desolate vistas occasionally described in Éluard’s poetry seemed to represent, for Poulenc, the outer limit of human misery. Such images recur in his cycles of choral songs, notably the first and sixth songs of Figure humaine (“The grass pushes up the snow / Like a tombstone”) but forms the central conceit of his Un soir de neige, a kind of Winterreise in miniature. The third song of the cycle is the most despairing (“Woods bruised, woods robbed by a winter journey . . . / My whole body suffering / I am enfeebled, I am dispersed / I face my life, my death, and everything”). Poulenc’s musical setting is deeply poignant, apparently inconsolable, with hollow, widely-spaced chords fading into silence.

If the implacable and inhuman winter of Un soir de neige represents the world at its worst for Poulenc—lonely, immobile, uncaring—then this knowledge might provide the crucial clue to understanding and rehabilitating his much-maligned piano music. Poulenc wrote solo pieces for his own instrument with great difficulty, producing a relatively small output consisting mostly of suites and character pieces in a light style. (His longest movement for piano is the charming Mélancolie, lasting six minutes.) Yet these short pieces carry great expressive weight. The fourth piano Nocturne bears an epigraph from Julien Green’s Le Visionnaire: “Not a note of the waltzes or schottisches was lost through the whole house, so that the ailing man could take part in the festivities and could dream on his sickbed of the happy days of his youth.” The music that follows is a slow dance, sentimental and nostalgic, reminiscent of Chopin. What is being evoked here is the warmth of friendship and conviviality—heard here as a nostalgic memory and in his more extroverted piano pieces as a present reality. These pieces do not strive for great depths of profundity, but the emotion they convey is genuine; they speak to a human experience that is just as true as the alienation and pain of Un soir de neige. This aesthetic truth explains how the salon-like chords of Poulenc’s first nocturne could find a home in the tragic final scene of Dialogues des Carmélites; in the opera, as in the piano piece, the music conveys human friendship, acceptance, and solidarity. These connotations, of course, would have been clearest to a musician of Poulenc’s own era, in which the family piano still retained its function as a center of communal music-making in the home.

Poulenc’s greatest masterpiece for the voice is probably the song cycle Tel jour, telle nuit (“As by day, so by night”), setting verses by his favored Paul Éluard. In the last poem of the cycle, Éluard emerges from his customary obscurity, composing an undisguised love poem to his wife:

Nous avons fait la nuit Je tiens ta main je veille Je te soutiens de toutes mes forces Je grave sur un roc l’étoile de tes forces . . . Je m’émerveille de l’inconnue que tu deviens Une inconnue semblable à toi Semblable à tout ce que j’aime Qui est toujours nouveau.

We have made the night I hold your hand I watch over you I sustain you with all my strength I engrave on a rock the star of your strength . . . I marvel at the stranger that you have become A stranger resembling you Resembling all that I love Which is ever new

Poulenc’s setting of the text is regularly described as one of the great love songs in French, rising to a passionate climax in the final lines of the poem and ending with a long postlude played by the piano alone. Here again we hear Poulenc in his “convivial” mode, the mode of domestic contentment evoked in the piano nocturnes, but now every hint of irony or nostalgia has been stripped away to produce an entirely sincere and frank portrait of human love.

The Catholic listener is likely to hear more than an echo of Saint Augustine in Éluard’s poetic description of a lover who is unknown (inconnu) and constantly renewed: “Late have I loved thee, O beauty ever ancient and ever new!” Indeed, Tel jour was written in the immediate aftermath of the death of Pierre-Octave Ferroud and Poulenc’s trip to Rocamadour, begun only a month after the premiere of Litanies. It would be simplistic to reduce the many musical and poetic complexities of Tel jour to an allegory for mystical union, but it is suggestive that Poulenc’s experience at the shrine of the Black Virgin enabled him not simply to produce sacred music but also to produce his most profound and truthful portrayal of secular love.

Poulenc does not seem to have any particular devotion to Saint Augustine, who may have been a casualty of his dislike of “intellectual priests”; in Dialogues des Carmélites, Mère Marie de Saint-Augustin is the name of the rather formidable “new Prioress.” But like many French artists of his generation, Poulenc seems to have had an affection for Saint Francis of Assisi, composing two cycles of Franciscan prayers for men’s voices (Quatre petits prières de Saint François d’Assise and Laudes de Saint Antoine de Padoue). The Little Prayers of St Francis show Poulenc at his simplest and most intimate, reduced to simple three-part harmony for the third prayer: “Lord, I beseech you, let the burning and tender power of your love consume my soul and take it away from all earthly things. Thus may I die through love for your love, as you submitted yourself to die through love for my love.” The texture is simple, but the harmonies become lush and rich at “mon amour,” echoing the eroticism of Poulenc’s Éluard settings. Human love and divine love are difficult to distinguish here; the analyst will search in vain for anything that separates the musical language of the Petites prières from those of Tel jour or Figure humaine.

Whatever Poulenc experienced in prayer at Rocamadour, it did not resolve his inner contradictions or spare him from loneliness and heartbreak. But it seems to have enabled him to explore a deeper emotional range in his music; the works after 1936 aspire to, and often attain, a bittersweet profundity that is absent in Poulenc’s earlier music. Perhaps his struggles with his faith also helped him to resolve some of the fears about his posthumous legacy that plagued him in the 1930s. In his instructions for his own funeral, Poulenc asked that none of his own music be played at the Requiem Mass: he asked for a “dignified and simple” liturgy with Baroque organ music by Couperin and Grigny for the prelude and postlude, and “lots of bells since they speed the soul onwards, I’m sure.”