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Issue 05 – Saint Anselm 2021


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.”

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About the author

Aaron James

Aaron James is the Director of Music for the Toronto Oratory of Saint Philip Neri.