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Poulenc, Francis (1899-1963)

Francis Poulenc

born: 7 January 1899
died: 30 January 1963
country: France

Francis Poulenc (1899–1963) first sprang to the attention of Parisian musical circles as a member of ‘Les Six’, so named by the critic Henri Collet. Les Six began to feature together (initially as ‘Les Nouveaux jeunes’) in the same concert programmes in 1917 and they found a ready spokesman in Jean Cocteau who produced his manifesto Le Coq et l’arlequin the following year. This aesthetic document rejected romanticism and demanded that music should be overtly nationalistic and should shun foreign influences, particularly the excesses of Wagner. Negro art, the frivolous music of Satie, the music of the circus and jazz band, the primitive, machines, brevity and straightforwardness were all considered art forms or values worthy of admiration and emulation. Everyday life was considered to be a powerful subject matter by Cocteau; but, despite despising the refinement, sophistication and decorative excesses of the nineteenth century, Les Six enjoyed a ‘gastronomic preference for under-done meat and extra-dry wines’.

By 1921 the group had begun to lose cohesion; of all the members of Les Six, Francis Poulenc remained true to the group’s general frivolity; the other members had drifted away. Honegger, for example, never had any sympathy with Erik Satie and therefore with Les Six. Despite the group’s anti-Debussyism which resulted from contact with Satie, Poulenc described how as a child he came close to kissing Debussy’s hat in a shop; in later years he said, ‘Debussy always remained my favourite composer after Mozart. I could not do without his music. It is my oxygen.’

Poulenc was born into a wealthy family. His father was a devout Roman Catholic who had business interests in the pharmaceutical trade; the Rhône-Poulenc Company was one of the largest in Europe. It was his mother who gave him his interest in music and in 1915 he studied piano with Ricardo Viñes. The young composer had had no formal musical training, and felt the need to continue his musical education. He tried unsuccessfully to study with Ravel and Vidal before being taken under the wing of Charles Koechlin. It was Ravel who urged Poulenc to take a lower profile in the avant-garde musical world and to devote more time to his musical technique. It seems that Ravel’s advice came not a moment too soon, for Poulenc was on the verge of becoming inexorably associated with Les Six.

Poulenc was called up into the forces in 1918 and was not demobilized until 1921. He studied with Koechlin between 1921 and 1924, taking time to visit Milhaud in Vienna, expressly to meet Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. On his return, Diaghilev commissioned him to write a ballet which resulted in Les Biches. It was this work which firmly established Poulenc as a composer. This reputation was further enhanced by the Concert champêtre (1929) written for Wanda Landowska. Poulenc wrote that ‘the three great encounters of my life, which have profoundly influenced my art, are those with [the harpsichordist] Wanda Landowska, [the baritone] Pierre Bernac, and [the poet] Paul Éluard.’

from notes by William McVicker © 1994

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