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The Gloria came about as the result of a commission from the Serge Koussevitzky Foundation. At a talk in the Club des Trois Centres in Paris, just a year before his death, Poulenc recalled how he had settled on a work for chorus, orchestra and soprano soloist:

First, they asked me for a symphony. I told them I was not made for symphonies. Then they asked me for an organ concerto. I told them I had already written one and I didn’t want to write another. Finally they said: ‘All right, then do what you like!’

But in a letter to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s principal conductor—and Koussevitzky’s successor—Charles Münch, Poulenc was still unsure in May 1959 whether he could indeed do what he liked: ‘I have suggested writing a Gloria for mixed choir, soprano solo and orchestra, 20 to 25 minutes in duration. You may perhaps be able to sway the balance in my favour if there is any hesitation.’

An image we might have of Poulenc being the urbane dilettante wrongly hides the fact that he was a meticulous craftsman, and often deeply insecure. As someone who took four years to fashion the Organ Concerto to his satisfaction, and who suffered a nervous breakdown during the writing of his opera Dialogues des Carmélites, composition of the Gloria in the second half of 1959 was a struggle too. In August of that year, he described it in a letter to Pierre Bernac as ‘a problem work … I am working and reworking each bar in every conceivable way’. And at the end of December that year, he wrote to Geneviève Sienkiewicz: ‘When I played you those few bits from it, your reaction encouraged me a great deal. I badly needed this as no other work has posed so many problems for me.’

As Poulenc’s charming, witty letters to Bernac from Boston’s Sheraton Plaza Hotel in January 1961 demonstrate, the rehearsal process for the premiere was initially a shaky affair too:

… as for the Gloria, if I had not come here, what peculiar music would have been heard! Dear, adorable, exquisite Charlie [Münch] had understood precisely nothing … Arriving late for the first rehearsal of the choir, I heard something so unlike me that my legs almost failed me on the staircase … all those worthy Protestants were singing sharp and shrill (especially the women) as they do in London, with that ‘Oh! My good Lord’ quality. All Münch’s tempi were wrong—all too fast naturally … I tell you, I wanted to run a mile.

Things had changed, though, by the final rehearsal two days later:

The rehearsal yesterday was extraordinary. Münch suddenly inspired: as for [soprano soloist Adele] Addison, she drives you wild, she is sheer heaven, with that warm Negro purity … Everyone was full of enthusiasm … The Gloria is without doubt the best thing I have done. The orchestration is marvellous (the ending, among other things, is astonishing) … It has given me a confidence that I badly needed.

Poulenc’s devout faith, he said, resembled that of a simple country priest, and the Gloria is fresh and straightforward throughout. Just as his Organ Concerto, to which he assigned quasi-religious status, has moments of fairground thrill alongside its gothic churchiness, the Gloria is never overly reverent. ‘When I wrote this piece’, Poulenc famously recalled, ‘I had in mind those frescoes by Gozzoli where the angels stick out their tongues; and also some serious Benedictine monks I had once seen revelling in a game of football.’

Talking to an American journalist around the time of the premiere, Poulenc also described the Gloria as having ‘very clear, primary colours—rude and violent like the Provence chapel of Matisse’. So trumpets and horns are resplendent in the heavily accented baroque-like fanfares of the opening or the organ-like explosions of the final section, and he creates distinctive alloys of woodwinds that recall Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Even his writing for strings, which he relished least of all, shines briefly at the central point of unearthly stillness in the Laudamus te. For someone so unconfident of his orchestral knack, he could indeed be justifiably proud.

Stravinsky is present elsewhere—the ‘wrong-note’ parallel ninths in the Laudamus te, the trip-ups of ever-present metre changes. But High Fidelity magazine’s reviewer of the work’s debut recording in August 1961 heard other composers in the mix: ‘The Gloria sounds like a mixture of Saint-Saëns and Carl Orff …’, he wrote. And any question of whether this comparison was meant warmly was answered by the rest of the sentence, a deft and supercilious piece of damnation with faint praise: ‘… although its lovely, quiet ending recalls the fact that Poulenc was once capable of writing beautiful music.’

Ouch! But Poulenc described himself as ‘wildly eclectic’—presumably proudly so. And the influence of grand opera—or Verdi’s Requiem—casts a dramatic shadow in moments such as the forte declamations of Domine Deus. Poulenc was, after all, someone who acknowledged in his dedication of Dialogues des Carmélites the debt of Verdi, Debussy, Mussorgsky and Monteverdi; whose letters describe with relish the Met’s Trovatore with Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli alongside the ‘unsurpassable trio’ of Tebaldi, Gobbi and di Stefano in a Tosca at La Scala; and the soloist in both the European premiere of the Gloria and the debut recording was Rosanna Carteri, a dramatic soprano whose calling-card role Desdemona had featured in a recent 1958 film version of Otello alongside Mario del Monaco.

So the Gloria manages to be both operatic and pious, frivolous and contrite, lyrical and spiky. Although spiced with perfectly calculated stabs of dissonance, it is gloriously backward-looking and conservative for a work written when Boulez and Stockhausen were already making their mark. It is less ambitious and profound than its close contemporary, the War Requiem of Benjamin Britten, his ‘dear brother across the Channel’. But with its moments of sumptuous, enveloping ecstasy and uncomplicated good humour, its appeal endures.

Poulenc’s final choral work, less successful, was the Sept répons des ténèbres. ‘With the Gloria and the Stabat mater’ Poulenc commented shortly before his death, ‘I think I have three good religious works. May they spare me a few days of purgatory, if I do narrowly avoid going to hell.’

from notes by Meurig Bowen © 2008

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Details for CDA67623 track 6
Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris
Recording date
18 April 2007
Recording venue
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Adrian Peacock
Recording engineer
Mike Hatch
Hyperion usage
  1. Poulenc: Gloria & motets (CDA67623)
    Disc 1 Track 6
    Release date: March 2008
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