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Francis Poulenc and “Les Biches” (The Does)

Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc (January 7, 1899–January 30, 1963) was a French composer and pianist, associated with the French group Les Six who composed art songs, solo piano music, chamber music, oratorios, choral music, operas, ballet music, and orchestral music. Poulenc was born into a wealthy family of musicians at Paris, France, on January 7, 1899. His father Émile Poulenc was a second-generation director of the Poulenc, and later Rhône-Poulenc, chemical corporation. His mother, an amateur pianist, gave him his first lessons on the instrument. Later he studied with a niece of César Franck. In 1914 he was introduced to the Spanish virtuoso pianist Ricardo Viñes, a champion of the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Poulenc became his pupil shortly afterwards and developed into a capable pianist whose early compositions were dominated by the keyboard. In 1916 a childhood friend, Raymonde Linossier (1897–1930), introduced Poulenc to Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop, the Maison des Amis des Livres. There he met avant-garde poets such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Paul Éluard and Louis Aragon. He later set many of their poems to music. He had his first major successes as an 18-year-old composer without a single composition lesson.

Poulenc’s first surviving composition, Rapsodie Nègre (1917), caught the attention of the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky who was later instrumental in having the work published in London. Le bestiaire, ou Le cortège d’Orphée (1917) is a cycle of mélodies on poems by Guillaume Apollinaire. In 1918, Poulenc performed the premiere of his Sonata for Piano Four Hands with a fellow Viñes pupil, Marcelle Meyer. The young composer served in the military during the years 1918-1921, during which time he gave first performances of several of his new pieces, the Sonata for Two Clarinets, the Sonata for Piano Four Hands, a Sonata for Violin and Piano, and Trois mouvements perpétuels, at a series of concerts held from 1917 to 1920 in the studio of the painter Émile Lejeune in Montparnasse. There Poulenc met other young composers, and together they formed Erik Satie’s Les nouveaux jeunes, followed by Jean Cocteau’s Les Six, a loose-knit group of young French and French-Swiss composers made up of Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, and Germaine Tailleferre. Poulenc composed his Valse en ut for L’Album des Six (1920). He contributed to Les mariés de la tour Eiffel (1921) with Discours du Général and La Baigneuse de Trouville.

During the 1920s, Poulenc’s most immediate influences were Chabrier, Debussy, Satie, and Stravinsky. He generally followed the irreverent, flippant aesthetic stance of Les Six with melodies influenced by Parisian music halls. Between 1921 and 1925, Poulenc received his first formal training in composition when he studied with Charles Koechlin (1921–25). He remained a mostly self-taught composer. Sergei Diaghilev commissioned ballet music from Poulenc for Les biches. This was performed by the Ballets Russes in January 1924, with settings by Marie Laurencin. In 1926 Poulenc met the baritone Pierre Bernac, who became a very close friend. A great many of the chansons and melodies Poulenc wrote were composed for Bernac. They gave recitals throughout the world together from 1935 until 1959. In 1927, Poulenc bought Le grand coteau, a house close to Noizay in the Touraine, where he enjoyed the quiet atmosphere he needed to work.

In 1928 Poulenc composed the Concert champêtre, a piece for harpsichord and orchestra commissioned by Wanda Landowska. Also in 1928, Poulenc recorded his Trois mouvements perpétuels and the Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon, and then Le bestiaire. He also started publishing musical reviews in Les arts phoniques. He first performed his Concerto for two pianos and orchestra with Jacques Février in 1932. Also in 1932 Le Bal Masqué, a lighter piece, was performed privately at the home of Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles. In 1936 Poulenc came to a religious reawakening of his Catholic faith after the deaths of several friends, such as Raymonde Linossier in 1930, a woman to whom he had proposed a marriage in 1928, and the fellow composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, followed by a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour in 1935. Here, before the statue of the Madonna with a young child on her lap, Poulenc experienced a life-changing transformation. Thereafter, he produced a sizeable amount of liturgical music or compositions based on religious themes. Poulenc continued to compose light music, such as the Quatre chansons pour enfants (1934) on texts by Jean Nohain. However, some of his works were more somber and austere. This is exemplified by his first sacred pieces, Litanies à la vierge noire (“Litanies to the Black Madonna,” 1936) and the Mass in G (1937). The trend toward “new dimensions and greater depth” in the composer’s style was continued by the song cycle Tel jour, telle nuit (1937) and Concerto in G minor for organ, strings, and timpani (1938).

One of Poulenc’s most popular songs is “Les chemins de l’amour.” It was originally written as part of the incidental music for Jean Anouilh’s play Léocadia (1940), but it achieved fame outside that context. The remainder of the Léocadia music is lost. During World War II Poulenc, Durey and Auric joined the Comité de Front National des Musiciens, created in May 1941, and led by Elsa Barraine and Roger Désormière. He also composed film music, including La Duchesse de Langeais (1942) and Jean Anouilh’s Le voyageur sans bagage. In his humorous ballet, Les animaux modèles (1942, with Serge Lifar), Poulenc used the theme of a French patriotic song performed without the German officers noticing. In 1943, he set to music Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon, although the poet was a member of the French Resistance. This piece was given at the salle Gaveau in December 1943. The cantata Figure humaine was finished in 1943, but it was not publicly performed until 1945, in London. It set to music poems by Paul Éluard, notably Liberté, thousands of copies of which had been dropped over French territory in 1942 by the Royal Air Force.

It was also in 1945 that Poulenc composed L’histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant (The Story of Babar the Elephant, based on a popular children’s book). Although the score of Poulenc’s only opera bouffe, Les mamelles de Tirésias after Guillaume Apollinaire’s surrealist drama, was completed in 1945, it was not performed until 1947, after Poulenc met soprano Denise Duval. Between 1947 and 1949, he became a radio host for À bâtons rompus. His choice of music was very diverse, including many pieces from the French repertoire. Poulenc’s compositions continued, including chansons accompanied on the piano, choral music, secular pieces such as Huit chansons françaises (1945), religious works like Stabat Mater (1950) works, orchestral pieces such as Sinfonietta (1947), chamber music particularly for wind instruments, works for one or two pianos such as L’embarquement pour Cythère, a valse musette (1951).

Poulenc gave the first of his many concerts in the United States in 1948 with Pierre Bernac. During his time in the US, he met the American soprano Leontyne Price, who sang his chansons, and the composer Samuel Barber. His Mélodies passagères were performed in Paris in February 1952 by Bernac and Poulenc. In 1952,Poulenc started working on what was to become the opera Dialogues of the Carmelites, based on a play by Georges Bernanos. Poulenc soon became obsessed with this work. Poulenc adapted Bernanos’ text for the libretto. The opera was first performed at La Scala in Italian, in January 1957 with Virginia Zeani singing the principal soprano role of Blanche. In June 1957, it was produced at the Paris Opera with Denise Duval as Blanche and Régine Crespin as Madame Lidoine. In September of that year, it was produced in San Francisco in English starring Leontyne Price as Mme Lidoine; this was her first stage opera. Denise Duval also sang the role Elle in La voix humaine (1958), a lyric tragedy based on Jean Cocteau’s play which was Poulenc’s last opera. Poulenc wrote the song cycle La courte paille for her (and her child) in 1960, and La dame de Monte Carlo in 1961.

Poulenc travelled to the U.S. in 1960–61 for the American premieres of Les mamelles de Tirésias and La voix humaine. Commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation, his Gloria (1961) for soprano solo, choir and orchestra was premiered in both Boston, conducted by Charles Munch, and in Paris, conducted by Georges Prêtre. Poulenc published a book on Emmanuel Chabrier in 1961. He composed Sept répons des ténèbres in 1962. Poulenc died suddenly of heart failure in Paris on January 30, 1963, and is buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery. His last two works were premiered posthumously, in April and June 1963: the Sonata for Oboe and Piano, dedicated to the memory of Prokofiev, was given by Pierre Pierlot and Jacques Février and the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein. Poulenc was particularly fond of woodwind instruments: having planned a set of sonatas for all of them, he lived to complete only four, for flute, oboe, clarinet, and the Elégie for French horn.

One of the great melodists of the twentieth century, Poulenc created some very “French” music which was at the same time natural, light, graceful, solemn and subtle. He never really cottoned to the symphony and wrote few orchestral works not tied to the theater. His best orchestra pieces include the ballets Les Biches and the profound Model Animals (based on La Fontaine) of 1942. He wrote in a direct and tuneful manner, often juxtaposing the witty and ironic with the sentimental or melancholy. He heavily favored diatonic and modal textures over chromatic writing. His music also shows many elements of pandiatonicism, introduced around 1920 by Stravinsky, whose influence can be heard in some of Poulenc’s compositions, such as the religious choral work, Gloria. Poulenc is regarded as one of the most important twentieth century composers of religious music, and in the realm of the French art song he is also a major voice of his time. Poulenc was also a pianist of considerable ability. He was particularly fond of woodwinds, and planned a set of sonatas for all of them, yet only lived to complete four: sonatas for flute, oboe, clarinet, and the Elegie for horn. Among his last series of major works is a series of works for wind instruments and piano.

My collection includes the following works by Francis Poulenc:

Concert Champetre in DM for harpsichord and Orchestra (1929).
(Organ) Concerto in gm for Organ, String Orchestra, and Timpani (1936).
Concerto in dm for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1932).
Les Biches (1924).
Suite Francaise.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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