Francis Poulenc | Biography

Biography

Poulenc attributed his career to the gift of a toy piano when he was two years old. In his memoirs he recalled that it was ‘white lacquered and with cherries painted on it’. His father, who ran a pharmaceutical business, came from the Aveyron area of southern France. His mother was Parisian, from a family renowned for its craftsmen. Poulenc’s complex character was shaped by both. He was a figure full of contradictions: the critic Claude Rostand once described him as ‘half monk, half thug’. There was definitely more thug than monk at first. Yet this was a thug with a twinkle in his eye. Poulenc could write music that made you laugh one moment and cry the next, effortlessly manipulating mood and colour. His gift for melting melodies helps, but so does the sophistication of his harmonic language and his ear for seductive instrumentation. Poulenc had early lessons with the pianist Ricardo Viñes from 1915–18, and through him met his future colleagues Eric Satie and Georges Auric. His formal studies in composition began relatively late, in 1921, with Charles Koechlin. It was through Koechlin that Poulenc acquired a feeling for choral music, thanks to his exercises of harmonising chorales in the style of Bach.  Poulenc’s music coupled modish irony with classical elegance. Works such as the Concert champêtre, Aubade, La bal masqé and the Double Piano Concerto display fluency and an impressive mastery of technique. As such, he was a natural member of ‘Les Six’, the group of young French composers christened and supported by the poet Jean Cocteau. A commission from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the fulcrum of 1920s Parisian culture, seemed inevitable. The result was Les Biches, premiered in 1924 in Monte Carlo. Wit was always part of his persona — see the surreal Les Mammelles de Tirésias (1944) — and Poulenc’s life might have continued in this light-hearted vein. But in 1936 his friend and fellow composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud was killed in a horrific road accident. Poulenc was so shaken he made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Notre-Dame de Rocamadour. Here, the story goes, he rediscovered his Catholic faith. Whether that is true or not, he went on to compose a sequence of profoundly beautiful sacred works. Poulenc’s natural compassion is apparent in the monodrama La voix humaine (1958), in which a woman discovers during a phone call to her lover that he is now her ex. As a gay man Poulenc struggled with his own sexuality, and even contemplated marriage at one stage. His platonic relationships were more reliably fulfilling, both artistically and emotionally. They included those with the baritone Pierre Bernac, for whom he wrote many songs, and the soprano Denise Duval. Duval created some of his greatest vocal roles, not least the troubled protagonist in La voix humaine and Blanche in Dialogues des Carmélites. A dramatization of the martyrdom of sixteen nuns from the Carmel convent in Compiègne during the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution, Dialogues des Carmélites is one of the most searing of all 20th-century operas, and the crowning achievement of Poulenc’s life.