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Francis Poulenc

Biography

Born: Jan 7, 1899; France   Died: Jan 30, 1963; France   Period: 20th Century
Francis Poulenc was the leading composer of Les Six, the French group devoted to turning music away from Impressionism, formality, and intellectualism. 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 Read more 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.
Poulenc was born into a wealthy family of pharmaceutical magnates. The agrochemical giant Rhone-Poulenc is the present-day corporation started by his forebears. His mother was a talented amateur pianist who began giving him piano lessons at age five. Later Poulenc studied with a niece of César Franck, and then with the eminent Spanish virtuoso Ricardo Viñes, for whom he would later write music.
At age eighteen, Poulenc wrote Rapsodie Nègre for baritone and chamber ensemble, which made him an overnight sensation in France. The young composer served in the military during the years 1918-1921, during which time he composed the popular Trois Mouvements Perpétuels (1918).
By 1920, Les Six -- Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Germaine Tailleferre (the sextet's lone female representative), Louis Durey, and Francis Poulenc -- had begun making its impression on the music world. In 1923, Poulenc wrote the ballet Les Biches, which Diaghilev staged the following year with great success, the public finding its mixture of lightness, gaiety, and occasional moments of sentimentality irresistible. Poulenc continued writing at a fairly prolific pace in the late 1920s and early 1930s, producing many piano compositions, songs and other works. In 1935, he rekindled his friendship with baritone Pierre Bernac, thus launching a productive and enduring professional relationship. He also returned to the Roman Catholic Church that year when close friend Pierre-Octave Ferroud was killed in an automobile accident. Thereafter he wrote many important works of a religious nature, the first of which were Litanies à la Vierge Noire, for soloists, chorus and organ, and Mass in G for mixed a cappella chorus, both from 1936.
During the war, Poulenc remained in German-occupied France, writing music of an antiwar or defiantly anti-Nazi bent, sometimes writing songs on texts by banned authors, such as Lorca. He also wrote a ballet Les Animaux Modèles (1940-1941), Sonata for violin and piano (1942-1943; rev. 1949) dedicated to Lorca, and the masterful Figure Humaine (1943), a choral cantata which is a hymn to freedom.
In the postwar years, Poulenc turned out his Sinfonietta (1947) and Piano Concerto (1949), both not entirely successful. In the period 1953-1956, Poulenc produced his most ambitious work, the opera Dialogue of The Carmelites, considered by many the greatest French opera of the twentieth century.
Poulenc finished his last opera in 1958, La Voix Humaine, a work whose lone character talks (sings) on the phone to her deserting lover for the work's 45-minute length. Notable also in this period is his Gloria (1959), a work shorn of sanctimony and rich in communicative simplicity and fervent religiosity. Poulenc's last major work was his Sonata for Oboe and Piano in 1962, dedicated to the memory of Prokofiev, whom he had befriended in the 1920s. Poulenc died suddenly of a heart attack. Read less
Poulenc: Stabat Mater, Litanies, Quatre Motets / BBC Philharmonic
Release Date: 05/21/2002   Label: Opus Arte  
Catalog: 817   Number of Discs: 1
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Poulenc: Ballet Suites / Jean-Pierre Armengaud
Release Date: 09/09/2014   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 573170   Number of Discs: 1
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Ceremonies Of Carols- Britten, Poulenc, Respighi / Korn
Release Date: 09/17/2007   Label: Rca Victor Red Seal  
Catalog: 7787   Number of Discs: 1
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Poulenc: Dialogues Des Carmelites / Rhorer, Koch, Petibon, Gens, Piau
Release Date: 11/11/2014   Label: Erato (Dvd)  
Catalog: 4622069   Number of Discs: 2
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Poulenc: Stabat Mater / Sampson, Reuss
Release Date: 03/11/2014   Label: Harmonia Mundi  
Catalog: 902149   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani in G minor

 

About This Work
In reference to his nearly completed Concerto for organ, strings, and timpani (1938), Poulenc wrote that "This is not the happy-go-lucky Poulenc who wrote the Concerto for two pianos, but a Poulenc en route to the cloister -- a fifteenth century Read more Poulenc, if you like." Though not explicitly religious, the concerto follows a new development in the composer's style that led to the composition of numerous sacred works and several secular works distinct in their sense of gravity and deliberation.

The concerto was commissioned by and dedicated to Princess Edmond de Polgnac. In essaying his first work for organ, Poulenc sought counsel from masters living and dead. Maurice Duruflé, who was the solost in the earliest performances, advised the composer on matters of the instrument's registration. Poulenc also studied the organ music of Buxtehude and Bach, whose influence is reflected in the work's neo-Baroque figuration and ornamentation and in its occasional harmonic anachronisms.

The concerto is structured as a single continuous movement with the character of a fantasia. It begins with a dense chord in the organ, followed by a graceful unaccompanied melody in dotted rhythms. The slightly askew sonority of the next chord bumps the melody from its previously diatonic path. A duet follows between the organ, mysterious in its high range, and foreboding timpani. The opening material returns with a different "wrong" chord, followed by a lushly harmonized string melody underpinned by timpani. The intensity increases with a low faint rumble in the timpani and organ pedal, which is suddenly punctuated with percussive exclamations.

The long-building tension finds release in the subesquent Allegro section, in which the strings and organ alternately take the foreground with a nimble melody that makes its way through an ever-changing harmonic context. A new figure enters, characterized by of a series of repeated ascending tetrachords that outline a triumphant major seventh chord. The Andante section begins abruptly with a plaintive organ solo that eventually evokes a rich, lyrical response from the strings. This conversational passage is followed by a more somber mood, evoked by worrisome melodies and an unyielding pulse. Poulenc once again builds dramatic tension by thickening the harmonies, bringing the music to a peak with a series of stout, cathartic chords in the organ.

A dreamy string interlude provides a transition to a brief Allegro section. A rhapsodic melody floats atop lucid, soothing harmonic progressions borne upon a gentle pulse. The organ emerges with ever-thickening harmonies to usher in the next section, a fast passage with thematic roots in the first Allegro. The organ introduction returns, followed by a reverent viola solo accompanied by delicately plucked strings. As the orchestra fades, the organ ends the concerto with a final emphatic proclamation.

-- Jeremy Grimshaw
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