Childhood & Early life
Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc was born on 7 January 1899 in Paris. His father Émile Poulenc was a Roman Catholic from Espalion. Émile and his two brothers were joint owners of Poulenc Frères, a successful manufacturer of industrial chemicals. Émile was also passionate about art and music.
Poulenc’s mother Jenny née Royer came from a long line of Parisian craftsmen and naturally had an artistic inclination. She was a gifted amateur pianist who idolized Mozart, Schubert and Chopin. Apart from Francis, the couple had another child; a daughter named Jeanne, who was 12 years older than her brother.
Since both his parents were passionate about music, musical soirees were a regular occurrence at their home. Francis began learning piano from his mother in January 1904 while also deriving considerable artistic stimulus by eavesdropping on his mother’s chats with her brother Marcel Royal.
After teaching Poulenc for three years, his mother took him to a professional piano teacher called Mlle Melon in 1907. She possessed excellent technique and under her supervision, he started practicing piano for one hour every afternoon after lycée (school).
In 1907, he was first exposed to contemporary music when he heard Claude Debussy’s ‘Danse sacrée et danse profane’. Intoxicated by the music he had just heard, he started pestering his teacher to let him play more of Debussy, unaware of the fact that they were much too difficult for him.
In 1910, when he was 11 years old, his uncle Marcel Royer took him to see Stravinsky's ‘Petrushka’ and ‘The Rite of Spring’, which impressed him greatly. He also loved ‘Die Winterreise’ by Schubert and ‘Three Piano Pieces’ by Schönberg. Until then, his interest in music was mainly amateurish.
At 14, after hearing Eduard Risler play the ‘Idylle’ from Chabrier’s ‘Dix Pièces pittoresques’, Poulenc decided to take up composing as his profession. His mother supported his ambition and agreed to let him enroll in the Paris Conservatory, but his father refused, insisting that he finish his general education first.
In 1914, while continuing his studies at Lycée Condorcet, Poulenc began to take piano lessons from Ricardo Viñes, studying under him until 1918. Viñes taught him contemporary music of Debussy, Stravinsky and Satie. In the same year, Poulenc composed ‘Processional pour la crémation d'un mandarin’ for solo piano.
The period between 1914 and 1918 was very tough for Poulenc, as he lost his mother in 1915 and father in 1917. Thereafter, Viñes became his spiritual mentor. Since his father had left him considerable estate, financial stability was the least of his worries.
Sometime between 1914 and 1918, he met avant-garde poets like Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Paul Éluard, Louis Aragon; and composers like Georges Auric, Erik Satie and Darius Milhaud. All of them had tremendous influence on his creativity; but according Poulenc, Satie’s influence on him was “immediate and wide”.
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Although Francis Poulenc had been writing music since the age of 15, he made his debut in 1917 with ‘Rapsodie Nègre’ for flute, clarinet, string quartet, baritone and piano. Based on a verse entitled ‘Les Poésies de Makoko Kangourou’, his work was an immediate success on its premier night on 11 December 1917.
In January 1918, during the First World War, Poulenc was conscripted in the French Army. From July to October 1918, he served at the German front before being given a series of auxiliary posts. He served as a typist for the air force before he was released in January 1921.
In the postwar period, his military duties became lighter, giving him enough time to compose music. In 1918, while stationed at Saint-Martin-sur-le-Pré, he composed ‘Trois Mouvements Perpétuels’ and ‘Sonata for Piano Duet’, using the piano of a local elementary school. He wrote a few more pieces; but they got either lost or destroyed.
In February 1919, Poulenc’s composition ‘Trois Mouvements Perpétuels’ was performed by Ricardo Viñes and became quite popular, making the young pianist justly famous. In the same year, he completed ‘Le Bestiaire’, a song cycle based on Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem; and ‘Cocardes’, inspired from Jean Cocteau’s works.
Satie formed the ‘Group of Six’ or ‘Les Six’ in 1919. Apart from Poulenc, it included Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, and Germaine Tailleferre; all of whom were very close friends.
‘Les Six’ was formally launched in January 1920. Very soon, they jointly published ‘L'Album des Six’, an album of piano pieces, and ‘Suite en 3 mouvements in C major’ was Poulenc’s contribution to it. The piece was premiered on April 10 by Ricardo Viñes in the Paris Conservatory.
In the early 1920s, Poulenc’s fame, both as a composer and performer, began to spread beyond France, especially in England. Ernest Newman, noted music critic from England, wrote in 1921 that Poulenc was likely to become a magnificent composer, and that he was a musician to watch out for.
Despite achieving fame, Poulenc continued to learn music, studying under composer Charles Koechlin between 1921 and 1924. Meanwhile in 1923, he was commissioned by Serge Diaghilev, the founder-director of Ballets Russell, to write a full-length ballet score. He chose to create a modern version of the classical French fête galante, writing ‘Les biches’. Premiered in January 1924 in Monte Carlo and in May in Paris, it was an instant success, becoming one of his best-known works.
As the 1920s progressed, he continued to churn out music, composing song cycles ‘Poèmes de Ronsard’ in 1924 and ‘Chansons gaillardes’ in 1926. The latter song cycle was performed on May 2 by baritone Pierre Bernac, leading to a close friendship between the two young men.
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Poulenc started writing ‘Concert champêtre’ in 1927 at the request of harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, whom he knew since 1923. He finished it sometime in 1928, and it was premiered on May 3, 1929 at the Salle Pleyel in Paris under the baton of Pierre Monteux, with Landowska playing the solo part.
One of his major works was ‘Aubade’, a choreographic concerto for piano and 18 instruments. Composed in 1929 as a ballet, it was also premiered as a ballet on June 18. However, due to personal reasons, Poulenc wrote very little music during the last two years of the 1920s.
Change in Musical Style
In 1930, Francis Poulenc returned to writing music. In January of the same year, his long-time friend Raymonde Linossier passed away all of a sudden, leaving him devastated. In her memory, he wrote 'Épitaphe', which according to pianist Graham Johnson was "a profound song in every sense”.
While his earlier works were all light-hearted, from 1931 onwards, one could see a shift in his style. The same year saw him writing three more songs; 'Trois poèmes de Louise Lalanne', 'Quatre poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire' and 'Cinq poèmes de Max Jacob'.
While writing both vocal and instrumental music, he reached another landmark in his career when his ‘Sonata for clarinet and bassoon’ became one of the first musical pieces to be broadcast on television in 1932. The piece, played by Reginald Kell and Gilbert Vinter, was broadcast by BBC.
Poulenc started performing regularly with Pierre Bernac in 1936. In the same year, the violent death of his fellow composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud reawakened his religious faith, prompting him to contemplate the frailty of human life.
His religious thoughts were intensified when he went on a holiday to Rocamadour. On the same evening, he reached the sanctuary of Rocamadour and started writing ‘Litanies à la Vierge noire’, a sacred music for a three-part choir of women with organ accompaniment. This was followed by a number of works that reflected his newfound solemnity.
In 1937, he wrote his first major liturgical work ‘Mass in G major for soprano and mixed choir a cappella’. Concurrently, he also continued to write light musical pieces like ‘Tel jour, telle nuit’, a song cycle based on the poems of the surrealist poet Paul Éluard.
Poulenc went on his first tour to Great Britain with Bernac in 1938. With the onset of the Second World War, he was conscripted into the army on 2 June 1940, serving in an anti-aircraft unit at Bordeaux. He was discharged from the army on 18 July 1940.
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Post Second World War
After being demobilized in 1940, Francis Poulenc returned home to write ‘L'Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant’, ‘Cello Sonata’, ‘Les Animaux modèles’ and ‘Banalités’. As a homosexual musician, he was in a vulnerable position; and yet, he showed his defiance to the German occupation through his music.
He not only converted poems by Aragon and Éluard into music, but also used tunes from anti German songs like ‘Vous n'aurez pas l'Alsace et la Lorraine’ in his own compositions. ‘Figure humaine’, a cantata written in 1943, is one of his major works of this period.
In 1945, he visited England and completed an opéra bouffe called ‘Les mamelles de Tirésias’. It was based on a play written by Guillaume Apollinaire and was premiered in Paris on 3 June 1947.
He went on his first tour to the USA in 1948 and continued returning to that country until 1961. Concurrently, he continued to write music, completing ‘Dialogues des Carmélite’ in 1956. In January 1957, the opera was premiered in Milan, while it opened in Paris in May and San Francisco in September that year.
His last works are thought to be 'Sonate pour hautbois et piano de Poulenc' (Oboe Sonata) and 'Sonate pour clarinette et piano' (Clarinet Sonata), both written in 1962. It is believed that ‘Déploration’, the last movement of ‘Oboe Sonata’, is the last piece he wrote before his death.
Family & Personal Life
Francis Poulenc was predominantly homosexual and had his first serious affair with painter Richard Chanlaire sometime in the 1920s. During this period, he also proposed marriage to his friend Raymonde Linossier, who rejected it as she was seeing someone else.
His second lover was a bisexual man called Raymond Destouches, whom he met in the early 1930s. The duo remained close friends until Poulenc’s death. The relation between them was rather complex, with paternal feelings being part of the equation.
Shortly after the Second World War, he had a brief affair with a woman called Fréderique Lebedeff, and fathered a daughter named Marie-Ange with her. Although he monetarily supported Marie-Ange and made her the principal beneficiary of his will, he never revealed his paternity to her, preferring to be known as her godfather.
In the late 1940s, he had a new partner, a travelling salesman named Lucien Roubert. The affair that lasted for six years ended in 1955, throwing Poulenc into a nervous breakdown. Thereafter, Poulenc met Louis Gautier, who helped him revive his spirits.
On 30 January 1963, Poulenc suffered a fatal heart attack and died in his home near Jardin du Luxembourg. He was buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery, where his grave continues to be an attraction for the music lovers.