Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc was a French composer and a member of the French group Les Six. He composed solo piano music, chamber music, oratorio, choral music, opera, ballet music, and orchestral music.
Poulenc was born in Paris in 1899 to a wealthy family who owned a chemical corporation. His mother, an amateur pianist, taught him to play at a very young age. Poulenc started his formal piano training at the age of 16 with the Spanish pianist, Ricardo Viñes.
In 1916 Poulenc was introduced to avante-garde poets such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Paul Éluard and Louis Arago, many of whose poems he later set to music. Erik Satie, the Dadaist, also influenced Poulenc greatly at this time and as a result, he joined a group of musicians dubbed Les Six, who included Auric, Durey, Arthur Honegger, Milhaud, and Tailleferre, a group with a close connection to Satie and the Dada movement.
Poulenc began composition lessons in 1921 with Charles Koechlin. During the 1920s, Poulenc's most immediate composing influences were Chabrier, Debussy, Satie, and Stravinsky, and he generally followed the irreverent, flippant aesthetic stance of Les Six, however was not as interested in asymmetrical rhythms and poly-harmonies like the others in Les Six. Poulenc was a more a classicist and was content to follow the neo-classical formation of Ravel’s piano music and songs.
Another significant event in his life happened in 1926 when he became the accompanist for the French baritone, Pierre Bernac. They became close friends and he wrote many melodiè for Bernac in the coming years. They gave recitals together from 1935 until 1959.
The death of several friends and a pilgrimage to the Black Madonna of Rocamadour in 1935 led to a reawakening of Poulenc’s Catholic faith and resulted in many somber and austere sacred compositions, like Litanies à la vierge noire ("Litanies to the Black Madonna") in 1936 and the Mass in G in 1937.
Poulenc was also commissioned to write numerous ballets including Les animaux modèles in 1942, which was a humorous ballet in which he managed to use the theme of a French patriotic song. In 1943, he set to music Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon, although the poet was a communist and a member of the French Resistance.
After Poulenc met soprano Denise Duval, his only opera bouffe, Les mamelles de Tirésias, "Tiresias' Breasts", was performed in 1947, even though the score had been completed in 1945. She became a muse for Poulenc as she also sang the roles of Blanche in Dialogues of the Carmelites and Elle in La voix humaine. The song cycle La courte paille was written for her and her child in 1960 and La dame de Monte Carlo in 1961.
Poulenc continued to compose thoughout the 1940s and 50s including chansons, choral music, secular and sacred works, orchestral pieces, chamber music, works for one or two pianos, and even film music. In 1948, he gave his first of many concerts in the United States with Pierre Bernac. He soon met soprano Leontyne Price, one of his musical inspirations, and soon after she began performing his chansons in the States.
In 1953, Poulenc started working on what was to become the opera Dialogues of the Carmelites based on a story by Georges Bernanos. Poulenc soon became obsessed with this work, and saw the fate of Blanche de la Force as a sad echo of the long agony of his boyfriend Lucien Roubert, a traveling salesman who died in 1955. Poulenc himself adapted the libretto from Bernanos' text. The opera was first performed at La Scala in Italian, in January 1957, with Virginia Zeani singing the principal soprano role of Blanche, then in June at the Paris Opera with Denise Duval as Blanche and Regine Crespin as Madame Lidoine and in September in the U.S. with Leontyne Price as Mme Lidoine. This was her first stage opera.
In 1958 he wrote La voix humaine, a lyric tragedy based on Cocteau's play. It was dedicated to Poulenc's last lover, Louis Gautier, a manual worker he met in 1957. Poulenc then published a book on Emmanuel Chabrie, a composer who inspired him, in 1961. His last two works were first performed posthumously, in April and June 1963: the Sonata for Oboe and Piano was given by Pierre Pierlot and Jacques Février and the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein.
Even though he prescribed the ideals of the dada movement and was a member of Les Six, Poulenc’s music utilized traditional tonic-dominant harmony and his vocal music was overwhelmingly lyrical in melody as Poulenc’s contribution to French art song is undeniable. He did, however, experiment with harmonic innovations such as pandiatonicism and chromatically altered chords and even in his last works used the atonal structure of 12-tone rows.
Poulenc died of heart failure in Paris on January 30, 1963