The brilliant French composer, Francis (Jean Marcel) Poulenc, was born into a wealthy family of pharmaceutical manufacturers. His mother, an amateur pianist, taught him to play, and music formed a part of family life. At 16, he began taking formal piano lessons with Ricardo Viñees.
A decisive turn in his development as a composer occurred when Francis Poulenc attracted the attention of Erik Satie, the arbiter elegantiarum of the arts and social amenities in Paris. Deeply impressed by Satie's fruitful eccentricities in the then-shocking manner of Dadaism, Poulenc joined an ostentatiously self-descriptive musical group called the Nouveaux Jeunes. In a gratuitous parallel with the Russian Five, the French critic Henri Collet dubbed the "New Youths" Le Groupe de Six, and the label stuck under the designation Les Six. The 6 musicians included, besides Poulenc: Auric, Durey, Arthur Honegger, Milhaud, and Tailleferre. Although quite different in their styles of composition and artistic inclinations, they continued collective participation in various musical events. Les Six also had links with Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau.
Francis Poulenc embraced the Dada movement's techniques, creating melodies that would have been appropriate for Parisian music halls. From 1918 to 1921 he served in the French army, and then began taking lessons in composition with Koechlin (1921-1924). An excellent pianist, Poulenc became in 1935 an accompanist to the French baritone Pierre Bernac, for whom he wrote numerous songs.
Compared with his fortuitous comrades-in-six, Francis Poulenc appears a classicist. He never experimented with the popular devices of "machine music," asymmetrical rhythms, and poly-harmonies as cultivated by A. Honegger and Milhaud. Futuristic projections had little interest for him; he was content to follow the gentle neo-Classical formation of Ravel's piano music and songs. Among his other important artistic contacts was the ballet impresario Diaghilev, who commissioned him to write music for his Ballets Russes. He also, throughout his career, borrowed from his own compositions as well as those of Mozart and Camille Saint-Saëns.
Apart from his fine songs and piano pieces, Francis Poulenc revealed himself as an inspired composer of religious music. Later in his life, the loss of some close friends, coupled with a pilgrimage to the Black Madonna of Rocamadour, led him to rediscovery of the Catholic faith and resulted in compositions of a more sombre, austere tone. Of his choral works Stabat Mater and Gloria are notable. He also wrote remarkable music for the organ, including a concerto that is considered among the most beautiful concertos organists have in repertoire. A master of artificial simplicity, he pleases even sophisticated listeners by his bland triadic tonalities, spiced with quickly passing diaphonous discords. Among his last series of major works is a series of works for wind instruments and piano. 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 Elegiefor horn.