Francis Poulenc (January 7, 1899 - January 30, 1963) had his first major successes as an 18-year-old composer without a single composition lesson. Despite some study, he remained largely self-taught. In fact, his music is so individual, it's remained largely self-taught. In fact, his music is so individual, it's difficult to imagine what anyone could have taught him. The music is eminently tuneful – his major strength. I regard him as a melodist fit to keep company with Franz Schubert and Wolfgang Mozart. As a French songwriter, he is the great successor to Fauré.
Poulenc behaved like a sophisticated eccentric (he once chatted up a stupefied Cannes bartender about an ingenious harmonic progression he managed to pull off that morning), and the eccentricity not surprisingly showed up in his music. Many have called attention to his split artistic personality, "part monk, part guttersnipe," but really he has many more sides. Like most French composers of his generation, he fell under the influences of Stravinsky and Satie. Yet he doesn't imitate either. You can identify a Poulenc composition immediately with its bright colors, strong, clear rhythms, and gorgeous and novel diatonic harmonies. He is warmer and less intellectual than Stravinsky, more passionate and musically more refined than Satie.
In the Twenties, Poulenc was part of Les Six, an informal confederation of French composers who wanted to divorce both Impressionism and Germanicism from French music and create an amalgam from Igor Stravinsky, Eric Satie, and popular forms (Poulenc loved French vaudeville, especially Maurice Chevalier; Darius Milhaud, another member, liked American jazz and Brazilian dances). Artistically, they allied themselves with Cubism. In literature, they found themselves with the French surrealists Cocteau, Eluard, and Apollinaire. Poulenc's works around this time include the brilliant Rapsodie negre, in which a baritone chants the "Madagascan" word "Ho-no-lu-lu" over and over, the surrealist opera Les Mamelles de Tirésias, a classic ballet for Diaghilev, Les Biches, about flirtatious girls, and the Concert champêtre for harpsichord. In the last two works, the neoclassic influence stands out clearly, but it's Poulenc's own brand of classicism, recalling eighteenth-century France rather than Mozart's realm.
In the Thirties, after the death of a friend, Poulenc's Catholic faith re-awoke. He became one of the great religious (and choral) composers of the century. This period includes among its masterpieces the organ concerto (arguably the finest for the instrument), Litanies à la Vierge Noire, Mass in G, and Quatre Motets pour le temps de Pénitence. The works have power, despite their generally short length. In this, they evoke the massiveness of a Mantegna miniature.
Some composers, like Beethoven, aim at a Titanic profundity. They rage and storm and consider the universe. Others, like Delius and Ravel, dream of worlds more beautiful than this one. Poulenc, like Haydn and Schubert, is one of the few great composers not only content with, but modestly amazed at being human. The music doesn't strive for the extraordinary, not even the religious music. What's in us is extraordinary enough. There's a sincere simplicity of effect.
Poulenc's concerti are all twentieth-century landmarks. In addition to the organ and harpsichord works cited above, they include a piano concertino (Aubade), a piano concerto, and a two-piano concerto.
Poulenc excelled in chamber music as well. His series of wind sonatas especially (flute, clarinet, oboe, brass trio), his trio for winds and piano, and his Sextuor for winds and piano are all repertory classics – this, in spite of the fact that his music doesn't really develop in the Brahmsian sense of the word. Generally, Poulenc just strings together one great tune after another.
Poulenc wrote three operas. All have had frequent revival, and one, Dialogues of the Carmelites, about an order of nuns martyred during the French Revolution, seems about to become part of the standard repertoire, even though it lacks a love scene and sordid melodrama.
Poulenc never really cottoned to the symphony and wrote few orchestral works not tied to the theater. To me, his best orchestra pieces include the ballets Les Biches and the profound Model Animals (based on La Fontaine) of 1942. His final period contains at least four masterworks: Stabat mater (to me the best thing he ever wrote), Dialogues of the Carmelites, the sonata for two pianos (decidedly influenced by Stravinsky), and a beautiful Gloria. ~ Steve Schwartz