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Book Review

Francis Poulenc

Oxford Studies of Composers

Oxford Studies of Composers

Wilfrid Mellers
Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1993. 186 pp
ISBN 019816338X
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Part of the series "Oxford Studies of Composers," this is indeed a study, so consider yourself warned. If you don't know what "mixolydian in G" means or if you don't read music, you should probably give this slim volume a miss. On the other hand, you will find fewer books that offer so much in a small space. Mellers, with elegant prose and a gift for the illuminating phrase, lets us take a peek under the hood of music that sounds as natural as breath. He reveals the craft of a composer who took great trouble to hide his craft.

Almost all of Poulenc's music sounds as if he got it from the air around him. We almost always miss a sense of the composer struggling with his materials – practically a feature of Beethoven's music, for example. This simply shows Poulenc's success, for he took incredible pains – starting three violin sonatas and destroying two, working on a four-minute song for over ten years (trying to find the music for the first two lines of the text), throwing a string quartet of many years' labor down a Paris sewer.

To me, Poulenc counts as one of the greatest figures in any art, but I admit I'm practically alone in my view. Certainly Mellers doesn't share it. He seems to consider the composer a "petit maître" who occasionally rises to the heights of Stravinsky and Messiaen. On the other hand, I consider Poulenc – in his own way, of course – as good as the other two. Poulenc represents the "human" composer – very rare, incidentally. We tend to look for greatness among the titans, perhaps an inheritance from Romanticism. Greatness for us largely means storms, impossible loves, yearning for what we'll never have. We secretly – and often openly – look down upon those apparently satisfied, sincerely happy, or in love with the nearby, mainly because it seems too easy. If we think about it, however, real happiness eludes most of us, and stupid people – to judge by talk radio – can be just as miserably dissatisfied as smart ones. There is a reason why Dante had to travel entire worlds of suffering and happiness before he saw Beatrice smiling in heaven. Poulenc shares the fate of other composers in this group – Haydn, Schubert, and Mendelssohn – all treated as "happy" or (my personal favorite) "childlike," and thus patronized. In the last fifty years, we've seen Schubert's stock come up, but only because someone made the argument that he really is a titan after all. It doesn't seem to occur to anyone that a titan suffers serious limitations. At the end of a particularly tough week, I don't necessarily want to listen to Wagner. I haven't the energy or the will for all that heroism. I want someone to talk to me in normal, soothing tones, maybe even tell me a joke or share a pizza. Most important, I want to know that the act and effort of so-called normal life is not only worthwhile, but occasionally even fun.

To be fair, I admit Mellers gets some of this, but I still believe he ultimately undervalues it. I quote from the final chapter:

When he [Charles Koechlin, "the instructor of Poulenc's youth"] adds that 'the intense and noble emotion of "Cé" breathes the very soul of our wounded fatherland' he touches on the transcendent qualities that – in Quatre Motets pour un temps de pénitence, Figure humaine, Dialogues des Carmélites, Gloria, Sept Répons des ténèbres, and possibly in La Voix humaine and even the little oboe sonata – make Poulenc momentarily a great composer. For the rest, he makes music that enhances our lives. He deserves our gratitude which, loving him, we are unlikely to withhold.

I object to a few things in that paragraph, not least is the omission of the Stabat mater in the list of "momentarily" great works. Be that as it may, I wholeheartedly endorse the last two sentences. Yet why doesn't this make Poulenc a great composer without qualification? Obviously, I don't know what Mellers means by "great." Beyond that, I object to Mellers's strategy. He tries to turn Poulenc into a titan in order to make him heroic and artistically worthy. Poulenc's heroism was genuine (among other things, he risked arrest by the Nazis in composing his Occupation masterpiece Figure humaine) but never put to a physical test. His heroism confined itself to his own life, mainly overcoming breakdowns after the deaths of friends and lovers. It's an everyday heroism and, although shared by many not particularly titanic, it doesn't make him any less heroic.

Poulenc's music attaches itself to bourgeois, even mundane images – the images and scenes largely from the composer's quite comfortable material life: circuses, music hall, cabarets, fashionable salons, elegant houses, Riviera resorts, good food, friendship, and play, and with all this, a deep, absolutely sincere, possibly naive religious faith. Most take a standard view of him is as a "double man" (in Mellers's phrase) – in Poulenc's own terms, "part monk, part guttersnipe." People wonder that the same composer could write both Les Mamelles de Tirésias and the Dialogues des Carmélites because they see him in this sharply-bifurcated way.

Before I read the book, I decided to "follow along," by listening to the works discussed as I studied Mellers's text, and I made a particular point of listening for the musical excerpts. I discovered the following. Poulenc composes his music largely in 2- and 4-bar phrases. I should also say that he "assembles" his music, as a painter puts together a collage. Many of these phrases recur from work to work. Thus, a seemingly innocent phrase in the modest "Pastourelle" from the collaborative L'Eventail de Jeanne shows up in such large, even tragic works as the Stabat mater and the Dialogues des Carmélites. Of course, the emotional meaning of the patch changes. The process also reverses. Phrases from the religious music turn up in the worldly; the Mass in G also pops up in Les Animaux modèles. Again, the emotional content of the little scrap changes. This shows the interpenetration, the integration – rather than the separation – of sacred and profane in Poulenc – not only in the music, but in the man – one that may puzzle non-Catholics and non-Mediterranean Catholics alike. Mellers quotes the following from Poulenc himself, on the composition of his Gloria:

When I wrote this piece … I had in mind those frescoes by Gozzoli where the angels stick out their tongues. And also some serious Benedictine monks I had once seen revelling in a game of football.

Again, Mellers gets some of this. Perhaps it's the space he has that prevents him from following these leads to the level of actual musical notes. I also wish he could have included more extended discussion of the Mass and of several song cycles: Chansons gaillardes, La Fraîcheur et le feu, and Le Travail du peintre. These cycles get no mention at all, and they're among his most important. Nevertheless, I have not seen a trade book on Poulenc this musically focussed, and the discussion of the music is superb. Especially fine are his analyses of works he likes, such as the long sections on the Dialogues and the Sept Répons. He also tellingly shows how Poulenc moved musically from Satiean miniaturist to a composer capable of undertaking the "long haul." Mellers points out the works of Stravinsky that helped Poulenc become more fully himself. However, if Poulenc's personal and artistic modesty ultimately confuses Mellers, Mellers at least doesn't stand alone.

Copyright © 2000 by Steve Schwartz.