The colourful and complex world of Francis Poulenc

30 January 2021

The celebrated French composer Francis [Jean Marcel] Poulenc was once described by the music critic Claude Rostand as 'a lover of life, mischievous, bon enfant, tender and impertinent, melancholy and serenely mystical'. With a catalogue of over 200 works, he distinguished himself in a range of genres, from songs, piano works and chamber music to opera and sacred music.

Born into a wealthy Parisian family on 7 January 1899, Poulenc inherited artistic and musical inclinations from his parents - Emile Poulenc and Jenny Royer. He started taking piano lessons from his mother, who idolised Mozart, Schubert and Chopin, when he was five and by 14, he knew he wanted to be a composer. As both his parents were passionate about music, musical soirees were a regular occurrence at their home and the young Poulenc soon met all the fashionable composers and artists.  

Despite some music study with Ricardo Viñes and Charles Koechlin, Poulenc remained largely self-taught. He never studied at the famed Paris Conservatory or any other musical institution, which later made it difficult for him to be accepted by his peers.

The premiere of his Rapsodie Nègre for baritone and chamber ensemble at Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier made him an overnight sensation in France - he was 18 years old.

He served in the military between 1918-1921, during which time he composed the popular piano suite, Trois Mouvements Perpétuels. In the early 1920s, he belonged to the Paris-based group of composers, Les Six, who led the neo-classical movement, rejecting the overstated emotion of Romanticism. The group included Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Germaine Tailleferre, and Georges Auric. It was during this time that Poulenc discovered his sexual orientation. For years he had suffered inner turmoil as he struggled with self-identity and the deaths of cherished individuals.

By the early 1930s, and battling depression, Poulenc's muse deserted him. Re-discovering his Catholic faith unlocked his soul, his psyche and his music. He turned his back on composing light-hearted works and began writing religious music, establishing himself as one of the great religious and choral music composers of the century. Some of his major religious works include Mass in G (1937), Stabat Mater (1950) and Gloria (1959). He also wrote the religious opera The Dialogues of the Carmelites (1957) and a one-act tragedy for soprano, La voix humaine (1959).

When Poulenc died in Paris on 30 January 1963, aged 64, he left behind a vast catalogue of music brimming with intriguing contrasts, modernist influences and popular sounds from the Parisian music hall with provocative secular undercurrents. He wrote three operas, all have had frequent revivals.