Francis Poulenc

(1899—1963) French composer

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(b Paris, 1899; d Paris, 1963).

Fr. composer and pianist. Taught pf. by his mother. At 15 studied with Ricardo Viñes, who encouraged his ambition to compose and introduced him to Satie, Casella, Auric, and others. In 1917 his Rapsodie nègre brought his name to notorious prominence in Paris as one of a number of composers—Les Nouveaux Jeunes—encouraged by Satie and Cocteau. Even so, his technical knowledge was still scanty and in 1920 he studied harmony for 3 years with Koechlin, but never studied counterpoint nor orchestration. His knowledge of form was instinctive. In 1920, a mus. critic, Henri Collet, selected 6 of Les Nouveaux Jeunes and called them Les Six, Poulenc being among them. They gave concerts together, one of their articles of faith being to draw inspiration from ‘Parisian folklore’, i.e. street musicians, mus.‐halls, circus bands. This milieu is faithfully reflected in Poulenc's settings of Cocteau's Cocardes. These caught the ear of Stravinsky who recommended Poulenc to Diaghilev, the result being the ballet Les Biches (1923), in which he expressed brittle 1920s sophistication, a faithful understanding of the jazz idiom, and (in the adagietto) the romantic lyricism that was increasingly to dominate his work. Perhaps his finest achievements are contained in his many songs for v. and pf., particularly those written after 1935 when he began to acc. the great Fr. bar. Pierre Bernac. His settings of Apollinaire and of his friend Paul Éluard are particularly good, covering a wide emotional range. He comp. 3 operas, the biggest being Les dialogues des Carmélites (1953–6), based on events of the Fr. Revolution, and his religious works have a tuneful ecstatic joy such as one finds elsewhere only in Haydn. He rediscovered his RC faith after the death of a close friend in a car crash, the first musical result being Litanies à la vierge noire (1936). Of his instr. works, the org. conc. (1938) is highly original in its treatment of the solo instr. His mus., eclectic yet strongly personal in style, is essentially diatonic and melodious, embroidered with 20th‐cent. dissonances. It has wit, elegance, depth of feeling, and a bitter‐sweetness which derives from the mixture in his personality of gaiety and manic depression. In 1946 he said: ‘I have no system for writing music, thank God! (by system I mean “contrivances”)’. Prin. works:


Le gendarme incompris (comédie‐bouffe

) (1921);

Les mamelles de Tirésias


Les dialogues des Carmélites


La voix humaine



Les Biches L'Éventail de Jeanne

(1923); contribution to (1927);

Les Animaux modèles


incid. music:

La Reine Margot

(Bourdet), with Auric (1935);


(Anouilh) (1940);

La fille du jardinier

(Exbrayat) (1941);

Le voyageur sans bagages

(Anouilh) (1944);

La nuit de Saint‐Jean

(Barrie) (1944);

Le soldat et la sorcière

(Salacrou) (1945);

L'invitation au château

(Anouilh) (1947);


(Molière) (1947);

Renaud et Armide

(Cocteau) (1962).


La Belle au bois dormant

: (1935);

La Duchesse de Langeais


Le voyage en Amérique



2 Marches et un intermède

, chamber orch. (1937);

Suite, Les Biches


Subjects: Music.

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