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Francis Poulenc was the leading composer of Les Six, the French group devoted to turning music away from Impressionism, formality, and intellectualism. He wrote in a direct and tuneful manner, often juxtaposing the witty and ironic with the sentimental or melancholy. He heavily favored diatonic and modal textures over chromatic writing. His music also shows many elements of pandiatonicism, introduced around 1920 by Stravinsky, whose influence can be heard in some of Poulenc's compositions, such as the religious choral work, Gloria. Poulenc is regarded as one of the most important twentieth century composers of religious music, and in the realm of the French art song he is also a major voice of his time. Poulenc was also a pianist of considerable ability.

Poulenc was born into a wealthy family of pharmaceutical magnates. The agrochemical giant Rhone-Poulenc is the present-day corporation started by his forebears. His mother was a talented amateur pianist who began giving him piano lessons at age five. Later Poulenc studied with a niece of César Franck, and then with the eminent Spanish virtuoso Ricardo Viñes, for whom he would later write music.

At age eighteen, Poulenc wrote Rapsodie Nègre for baritone and chamber ensemble, which made him an overnight sensation in France. The young composer served in the military during the years 1918-1921, during which time he composed the popular Trois Mouvements Perpétuels (1918).

By 1920, Les Six -- Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Germaine Tailleferre (the sextet's lone female representative), Louis Durey, and Francis Poulenc -- had begun making its impression on the music world. In 1923, Poulenc wrote the ballet Les Biches, which Diaghilev staged the following year with great success, the public finding its mixture of lightness, gaiety, and occasional moments of sentimentality irresistible. Poulenc continued writing at a fairly prolific pace in the late 1920s and early 1930s, producing many piano compositions, songs and other works. In 1935, he rekindled his friendship with baritone Pierre Bernac, thus launching a productive and enduring professional relationship. He also returned to the Roman Catholic Church that year when close friend Pierre-Octave Ferroud was killed in an automobile accident. Thereafter he wrote many important works of a religious nature, the first of which were Litanies à la Vierge Noire, for soloists, chorus and organ, and Mass in G for mixed a cappella chorus, both from 1936.

During the war, Poulenc remained in German-occupied France, writing music of an antiwar or defiantly anti-Nazi bent, sometimes writing songs on texts by banned authors, such as Lorca. He also wrote a ballet Les Animaux Modèles (1940-1941), Sonata for violin and piano (1942-1943; rev. 1949) dedicated to Lorca, and the masterful Figure Humaine (1943), a choral cantata which is a hymn to freedom.

In the postwar years, Poulenc turned out his Sinfonietta (1947) and Piano Concerto (1949), both not entirely successful. In the period 1953-1956, Poulenc produced his most ambitious work, the opera Dialogue of The Carmelites, considered by many the greatest French opera of the twentieth century.

Poulenc finished his last opera in 1958, La Voix Humaine, a work whose lone character talks (sings) on the phone to her deserting lover for the work's 45-minute length. Notable also in this period is his Gloria (1959), a work shorn of sanctimony and rich in communicative simplicity and fervent religiosity. Poulenc's last major work was his Sonata for Oboe and Piano in 1962, dedicated to the memory of Prokofiev, whom he had befriended in the 1920s. Poulenc died suddenly of a heart attack.

Andre, already posted a thread about, Les Six, but I think Poulenc's music is in a class by itself and he warrants his own thread, because of his originality.

What do you guys think of this amazing composer?
 

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Well what could I say? One of my favorite all time French Composers that's for sure, wonderful gift for melody and harmony, loved to juxtapose the witty and melancholic, a Mahlerian complexity if you will but on a smaller scale, and his orchestration wasn't to shabby either definite hints of Ravel in it.
 
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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
Well what could I say? One of my favorite all time French Composers that's for sure, wonderful gift for melody and harmony, loved to juxtapose the witty and melancholic, a Mahlerian complexity if you will but on a smaller scale, and his orchestration wasn't to shabby either definite hints of Ravel in it.
Absolutely, Joe. That's a very good description of his music. He was a totally unique composer. He had such an individual style that it only takes a few measures to know it's his music.

Do you have any favorite compositions?
 

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I would have to say...

Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra

The Nocturnes

Dialogue of The Carmelites

The Sonata for Flute and Piano
 

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Being an organist, my most favorite work of Poulenc is:
Concerto in G Minor for Organ, Strings & Timpani. I have the EMI recording, Georges Pretre conducting and Maurice Durufle on the organ.
"Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Tympani" is a great piece Krummhorn.

Here are my favorite Poulenc pieces:

Les Biches
Sinfonietta
Les Animaux Modeles
Aubade
Gloria
Stabat Mater
Piano Concerto
Concerto for 2 Pianos
Sextet for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn
Sonata for oboe and piano
 

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I have heard a number of his works. Highlights would have to be:

Concerto for Organ, Strings & Timpani - the colours he coaxes out of the organ and the relatively modest forces accompanying are really amazing. Beats Saint-Saens' Organ Symphony hands-down for me.

Piano Concerto - called "not entirely successful" in the article. Sure, it's not the greatest piano concerto ever written, but I like it's sense of nostalgia & song-like quality.

Les Biches - Displays qualities typically associated with Poulenc, what others have noted above: witty, urbane & sophisticated.

One minor criticism can be that his works are somewhat too highly polished compared to the others in Les Six. But surely, we should not hold this too much against a composer. Surely being a master craftsman is more of an asset than a liability?...
 

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Discussion Starter · #8 ·
One minor criticism can be that his works are somewhat too highly polished compared to the others in Les Six.
I don't really see how this could be bad. Look at Ravel and Strauss for example. You won't get more polished than those two composers.

Having a ton of Poulenc's music now. I can seriously count him as one of my current favorites. I will investigate his chamber works now.
 

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after a recent rehearing of it, I'll have to also add the...

Concert Champetre
 

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Discussion Starter · #10 · (Edited)
Listening to some of the Dutoit Decca box set of Poulenc right now and it's really good. Poulenc was such a melodic composer. The interesting thing I have noticed is that there are definite traces of Debussy and Ravel in his music. It seems Saint-Saens was perhaps an influence as well.
 
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I'd certainly go along with the idea - mentioned in the opening posting - that DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES is a candidate for most outstanding French opera of the C20th. (Hmmm, but PELLEAS ET MELISANDE - from 1902, so just-about in the C20th! - is another major contender).

The story is set in the days of the French Revolution. The Revolutionaries order all religious communities to be closed, but the nuns of the Convent of Compiegne refuse to comply. For their audacity in refusing to obey the orders of the Revolutionary Committee, they are all sent to the guillotine. The story particularly features the life of a Novice who has recently joined the Order, and wobbles in her faith before joining her sisters in the final scene.

The opera was written after WW2, and appeared in the 1950s. At a Press Conference some time later, a perceptive journalist put a very direct question to Poulenc - "Your opera is set in the C18th...but isn't it really an allegory of how Vichy France handed over the jews to the Nazis?". "No comment" replied Poulenc.

Instead of the "notorious" final scene, here's a snippet from earlier on - when Blanche is telling her infuriated father and brother that she's decided to enter the convent.... (cond Konstantin Chudovsky, prod Dmitry Bertmann. This is the Helikon Opera production from Moscow, which was later performed in Paris).

 

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I've just purchased a CD with Rutter's Gloria, Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, and Poulenc's Quatre Petites Prieres de St Francois d'Assise(I can't read French).

I'm going to listen to it right now and see if I like Poulenc's music....=)

Until again,
Zach
 

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Poulenc used to be one of my favourites when I started writing music. I had associated him with Prokofiev then, probably because of his sonata for flute and piano, which to me sounded a lot like Prokofiev sonata for violin and piano (the 2nd I think), which he transcribed for flute.
The result of these was my first attepmt at composition with a piece for flute and piano. It's a mix of Poulenc and Prokofiev elements. Sadly, it remains the best thing I've written.
 

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Discussion Starter · #15 ·
I have not heard a Poulenc work that I dislike but I have yet to listen to Les Biches
"Les Biches" is a great piece of music. You must hear it and when you do make sure Charles Dutoit is conducting. He's the best Poulenc conductor and has probably recorded more of his work than anyone.
 

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Poulenc used to be one of my favourites when I started writing music. I had associated him with Prokofiev then, probably because of his sonata for flute and piano, which to me sounded a lot like Prokofiev sonata for violin and piano (the 2nd I think), which he transcribed for flute.
The result of these was my first attepmt at composition with a piece for flute and piano. It's a mix of Poulenc and Prokofiev elements. Sadly, it remains the best thing I've written.
Yes, when it comes to composing, Poulenc's harmonic language is somehting I definitely look up to (and Astor Piazolla's).
 

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I just thought I'd add another thumbs up for Poulenc. I've enjoyed the Chamber Music disc on DG for several years, and I just got the Decca 2-CD set of his keyboard concertos, sonata for two pianos, and Gloria. I don't know what it is about his music, but it really moves me as a listener. He has a signature sound that I can recognize right off!
 

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Francis Poulenc-

Pieces I have by Poulenc

Violin Sonata
Cello sonata
Bagatelle for violin and piano
Clarinet Sonata
Flute Sonata
Sextet for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn
Oboe sonata
Trio for piano, oboe, and bassoon
Villanelle for pipe and piano
D'Apres Le Bal Masque for 2 pianos
Sonata for 2 pianos
Elegie for 2 pianos
L'Embarquement Pour Cythere for 2 pianos
Sonata for piano duet
Sonata for 2 clarinets
Sonata for clarinet and bassoon
Sonata for horn, Trumpet and Trombone
Le Bal Masque
La Bestiaire Ou Cortege D'Orphee
Four Poems by Max Jacob
Rapsodie Negre
Cocardes
Elegie for Horn and Piano
Sarabande for Guitar
Incidental Music for Play "L'invitation Au Chateau"
Incidental Music for Play "Leocadia"
The story of Babar, the little elephant (French and English versions)

Poulenc is a really fun composer to listen to. His music seems to flow out so effortlessly and gracefully. His music always has a way of making me smile. I can't say much about this composer because I haven't listened extensively to this collection I have of his, but whenever I do listen to him it's a joy!
 

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Which set do you have? I've been trying to decide whether to get the Decca or Brilliant Classics piano/chamber music set.

I bought the Decca concertos/choral music set a few weeks back.

I'm glad you mentioned "gracefully" concerning Poulenc's music. I was thinking about this last week when some members described his music as lightweight. I'd say the music is light on it's feet like a disciplined graceful dancer who makes it look easy.
 

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Which set do you have? I've been trying to decide whether to get the Decca or Brilliant Classics piano/chamber music set.

I bought the Decca concertos/choral music set a few weeks back.

I'm glad you mentioned "gracefully" concerning Poulenc's music. I was thinking about this last week when some members described his music as lightweight. I'd say the music is light on it's feet like a disciplined graceful dancer who makes it look easy.
I have the Naxos set. They came out with a series of his complete chamber music, and the pieces I listed above are what is in that series.
 
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