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Poulenc: Classical Music’s Mercurial Populist

The French composer had virtually no training and very little refinement. But there is still something enchanting about his work.

A portrait of the French composer Francis Poulenc seated at a desk reading sheet music.

Poulenc: A Biography, Roger Nichols, Yale, 372 pages, June 2020; Poulenc: The Life in the Songs, Graham Johnson, Liveright, 608 pages, June 2020. 

“All my life I have had a certain idea of France.” – De Gaulle

It happens surprisingly—for publishing executives, dismayingly—often. Two authors, each presumably unaware of the other’s operations, will produce their respective studies of a composer at almost the same time. In 1999 we thus had two new lives of Saint-Saëns issued within weeks of one another; in 2002 came two biographies of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, where for the preceding 67 years there had been none.

Now Francis Poulenc receives double homage. Traditionally Poulenc has fared better than either Saint-Saëns or Stanford at Anglophone commentators’ hands (though his French-language bibliography is far bigger), but even the most recent English-language book on Poulenc is now 18 years old. Both new accounts come from highly respected figures. Graham Johnson is probably the best song accompanist to have emerged anywhere since Gerald Moore retired, while Roger Nichols’s contributions to the historiography of France’s music earned him in 2006—improbably for any Englishman—the Legion of Honor. (The American Conservative’s October 2011 issue eulogized Nichols’s biography of Ravel.)

Poulenc’s career can be swiftly summarized. Born in 1899, he belonged to the dynasty which controlled France’s Rhône-Poulenc pharmaceutical conglomerate. Most unusually for a French musician, he avoided the Paris Conservatoire and, save for some private lessons from the maverick composer Charles Koechlin, had no formal tutelage elsewhere. (As Nichols observes, “The French have never bought into the ancient British cult of the talented amateur.”) Chief of the influences on young Poulenc were avant-garde poets—Guillaume Apollinaire, Louis Aragon, Jean Cocteau, Paul Éluard—and, among musicians, Erik Satie, whom he long regarded as his musical godfather.

Public-relations activism (much of it by Cocteau and by journalist Henri Collet) rather than genuine aesthetic propinquity caused Poulenc to be categorized as one of Les Six: musicians widely varying in temperaments and interests, but all of much the same age, all Paris-based, and therefore susceptible to factitious portrayal as a clique. Les Six’s other five members were Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Louis Durey, Georges Auric, and Germaine Tailleferre. (Auric went to Hollywood and there enjoyed vast success with the original Moulin Rouge’s soundtrack; Durey turned communist; Tailleferre’s renown faded all too rapidly.) Milhaud’s widow recalled the hyperkinetic Cocteau: “if he wasn’t doing everything, he didn’t think that he was doing anything.” About the young Poulenc she could have said much the same. 

Still, mere hyperkinesis has its artistic limits. Before the 1930s, Poulenc seemed stuck with a public image of Peter Pan, or of an escapee from an Evelyn Waugh novel who had somehow improbably exhibited musical aptitude. Two events of that decade seared and toughened Poulenc’s soul. 

First came the Great Depression, which—along with the acquisition of a country house—cut huge chunks out of the familial fortune. Henceforward fiscal worries, including punitive tax bills, would often plague Poulenc. A bleak note in 1934 to his publisher reads: “You will do me a great service in making out to me a crossed check for 2,240 francs and sending the rest to me as a money order.” Then, during 1936, a particularly hideous car accident in Hungary decapitated his fellow composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud. Though the two men had never been on close terms, this memento mori horrified Poulenc enough to make him take with renewed seriousness the religion of his childhood. His pilgrimage to the Marian shrine at Rocamadour, in the Dordogne, inspired one of his finest creations: the choral Litanies à la Vierge noire.

Thereafter Poulenc remained, in however disorderly a fashion, a Catholic. “Disorderly” is the word, since one could be tempted to apply to him the ancient, all too accurate joke about Graham Greene’s Christology: “If ye love Me, break My commandments.” Comparisons must not be pressed too far, though. Poulenc’s tastes were largely homosexual, though he had at least one physical affair with a woman (which in 1946 produced a daughter, Marie-Ange). Besides, to do Poulenc justice, he never exhibited Greene’s Luciferian contempt for the ordinary God-fearing lay faithful. A comparable gulf separates Poulenc’s apolitical patriotism—he lacked Éluard’s and Aragon’s Marxist fervor—from Greene’s reprehensible devotion to Fidel Castro and Kim Philby. 

Did Poulenc have, as Greene indubitably had, sacerdotal sycophants assuring him that gifted artists could licitly violate Catholicism’s erotic prohibitions? It is unclear, but scraps of testimony imply otherwise. We find Poulenc, as he approached 60, announcing to an American confidant a crisis of faith aggravated by a homosexual relationship: “Pray God that He will allow me to find a good country priest to help me—intelligent priests depress me—Dominicans would turn me into a lifelong atheist.” Endearingly, he told a female friend in 1951: “my piety, alas, is that of a horse.”

Equally vague is how much, during World War II, the Wehrmacht and the Milice knew about Poulenc’s congress with young men. They probably knew enough to frighten him a lot, given that they also knew about the collaborationist Cocteau’s similar predilections. (Nichols speaks of the composer’s “rough trade”; according to Johnson, Poulenc’s taste in cab drivers won him the bitchy moniker “Princess of Thurn and Taxis”). 

No mixed emotions marked the end of Poulenc’s war. Figure humaine—his cantata, written within two months, to words by Éluard—became a secret inspiration to the Resistance. Not till 1945 was it publicly heard, on the BBC at that. But this London success proved a portent: his songs found almost as loyal a postwar public in Britain and America as in France, much helped by the sustained international advocacy of his baritone friend Pierre Bernac. On a visit to Oxford for the award of an honorary doctorate, Poulenc found himself billeted with Hugh Trevor-Roper, an experience doubtless purgatorial enough to cover a multitude of sins.

Poulenc’s biggest project in his later life consisted of his opera based on Georges Bernanos’s novel Les Dialogues des Carmélites. It finally saw the stage at Milan in 1957; but for years, the composer’s physical debility, bouts of depression, and difficulties over the Bernanos copyright threatened to leave Les Dialoguesas Puccini left Turandotunfinished. Mirabile dictu, before hypertension and heart disease (exacerbated by reckless barbiturate intake) claimed Poulenc’s life in 1963, he witnessed Les Dialogues becoming one of only about half a dozen post-Puccini operas ever to win over a wide and large public.

*  *  *

The misfortune of two contemporaneous Poulenc books emerging is exacerbated when only one of them justifies recommendation. Nichols honors Poulenc with a spare, yet never slapdash, prose style. Amusing, culturally literate, perceptive, and humane, Nichols admits the composer’s character faults and artistic misfires while conveying on each page his essential affection for the music. 

Johnson appears to feel the gravest difficulty in recognizing that the composer had any faults whatsoever. His tome—in which he merely asserts and assumes, rather than deigning to argue, that Poulenc possessed “genius”—could well be the most disappointing book by a vastly able musician since the mishmash of fantasizing and self-absorbed gossip that constituted Arthur Rubinstein’s memoirs. Johnson’s very subtitle, “The Life in the Songs,” should set off alarms, with its implied relegation of music to mere autobiography. Would not even the feeblest-minded undergraduate, if guilty in a term paper of suchlike uncouth reductionism, be sternly ordered to read C.S. Lewis on the Personal Heresy, then come back and report her findings? 

Lumps of gold lurk amid the dross. Johnson’s comparison of Apollinaire to Monty Python shows welcome insight. His account of 16th-century poet Pierre de Ronsard is terse and useful. Measure-by-measure analyses of individual works attest to Johnson’s huge pianistic talent. The English translations (not by Johnson) of the songs’ lyrics are clever and, it would seem, accurate. But for the rest…oh, dear. The stunningly pretentious page layouts, which suggest a latter-day Percy Wyndham Lewis on ganja-weed; the umpteen outré typographical flourishes that you devoutly prayed never to behold again outside teenagers’ school projects; the summaries of each year’s doings in—pity help us—a Hilary-Mantel-type present tense; and worst of all, the attitude of gay identity politics which recurs like the most tedious of Leitmotiven: these combined procedures, far from increasing readers’ knowledge of Poulenc, manage to deplete it. 

Where Johnson cannot locate evidence, he is not above making it up. From 1929: “Poulenc confides in [great harpsichordist Wanda] Landowska, almost certainly regarding his sexuality and his unrequited passion for Chanlaire.” “Almost certainly” indeed? Of a 1964 memorial concert for Poulenc at the Workmen’s Club in the English seaside village of Thorpeness: “Poulenc would certainly have much preferred the sexy (at least to him) resonances of this venue.” “Would certainly”? If you say so, Graham … 

Too much of Johnson’s volume evokes those hardback vanity projects which publishing houses’ Maecenases—amid healthier economies than our own—tolerated, piously hoping that the writer’s next manuscript would condescend to reveal some scholarly discipline. One mourns the excellent CDs which Johnson lacked the time to make, through being busy producing this hypertrophic billet-doux: 600 pages in search of an editor. His frequent and irrelevant descriptions of his own past life called to this reviewer’s mind a long-ago Queensland newspaperman, whose exhibitionistic mania caused him to employ the first person for every single sentence that he wrote. All subtler methods of curtailing his literary narcissism having failed, his weary colleagues at last removed and concealed his typewriter’s “I” key. 

*  *  *

Returning to Poulenc’s oeuvre, after years of tending to neglect it, inspires both pleasure and disappointment. In all candor, much of this oeuvre does not wear well, and illustrates what Orwell’s friend Cyril Connolly called, in another context, “the Theory of Permanent Adolescence.” Eminent pianist Alfred Cortot, for whom Poulenc belonged among “the most gifted composers of his generation,” nevertheless deplored his “waggish facility.” The Two-Piano Concerto; the Concert Champêtre for harpsichord and orchestra; various explicit attempts to scandalize (the ballet Les Biches, the late comic opera Les Mamelles de Tiresias): the undoubted charm which all these Poulenc works offer is the charm of youthful impertinence. Idolizing them in adulthood would be like idolizing in adulthood The Wild One (“Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” “Whaddaya got?”) or The Catcher in the Rye. 

The Poulenc whose art best endures is the one who had had most of his schoolboyish frivolity knocked out of him in 1936. With his most skillful songs and sacred pieces, with his Organ Concerto, Les Dialogues, and La Voix humaine (a monodrama to a terrifying Cocteau libretto), he made virtues from his creative shortcomings. What in his earlier output had seemed like sheer scattiness could be praised, in his subsequent achievements, as aphoristic brilliance. Sacred texts instilled in Poulenc, as they sooner or later instill in all but the most egomaniacal composers, a healthy reluctance to cheapen perdurable Latin wording. François Mauriac extolled Poulenc’s “self-effacement before the ancient liturgy.” Stravinsky, who succeeded Satie as Poulenc’s greatest musical hero, once called Latin “a language not dead but turned to stone and made so monumental that it has become immune from all risks of vulgarization.” 

Ultimately Poulenc’s difficulties with large-scale construction benefited his vocal writing—where every idea must be thoroughly impressed on the listener within minutes, or, better, within seconds—and, especially, benefited his operatic writing. There, mercurial populism confers unmistakable advantages. As H.L. Mencken said of the ideal opera composer, “one must be a sort of Barnum.” In LesDialogues’sfinal climax, when nun after nun heroically submits to Robespierre’s guillotine, Poulenc displayed a theatrical effectiveness far more deeply shocking than any amount of full-frontal nudity could ever have managed. No one who has seen and heard this climax ever forgets it.

Poulenc could have applied to himself a passage from Rousseau’s Confessions: “Si je ne vaux pas mieux, au moins je suis autre” (roughly translatable as “If I am not better, at least I am different”). From almost the beginning, Poulenc possessed what many more earnest and studious composers never acquire: a style as individual as a thumbprint. Any desert-island shortlist of his works would need to include Les Dialogues, La Voix humaine, the Flute Sonata, the Litanies, the Stabat Mater, and the song-cycle Tel jour telle nuit. These show that when on top form, he had few 20th-century superiors.

Once Poulenc met an American student enmeshed in writing a doctoral thesis on his songs. Appalled at the very idea of such a thesis being devoted to himself, the composer begged his devotee: “Don’t analyze my songs or classify them; love them!” To committed Francophobes, Poulenc will never truly appeal. The rest of us acknowledge (while conceding all his flaws) that wherever on the globe his finest compositions are performed, there is some corner of a foreign field that is forever France.

R.J. Stove, a Contributing Editor at TAC since 2004, lives in Melbourne and has nearly completed his Ph.D. dissertation on Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s organ music.

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