About the Composer

Search for Francis Poulenc on your computer and the topic that turns up most often is Les Six. Poulenc was a member of this influential group of young avant garde composers that flourished in the artistic hothouse that was Paris after World War I. Paris in those years was the city of Picasso, Stravinsky, Serge Diaghilev and James Joyce. Jazz was gaining a foothold. Maurice Chevalier was headlining in vaudeville. Optimism and excitement were in the air.

Les Six was an outgrowth of a group of musicians, writers, artists and film-makers that gathered at a cafe on the Rue Blanche. At first, they were called Les Nouveau Jeunes (The New Youth). Their influential mentors, Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau, changed the name to Les Six and promoted them heavily, giving the young composers a brand that won them public acceptance.

The group’s watershed was the ballet Parade, with sets and costumes by Picasso and a score by Satie that included a machine gun, typewriter and siren. The opening produced a riot and Les Six, because of its association with Satie, was accepted by the public as the hot new thing.

The group collaborated on several projects. In 1920, they produced an album of piano pieces, L’Album des Six. The other members were Arthur Honneger, Darius Milhaud, Louis Durey, Georges Auric and the lone woman, Germaine Tailleferre. They remained friends for nearly 40 years. Honneger and Milhaud had lasting influence. Poulenc, considered the weak link at the time, became the most celebrated of all.

Poulenc studied piano as a boy and essentially learned composition on his own. He was awkward in appearance and eccentric even by the avant garde standards of the day. He seemingly had no problem meshing two significant strains of his persona — what he called his “Parisian sexuality”, (he was openly gay) — and devout Catholicism.

Poulenc’s family was wealthy. With no money worries, he confessed to indolence and was said to have taken amphetamines from time to time to spark his energy. He was badgered with depression and suffered a nervous breakdown in 1954.

Poulenc’s music falls roughly into two periods. In the Les Six days it was playful, with echoes of jazz, music hall, even traditional Asian folk music. Critics called him “a prankster” and “the rich playboy of French music.” The death of a friend in the mid-1930s caused a marked spiritual turn. His greatest songs and all his sacred music, including Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani (1941), Stabat Mater (1950), and the operas Dialogues of the Carmelites (1957), and La voix humaine (1959), belong to the second half of his life.

Much of his later work relates to war. Like many French citizens during World War II, he had a conflicted relationship with the Nazis. He wrote for the Resistance. In one example, he set the works of communist poet Paul Éluard to music. They were smuggled to London and broadcast on the BBC. Biographers also cite occasional examples of apparent sympathy for the pro-German Vichy government.

In the 1950s he toured England and the United States, accompanying one of his favorite singers, baritone Pierre Bernac. At the time of his death, from a heart attack, he was working on an opera based on Cocteau’s play The Infernal Machine.

Poulenc died where he was born, in Paris, in 1963. He was 64. He lies in the Père Lachaise cemetery, in the company of other arts notables: Chopin, Balzac, Proust, Molière, Modigliani, Isadora Duncan, Gertrude Stein, Édith Piaf and the rock star Jim Morrison.

- Performance notes by Eugene Carlson