Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was in many ways the most "typical" of the group of French composers known as Les Six, and he represents a trend of 20th-century music that is characteristically French.
Francis Poulenc was born in Paris to a family that was artistic, musical, and affluent. His mother was a fine pianist, and Francis began lessons at the age of 5. Later he studied with Ricardo Vines, a friend of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel who had played the first performances of much of their piano music. While still in his teens Poulenc met Erik Satie, who left a permanent mark on his musical ideals.
When Poulenc was 18, he wrote Rapsodie nègre baritone, string quartet, flute, and clarinet. Its lighthearted irreverence and music-hall atmosphere established his right to be a charter member of Les Six when the group was formed a few years later. He spent most of his life in Paris, except for concert tours that included several trips to the United States after World War II, where he accompanied baritone Pierre Bernac, who specialized in singing his songs.
Poulenc's gift was lyric; he was at his best when he was setting words to music. As the composer of over 150 songs with piano accompaniment, he is perhaps the most important songwriter of his time. He usually set the verses of poets he knew: Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, Paul éluard, and Max Jacob; he performed the same service for these poets that Debussy did for the symbolists. Poulenc's early set of songs, Cocardes (1919), written to Cocteau's poems, suggest the Paris streets. The accompaniment, consisting of cornet, violin, bass drum, and trombone, resembles the little street bands that still play there. A later cycle, Tel jour, tel nuit (1937), celebrates the quiet pleasures of life with sincerity and directness.
Poulenc's two operas differ strikingly from each other. Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1944) is a risqué, surrealist farce; Les Dialogues des Carmélites (1957) is a serious and moving account of the spiritual development of a nun during the French Revolution. His religious choral works, particularly the Litanies à la Vierge noire (1936) and a Stabat Mater (1950), are frequently performed. He also wrote numerous piano solos, a sonata for two pianos, and concertos for piano, two pianos, organ, and harpsichord. Among chamber works there are sonatas for various instruments and piano and a sextet for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn.
Poulenc avoided large, dramatic gestures. He accepted his natural limitations and was content to write music in the spirit of the composers he most admired: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Frédéric Chopin, Debussy, and Igor Stravinsky.
Further Reading on Francis Poulenc
A book-length study of Poulenc is Henri Hell, Francis Poulenc (trans. 1959). There is a short biographical study and analysis of his work in Joseph Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music (1961).
Additional Biography Sources
Bernac, Pierre, Francis Poulenc: the man and his songs, London: V. Gollancz, 1977.
Poulenc, Francis, My friends and myself: conversations with Francis Poulenc, London: Dobson, 1978.
Poulenc, Francis, Selected correspondence, 1915-1963: echo and source, London: V. Gollancz, 1991.