horizontal line

This fascinating and expertly edited collection of articles and interviews conducted by several leading French critics reveal Poulenc as a lively, brilliant and passionate figure, a lover of painting and poetry, highly articulate and adept at playing the publicity game. There’s much to interest readers of C&O, even those who think they feel little rapport with his lighter, more louche side, the world of Parisian café-life and nightclubs. In fact, for this self-styled ‘part monk, part naughty boy’, the sacred and the secular could happily coexist. He himself pointed out that the mock-funereal choruses in his hilarious surrealist opera Les mamelles de Tirésias are similar in style to those of his Stabat Mater, and found it strange that the critics most shocked by Gloria’s secular gaiety weren’t Catholics. ‘Remaining true to my nature, I do what touches my heart, what suits me, what pleases me’ summed up his artistic credo, and as a lover of popular French culture, especially Maurice Chevalier, he reckoned he needed ‘a certain musical vulgar- ity as a plant lives on compost’. In contrast, the Organ Concerto gave ‘a precise idea of a serious side to my music’.

His teacher, Charles Koechlin, fortunately realised that his musical nature was essentially an harmonic one and insisted on his writing four-part chorales à la Bach. But here too the hedonistic side ultimately prevailed; although Poulenc admitted Bach to be the greatest composer, ‘I don’t often want to listen to him…’ In the late 1930s, however, when his visits to the pilgrimage site at Rocamadour inspired the austere Litanies à la vierge noire and Motets pour un temps de pénitence, Tomas Luis de Victoria, ‘the St John of the Cross of music’, was constantly in his mind – a reflection of Nadia Boulanger’s pioneering early music performances. During the dark years of the German occupation of France, his patriotic sentiments came to the surface with the cantata Figure humaine, whose finale is a setting of Paul Eluard’s poem ‘Liberté’. Copies were printed undercover, ready for its 1945 London premiere by the BBC – ‘a model organisation’.

The scope of this volume is wide and Poulenc reveals himself most generous-minded and pluralistic in his views of his contemporaries. Stravinsky he admired above all, considering the Symphonie of Psalms as‘a work of peace: Heaven as we imagine it through the paintings of Raphael’. As for Messiaen, he thought the organ works, particularly La Nativité du Seigneur and Les corps glorieux, outstanding, but much of his music was unfortunately spoiled by the verbiage, ‘the birds, the purple rainbows’.

ANDREW THOMSON Read the full review on Agora Classica

   Read full review   

To continue reading, please upgrade to a premium account. You will have immediate full access.

Read more classical music reviews online here:

Choir & Organ, 2014 - ©Rhinegold Publishing