Born in Paris January 7, 1899, Francis Poulenc was the arch-humorist and the most determined anti-romantic of the famous French collection of composers that rejoiced in the sobriquet of “Les Six” (The French Six) – the others being Arthur Honeger, Georges Auric, Darius Milhaud, Germaine Tailleferre and Louis Durey. Poulenc’s compositions include art songs, solo piano works, chamber music, choral pieces, operas, ballets, and orchestral concert music. [Among the best-known for the keyboard is the piano suite Trois mouvements perpétuels (1919). One of my favorites, however, is the Toccata from his Trois Pieces (played here by Horowitz at Carnegie Hall in 1966) that found its way quite often into my music recital programs over the years.]
Poulenc was born in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, the younger child and only son of Émile Poulenc and his wife, Jenny, née Royer. Émile Poulenc was a joint owner of the Établissements Poulenc Frères, a successful manufacturer of pharmaceuticals (later Rhône-Poulenc). He was a member of a pious Roman Catholic family from Espalion in the département of Aveyron. Jenny Poulenc was from a Parisian family with wide artistic interests. In Poulenc’s view, the two sides of his nature grew out of this background: a deep religious faith from his father’s family and a worldly and artistic side from his mother’s. The critic Claude Rostand later described Poulenc as “half monk and half naughty boy”.
The Place des Saussaies, Paris, where Poulenc was born
Poulenc grew up in a musical household; his mother was a capable pianist, with a wide repertoire ranging from classical to less elevated works that gave him a lifelong taste for what he called “adorable bad music”.
In January 1945, commissioned by the French government, Poulenc and his partner Bernac flew from Paris to London, where they received an enthusiastic welcome. The London Philharmonic Orchestra gave a reception in the composer’s honor; he and Benjamin Britten were the soloists in a performance of Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall. (The recording here is of its first movement with Francis Poulenc, Jacques Février and Orchestra National de la RTF conducted by Georges Prêtre.)
With Bernac he gave recitals of French art songs and piano works at the Wigmore Hall and the National Gallery, and recorded for the BBC. Bernac was overwhelmed by the public’s response; when he and Poulenc stepped out on the Wigmore Hall stage, “the audience rose and my emotion was such that instead of beginning to sing, I began to weep.” After their fortnight’s stay, the two returned home on the first boat-train to leave London for Paris since May 1940.
A Hundred Years of Music by Gerald Abraham; Encyclopedia of Concert Music by David Ewen; Wikipedia.
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