This Day In Music History: 1899 – Francis Poulenc is Born

Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc (7 January 1899 – 30 January 1963) was a French composer and pianist. His compositions are essentially diatonic. His works include mélodies, solo piano works, chamber music, choral pieces, operas, ballets, and orchestral concert music. Among the best-known are the piano suite Trois mouvements perpétuels (1919), the ballet Les biches (1923), the Concert champêtre (1928) for harpsichord and orchestra, the opera Dialogues des Carmélites (1957), and the Gloria (1959) for soprano, choir and orchestra.

His wealthy family intended Poulenc for a business career and did not allow him to enroll at a music college. Largely self-educated musically, he studied with the pianist Ricardo Viñes, who became his mentor after the composer’s parents died. Poulenc soon came under the influence of Erik Satie, under whose tutelage he became one of a group of young composers known collectively as Les Six. In his early works Poulenc became known for his high spirits and irreverence. During the 1930s a much more serious side to his nature emerged, particularly in the religious music he composed from 1936 onwards, which he alternated with his more light-hearted works.

In addition to composing, Poulenc was an accomplished pianist. He was particularly celebrated for his performing partnerships with the baritone Pierre Bernac (who also advised him in vocal writing) and the soprano Denise Duval, touring in Europe and America with each, and making many recordings. He was among the first composers to see the importance of the gramophone, and he recorded extensively from 1928 onwards.

Poulenc made his début as a composer in 1917 with his Rapsodie nègre, a ten-minute, five-movement piece for baritone and chamber group, it was dedicated to Satie and premiered at one of a series of concerts of new music run by the singer Jane Bathori. The baritone engaged for the first performance lost his nerve on the platform, and the composer, though no singer, jumped in. This jeu d’esprit was the first of many examples of what Anglophone critics came to call “leg-Poulenc.” Ravel was amused by the piece and commented on Poulenc’s ability to invent his own folklore. Stravinsky was impressed enough to use his influence to secure Poulenc a contract with a publisher.

Poulenc’s principal works for large orchestra comprise two ballets, a Sinfonietta and four keyboard concertos. The first of the ballets, Les biches, was first performed in 1924 and remains one of his best-known works. Poulenc, a highly accomplished pianist, usually composed at the piano and wrote many pieces for the instrument throughout his career. The best known pieces include the two Novelettes (1927–28), the set of six miniatures for children, Villageoises (1933), a piano version of the seven-movement Suite française (1935), and L’embarquement pour Cythère for two pianos (1953).

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