Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Francis Poulenc: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1932)

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

The New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg offers this appraisal of the music of Francis Poulenc in third edition of his book, The Lives of the Great Composers (W. W. Norton, 1997):

“It seems clear that Francis Poulenc has emerged as the strongest and most individual member of Les Six [that group of six Paris-based composers arbitrarily lumped together by a Parisian journalist in 1919: Georges Auric (1899–1983), Louis Durey (1888–1979), Arthur Honegger (1892–1955), Darius Milhaud (1892–1974), Francis Poulenc (1899–1963), and Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983)]. Nobody would have guessed it in the 1930s. The betting would have been on Milhaud or Honegger. Poulenc was considered a comic (he even had the marked facial and physical resemblance to the great French comic Fernandel).”

Fernand Joseph Désiré Contandin, better known as Fernandel (1903-1971)
Fernand Joseph Désiré Contandin, better known as Fernandel (1903-1971)

Harold Schonberg facetiously continues:

“[Poulenc was] the court jester, the sophisticate. So charming and amusing! So lightweight! So chic! As a corollary, so unimportant, au fond [basically]. To the world, Poulenc was the musical soft-shoe man, dancing away at his music-hall routines with not a care in the world, a grin perpetually plastered on his face.”

Learning to Compose

Lacking any formal training, in his early music Poulenc (1899-1963) fell back on what he did best, and that was write beautiful melodies.

(Alas, no amount of training can create a great melodist; either you have it, or you don’t, and Poulenc had it by the cartload. The British musicologist Roger Nichols, writing in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians observes:

“For [Poulenc], the most important element of all was melody and he found his way to a vast treasury of undiscovered tunes within an area that had, according to the most up-to-date musical maps, been surveyed, worked and exhausted.”)

Like another gifted melodist and his exact contemporary – George Gershwin (1898-1937) – Poulenc learned to compose on the job. Like Gershwin, Poulenc was well aware of his compositional technical shortcomings, and like Gershwin, he sought out teachers and “advisors” even as his career was taking off. On the advice of Maurice Ravel, the increasingly well-known Poulenc decided to take composition lessons. On the advice of Darius Milhaud, he took those lessons (on and off) with the French composer, teacher, and musicologist Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) from 1921 to 1925.

When push came to shove, Poulenc also had his friends to fall back on for advice, most notable Georges Auric and Milhaud.

If anyone is wondering what the 20-something Francis Poulenc did for a living, and how he had so much free time to hobnob and take lessons and compose the scads of music he did, think no more. When his father died in 1918, he inherited a fortune. When he turned 21 in 1920, that fortune was his to spend as he chose. Poulenc was, very simply, that most enviable (and rarest!) of composers: from a young age, financially independent. (I twitch with jealousy.)

With his gorgeous melodic sensibility leading the way, Poulenc learned to compose over the course of the 1920s.…

Continue reading, only on Patreon!

Become a Patron!