Francis Poulenc

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Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc (1899-1963), was a Parisian born French composer and pianist. He taught himself composition and whilst still in his teens, became recognised as a composer of some sophistication with a piece for voice and chamber ensemble (Rapsodie negré), a song cycle (Le bestaire) and the Sonata for two clarinets. He joined the group of French composers of the “smart set” known as “Les Six” which rejected the perceived romanticism and conservatism of the earlier French masters such as Debussy and Vincent D'Indy, instead aiming for intellectual suavity and even irony. (Much of his chamber and orchestral music can be said to have been written with a “raised eyebrow”). Even his major orchestral work, the Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani, ranges in style from the baroque to the fête.

This said, it seems that he arrived at romanticism by another way. A deeply religious man, he wrote some notable devotional music, including a Stabat mater and a late Gloria that are among the most frequently heard of their kind today - this music, whilst undeniably 20th century, and distinctively his, is harmonically traditional and generally tuneful.

His output included a fair number of songs which are an important contribution to the French “melodie” tradition.

He wrote successfully for the stage, including a ballet for the impresario, Dyagilev, Les biches, when he was only 25. A relatively late work (and one that, like the Gloria, sprang from a renewal in faith in his later years) is the tragic opera, Dialogues des Carmélites – there is no urbane modernity there; the ultimate tragic scene is one of the most deeply felt and intensely affecting pieces of writing in all music!

A fine pianist, he wrote many short private pieces for that instrument, plus a concerto for two pianos. The piano parts of his well known chamber works – sonatas for flute, clarinet, cello, violin and the like - show a composer perfectly at home at the keyboard and enjoying himself. Also with a major keyboard component is his major work for piano and narrator, "L’histoire de Babar, le petit elephant".


  • Oxford Companion to Music
  • The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music