Friday, 10 February 2012

Poulenc: "Half Monk, Half Knave"

Francis Poulenc (1899-1964) is one of my favourite composers. There's very little of his music that I don't find enjoyable but the light-touch character of much of his best-known music belies the sheer depth of craftsmanship that goes into his art. I would class him as the 20th Century's nearest equivalent to Mozart. 

He was one of Les Six (The Six) - an informal group of not-very-similar French (and Swiss) composers gathered together after the First World War, who are said to write in a light-hearted and unpretentious manner reflecting the would-be mood of post-war France. Poulenc was the most light-hearted and unpretentious of them all - at least in the early stages of his career. He is an essentially lyrical composer who writes tunes, doesn't fuss about elaborate structures and sticks with straightforward tonality (however much he spices it up with modality, surprising harmonic moves or dissonances). His music aims to win our hearts yet the artistry is consummate. That's why I find him so satisfying. 

Of course, Poulenc wasn't always light-hearted. He could flood his music with melancholy feeling, but it never becomes heavy or suffocating. 

What follows is an invitation to explore a few of the more unfamiliar works of Francis Poulenc, alongside a few of the favourites.

First, the Sinfonietta of 1947. This is a large-scale orchestral score which exhibits a mixture of styles and is to be enjoyed for the profusion of delightful episodes it presents rather than as a 'symphonic' piece. Pleasure-giving ideas almost trip over each other in the first movement Allegro, so thick and fast do they come. Stravinsky's beguiling Tchaikovsky-inspired ballet The Fairy's Kiss is a strong influence (you only need hear the opening bars to realise the similarity - if you know the Stravinsky that is!), but, as ever with Poulenc, the influences are personalised to such an extent that it sounds like pure Poulenc. The movement boasts a sweepingly romantic tune that brings the glamour of the ballroom into the work and has a beautiful, dream-like central episode. The 'recapitulation' is a speeded-up, abridged review. The neo-Classical scherzo second movement is just as enjoyable, scampering along one minute, singing sweet songs the next. The balletic nature of some of the music is clear to hear and, again highlighting the links to The Fairy's Kiss, the wonderful climactic passage comes close to recalling Swan Lake. The poignant Andante, with its tenderly-scored and surprisingly Brahms-like main theme, is gorgeous and unexpected. It this is pastiche, then it's lovingly-done pastiche and I've found myself falling in love with it. After this neo-Romantic slow movement, it's back to neo-Classicism for the Finale. This is an entertaining, jokey movement, full of out-and-out pastiche. A lover of rigorous structure could, if they were feeling uptight, find it lacking in coherence, but who needs coherence when you've got such a fine splicing of high jinx and romantic yearning?

It's to the Stravinsky of Pulcinella who Poulenc seems to have been glancing back at when composing his magical Suite  française  for brass, woodwind, percussion and harpsichord (1935) - a work that fills me with a Christmas-like warmth. Poulenc takes several tunes by French Renaissance composer Claude Gervaise and, keeping the tunes much as they are, adds all manner of modern harmonic touches - pure neo-Classicism. You'll hear, in this order, (1) a lively, military Bransle de Bourgogne, (2) a splendid, mournful Pavane, (3) a chipper Petite marche militaire, (4) a wistful Complainte, (5) a spry but graceful Bransle de Champagne, (6) a sublime, plaintive Sicilienne (my favourite movement) and (7) a lively Carillon. The Suite française is a particular favourite of mine. I suspect Poulenc loved it too, as he make a piano arrangment of it shortly after, which is also to be treasured. Less often encountered is a charming additional movement Poulenc composed in 1939, called Française.

Going back to 1929, Poulenc wrote a tiny tribute to the older French composer Albert Roussel called Pièce brève sur le nom d'Albert Roussel . It may last less than two minutes but it has a number of good tunes, especially the delightful one beginning at 00.24. Poulenc's gift for melody is one of the greatest among Classical composers.

One of his finest later pieces is the Thème Varié of 1951. The theme is an adorable one, song-like and gently wistful, and the eleven variations that follow are indeed varied in character. There's mischief in some, such as Var.2 ('Noble') with its pompous pseudo-Baroque dotted rhythms and wrong notes and Var.4 ('Sarcastique') which sounds rather like a spoof of Bartok's 'violent' style. Vars.1 & 8 are dazzlers, while Var.10 ('Sybilline') pursues that Stravinsky-inspired strain of austere chord-placing that Poulenc sometimes uses in his religious works. The slower, more melancholy variations number among my favourites, especially Var.3 ('Pastorale') with its classic Poulenc tune (all charm and elegance) and Var.5 ('Mélancolique'), a lovely song-without-words. And there's more!

At the other end of his career (1918), when the cheeky Poulenc was at his cheekiest, comes the Sonata for Piano, Four Hands. His magpie tendencies began early as he cheerfully pilfers Bartok's Allegro barbaro in the outer movements and Stravinsky's Petrushka in the central movement to create a short, characterful three-movement piece. The Prelude has an engaging folk-like tune and pounding, percussive piano writing, full of dissonance, with a gentler central passage for contrast. The charming central Rustique has a somewhat oriental-sounding melody and a slight whiff of gamelan music about it. The tangy, tuneful Finale is high-spirited and exciting.

Re-bounding to the late works, the Oboe Sonata of 1961 is one of the composer's best pieces. Written in memory of Prokofiev, it is overwhelmingly serious in tone. Seriousness was not central to Poulenc's early works, but became more so as time passed. The sonata begins with an Elégie. After a wistful four-note introduction, the oboe begins to sing a lovely, gentle melody (which circles around a five-note figure) over a pulsing accompaniment from the piano packed with characteristic harmonies. There a genial continuation. The second subject is marked by a skipping rhythm and is followed by a theme that has something of a Prokofiev-style march about it. The wistful mood then returns as does the main subject. The Scherzo is highly animated and has more Prokofiev-like moments - all thoroughly transmuted into pure Poulenc, as ever - with a trio section that seems to evoke the lyrical side of Prokofiev found in those great ballets Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet. The closing Déploration opens to a chorale-like, bell-like theme of the kind familiar from the Litanies.  The oboe's grieving theme seems to grow out of it, accompanied by more bell-like piano chords. In the next section, the piano pulses out a repeating pattern as the oboe leads it through modulations to an intensified reprise. The skipping theme from the Elegie is recalled before a coda that seems to allude to Romeo and Juliet

Re-bounding back to the early works, I've got to recommend one of the composer's best-known and best-loved pieces, just in case you don't know it. That's the Trois mouvements perpétuels (3 Perpetual Motions) of 1919, undoubtedly influenced by the contemporary piano pieces of Stravinsky but sounding entirely characteristic of their composer. The first movement (Assez modéré) is based on a one-bar ostinato over which a succession of charming phrases fall, forming a lyrical melody as they go to the accompaniment of often quirky harmonies.That these patterns could repeat forever is, I suppose, the point of the title! The second movement (Très modéré) is just as winning, with the ostinato patterns in each hand gradually growing apart from each other. (In the wind-dominated chamber orchestra version, the scoring gives it a pass-the-parcel-like quality.) The finale (Alerte) shows, as Poulenc's music is prone to do, the influence of the music hall. It has great tunes and is good fun. 

Poulenc is often said to be one of the 20th Century's greatest Classical songwriters. He certainly is that, as far as I'm concerned. One of his loveliest and most touching songs is "C" - written during World War II when France was under German occupation ("O my France, O my forsaken France"). This is a true favourite of mine, setting a poem by resistance poet, Louis Aragon. Its verse reflects the deep influence of Ravel (an influence I feel to be strongest in the songs) while the warm lilt of the refrain again owes something to the spirit of French music halls - both influences fully personalised by the composer:

J'ai traversé Les Ponts-de-Cé
C'est là que tout a commencé
Une chanson des temps passés
Parle d'un chevalier blessé,
D'une rose sur la chaussée
Et d'un corsage délacé,
Du château d'un duc insensé
Et des cygnes dans les fossés,
De la prairie où vient danser
Une éternelle fiancée,
Et, j'ai bu comme un lait glacé
Le long lai des gloires faussées.
La Loire emporte mes pensées
Avec les voitures versées,
Et les armes désamorcées,
Et les larmes mal effacées,
Oh ! ma France ! ô ma délaissée !
J'ai traversé Les Ponts-de-Cé.

I have crossed the bridges of Cé
It was there that it all began
A song of times past
Speaks of a wounded knight
Of a rose upon the road
And of a bodice unlaced
Of the castle of a mad duke
And of swans in its moats
Of the meadow where will dance
An eternal fiancée
And like cold milk I drink
The long lay of false glories
The Loire carries off my thoughts
Along with the overturned cars
And the defused weapons
And the tears not rubbed away
Oh my France, oh my abandoned one
I have crossed the bridges of Cé.

More consistent with the Les Six-like spirit of early, 'unoccupied' Poulenc, are the Chansons gaillardes of 1926 (second part here). There's plenty of engaging frivolity but also listen out for the boozy, bleary-eyed harmonies of the second song Chanson à boire , the exquisite harmonies of the fourth song, Invocation aux Parques, the deliciously catchy patter-song (the fifth) Couplets bachiques, the wistful-yet-light 'love song' (of the sauciest kind)  L'Offrande (the sixth) and warm neo-Classicism of the closing Sérénade. All the texts (and translations) can be found here.

Other fine sets include the Trois Poèmes De Louise De Vilmorin of 1936, which begins with a pair of quick, short songs - Le Garçon de Liège and Au-delà - the first a charming caprice, the second an even more charming song with tripping rhythms and pleasing major/minor switches of harmony. The longest song, by some way, is the final one - Aux Officiers de la garde blanche. This begins in modal simplicity, warms fetchingly then darkens harmonically before a lovely, rapt falling scale floats us towards an even more rapt take on the opening melody. A wistful postlude ends another attractive song.

Poulenc once wrote that his best piano writing wasn't to be found in his solo piano works but in the accompaniments to his songs. I don't believe that, but please listen to the wonderful piano part of the short  song cycle Métamorphoses of 1943 and you'll see that he certainly wrote some music there that equals his solo piano works in worth. The lyrical central song, C’est ainsi que tu es, is the finest.

What about the Concerto for Two Pianos of 1932? Yum, yum! It has everything you would want from a piece by Poulenc. All carping at its 'patchwork' structure and its 'stylistic kleptomania' (both accusations fully founded!) may be nonchalantly put in the non-recycling bin as 'besides the point'. C'est Poulenc! after all. There are non-sequitors galore (especially in the outer movements) but they only (somehow) work to increase my (and hopefully your) sense of pleasure - and they do hang together. It helps that each and every patch in the quilt is a joy in itself. Moreover, there are unifying subtleties. For instance, the gamelan music that occurs at intervals throughout each movement has, if you listen attentively, a guiding hand on the harmony and accompaniments of several of the non-gamelan passages. Also, the opening movement's Prokofiev-like main theme is 'developed' in an 'exposition' before a Spanish-sounding 'second subject' (the scare marks are necessary here) appears on cue. Continuing the story of the first movement, the initial fizz is not lost, despite what follows as Poulenc ditches a development section for a 'slow movement' of such a smootchy kind of beauty that the listener can surely only surrender to its spell. There's more fizz to come and listen out for the remarkable transition where Poulenc becomes almost like Webern for a while! That passage is followed by the truly ravishing gamelan-evoking coda with its gorgeous piano writing, lovely string phrases (also to reappear) and naughty ending. Those lovely string phrases reappear in the divine Larghetto that forms the concerto's central movement, romantically (and magically) decorated by the pianos. The Mozartian opening (though listen to the counter-melody) gives us another great tune to savour. A glittering new tune sets off the next section, which flows on only interrupted by a typical Stravinskyan moment. A shortened first section reprise (and a second Stravinskyan moment) is rounded off with a gamelan memory. Another gamelan memory also rounds off the dizzy Finale. This collage-like festival of fun begins with dazzling virtuosity before taking us into the Parisian bars for an affair with popular music and name-checking Ravel with a tune or two. It's not logical,  but it makes perfect sense to me! Its sudden melting climax (on one of those Ravelian tunes) is just what this listener ordered! Sheer panache! The whole work is, like the Suite  française and "C", a favourite of mine.

As are the Litanies à la Vierge Noire of 1936, for women's chorus and organ (or strings and timpani). The phrase "half monk, half knave" was coined (in 1950) by a French critic. It contrasts the worldly, frivolous, music hall side of Poulenc with his serious, heartfelt side, found most obviously in his later religious works. That serious, religious strain found its first expression in the Litanies, and was provoked by his reconversion to Catholicism following the death of a friend in accident. The work brought the modal element in Poulenc's art to the fore in seeking an austere, medieval, chant-like soundworld to reflect the text he was setting -though that austerity is tempered by a very French-sounding sweetness and, in contrast, by some other characteristic harmonies, often chromatic, sometimes highly dissonant - contrasting anxiety with humility. Some admirers of the lighter side of Poulenc part company with him here. Not me. I think the Litanies are pure magic. (Incidentally, as evidence that this strain in Poulenc's art didn't emerge out of nowhere, please try this enchanting little Sarabande for solo guitar, melancholic and beautiful.)

Several such works followed, including the shapely Quatre petites prières de Saint-François d'Assise for unaccompanied male chorus, where plainchant-like passages sit alongside others that are richly and imaginatively harmonised. Some of the harmonies will really take you by surprise, as in the excellent second piece, Tout puissant, which begins in a forthright manner that sounds unexpectedly like Russian Orthodox chant, but soon goes in all manner of unpredictable directions. 

The famous Gloria of 1959, in contrast, is much closer to the knavish side of his musical personality. In this piece for soprano, chorus and orchestra, Poulenc wanted to praise his Lord and that, for him, meant writing music that would express delight. So you'll find lots of cheerful syncopations and jaunty tunes. If it's the case that the Gloria is the second most popular piece of French Classical music (after Ravel's Bolero), then it means that I am very far from being the only listener who seeks out every opportunity to hear different performances of his lovable masterpiece. There are six movements:
1. Gloria
There are 'monkish' passages, even in the joyfully bouncy 'Laudamus Te' (beginning at 'Gratias agimus tibi'), and the heartfelt loveliness of the Domine Deus for soprano, chorus and orchestra is far from 'knavish', as is the glorious, dignified Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, again featuring a prominent part for solo soprano (my favourite movement of all). You will, if you followed my link to the Litanies, recognise a quotation from that work in the serene passage close to the end of the final movement. As you will have noticed from my earlier comments, there's often a flavour of Stravinsky haunting a piece by Poulenc, here the mesmeric Symphony of Psalms

Finally (for now), I must bring to anyone who hasn't heard it an early orchestral score that is the epitome of Poulenc the cheeky charmer of the music hall, the ballet Les biches (sort-of translates as 'The hinds') from 1922-23. The purely orchestral suite consists of a Rondeau, Adagietto, Rag-Mazurka, Andantino and Final. The glamorous Adagietto is especially delicious & has always been a firm favourite of mine. There's plenty of Pulcinella-style Stravinsky in this extremely tuneful score, plus a few passages where the sonorities of the Russian's Symphonies of Wind Instruments are clearly recalled. .

Now, it's not an anniversary year for Francis Poulenc this year, but I felt like celebrating a favourite composer of mine. Hope I enticed you to try a few less well-known pieces as well as the popular classics.

(The paintings in this post are by Raoul Dufy).

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