Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Poulenc: 50 years on

It's fifty years to this very day since one of my favourite composers, Francis Poulenc, died. My love for his music calls for another post, albeit a short one.

The early, frivolous side of Poulenc can be brought to you via a tiny Valse which he wrote in 1919 for the Album des Six. If you now take a listen to Stravinsky's Valse pour les enfants (from three years later), you will (I'm sure) be able to recognise a kindred spirit at work - at least from the opening bars of the Poulenc where the mechanical accompaniment is a striking parallel. Stravinsky had led the way with this sort of thing in his earlier miniatures, but Poulenc was able to draw on the Russian's example and then personalise it. That little Valse of his is much more insouciant and goes on to dance a much warmer tune. It could never be by Stravinsky, only Poulenc. (You can hear the orchestral version here). No great depths are touched and no great depths were meant to be touched in this piece. Such was the intended spirit of Les Six (a very French take on Russia's The Mighty Handful), a group whose stated aim was to get rid of all that heavy, over-serious, German Romantic-influenced music that had come before the First World War and replace it with something light, cheerful, anti-Romantic and French. None of the other five members of the group kept as close to that post-war spirit as Poulenc (however much he did sometimes touch the depths.)

That Poulenc so did can be heard in another of his waltzes, the delightful L'embarquement pour Cythère for two pianos from  much later in his life, 1951. It's music to make you feel good - a lively, happy waltz with good tunes and bright, pianistic colours. It's a piece that is meant to give simple, uncomplicated pleasure to the listener. Of course, connoisseurs (like thee and me) can also savour the naughty 'wrong notes', the surprising harmonic moves and the brilliance of the colours drawn from the two pianos, tokens of the composer's supreme artistry.  Supreme artistry dispatched disarmingly is the quality of Poulenc that most makes me think of him as the 20th Century's truest answer to Mozart. 

After those two tiny (but tasty) morsels from the table of Francis Poulenc (which usually boasted a good bottle of claret too), let's come to something more substantial and a piece that shows the composer touching the depths without wallowing in them - the Violin Sonata of 1942-3, written while France was under occupation and paying honour to the Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, killed during the Spanish Civil War. Opening with a fiery theme whose roots in Stravinsky can be discerned by discerning ears but which is inevitably transformed into undiluted Poulenc, the first movement shows the composer being far from frivolous and is a powerful statement from beginning to end, with a particularly gripping central passage. Being Poulenc, however, it also contains a lyrical, melancholy melody of great beauty. The lovely, song-like central movement with its touches of guitar-like writing is the place where the hat is tipped most clearly toward Lorca. The closing movement is a tragic presto, bringing the back the fiery spirit of the first movement but also allowing a happier second subject to blossom. The work ends, however, in a funereal mood and with a final shake of the fist. The bitterness and edge of parts of the Violin Sonata are not quite what fans of this composer expect - and, given, Poulenc's later disdain for the piece, it probably wasn't what the composer expected either. 

No, much more what we all want is the Sextet, which certainly doesn't lack for depth but is essentially witty in character. The opening is Stravinsky-a-la-Poulenc, and the first movement engages in neo-Classical high jinx with themes of pure smiling charm, as well (characteristically) as passages of bitter-sweet lyricism. Poulenc was to given to development, sonata form structure, etc (despite what you may have heard in the Violin Sonata), preferring to juxtapose blocks of music. This first movement's slow middle section is a case in point, appearing, doing its thing then departing (via an imaginatively-scored "transition"). The slow movement itself again brings out composer's ear for beauty and his ability to write with feeling. Though an inattentive ear might take the opening bars as being by Stravinsky, even the most inattentive of listeners will realise within seconds that this is Francis Poulenc - and could be no-one else - particularly when the movement suddenly changes speed and becomes quick, carefree and whistleably tuneful. The finale also switches between moods, high spirits and bitter-sweet lyricism co-existing. The closing pages are particularly gorgeous.  

Poulenc lives!

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