October 2, 2020

Poetic Poulenc


Classic composers can also be poetic. One of Tomoko’s favorites is Frenchmen Francis Poulenc, who was also a celebrated pianist.

 Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc was born in Paris on the cusp of the 20th century: January 7, 1899. Poulenc’s mother played the piano competently, and Poulenc developed broad musical taste. However, his father would not allow Poulenc to study at a music conservatory. Fortunately, early 20th century Paris was a cultural hot bed and Poulenc was able to befriend piano and composition mentors Ricardo Viñes, George Auric and Erik Satie. The young composers admitted him to “Les Nouveaux Jeunes,” a circle of protégé musicians. In the 1920s, Poulenc was known as one member of “Les Six”: up and coming composers. Poet Cocteau served as the group’s father figure.

Indeed, Poulenc met several avant-garde poets and set their poems to music. In fact, his first public composition, Rapsodie nègre, featured African-style poetry. Only 18 at the time, his five-movement piece was impressive enough that Stravinsky helped Poulenc to get a contract with a music publisher. Even while serving in the French army, Poulenc set poems (in this case, Apollinaire) to music; the resultant song cycle was an international success. His incorporation of poetry continued in the 1930s, at which point his music was one of the first to be broadcast on BBC television. During World War II Poulenc set French Resistance poets’ works to music, which sometimes could not be performed in France when it was under German occupation – so was broadcast in England. Poulenc also performed his songs; Pierre Bernac and he dueted for over twenty years in Paris and internationally.

Poulenc also composed operas, ballet music, liturgical works, and chamber music thoughout his life, which ended in 1963 from a heart attack.

Tomoko’s album Baroque-20th Century features Poulenc’s break-out piece Movements Perpétuels” and his mid-career “Villageoises,” which was inspired by the French countryside. Like Poulenc, Tomoko appreciates the natural rhythm of poetry, which music can accentuate.

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