Francis Poulenc

Born: 7 January 1899 in Paris
Died: 30 January 1963 in Paris

{Biography and Works} {Gloria}

Biography and Works

Poulenc was born to a wealthy family.  His mother started him on piano at a young age, and he was composing by the time he was 7.  To please his family, the idea was that he would receive a classical education before attending the Conservatoire.  As it happened, World War I and the death of both parents (his mother when he was 16; his father when he was 18) derailed those plans, and he had relatively little formal musical education—some lessons with pianist Ricardo Viñes (1875–1943) as a teen, and several years of composition study with Charles Koechlin (1867–1950) after he had already established himself as a composer.

Thanks to his childhood friend Raymonde Linossier (an impressive women who was a lawyer, an art historian specializing in Asia, and a surrealist writer), he met the leading artists and intellectuals in post-war Paris.  Friends and acquaintances included Cocteau, Satie, Stravinsky, Picasso, Brancusi, Claudel, Eluard, and Apollinaire.  His early work Rapsodie nègre (1917) established him as a young Turk of a composer, soon to be included as a member of the group Les Six.  This was never a formal group, but rather six composers who shared something of a similar aesthetic goal: to write music that was vehemently anti-German, included an element of simplicity in its style, and incorporated elements of popular culture, e.g. jazz.  Their music was sometimes performed together on concerts, and five of them collaborated on Cocteau’s ballet Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel (1921).  Their name came from the critic Henri Collet, writing in 1920.

The six composers Collet grouped together were, in addition to Poulenc, as follows:

  • Arthur Honegger (1892–1955), a Swiss composer best known today for his “mouvement symphonique” Pacific 231, which imitated a locomotive, and his oratorios Le Roi David and Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher.
  • Darius Milhaud (1892–1974), whose works include the ballets Le Boeuf sur le toit and La Création du monde.
  • Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983), the sole woman of the group, whose works are only slowly being “rediscovered.”
  • Georges Auric (1899–1983), whose best-known work is probably the ballet Les Matelots.
  • Louis Durey (1888–1979).  Who?  His sole claim to fame these days is having been a “member” of Les Six.  He didn’t even stick around long enough to help out with the Cocteau ballet.

Poulenc was unquestionably the most successful of any of the group.  Stravinsky helped get his works published, and introduced him as well to impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who commissioned  his jazz-inflected ballet Les Biches (1923) for the Ballet Russes.  Other early works include his immediately successful Trois mouvements perpétuals for piano (Poulenc was an excellent pianist); the song cycle Le bestiaire (Apollinaire); the Concert champêtre for harpsichord and orchestra; and the Concerto for Two Pianos.

The 1930s were a decade of great change in Poulenc’s life.  They opened with the death of Raymonde Linossier.  She had turned down his marriage proposal not long before (his primary sexual activity was with men, although he did father an illegitimate child in 1946) and he mourned her for the rest of his life.  Serious financial losses meant that he now had to work for a living, and he began an important collaboration as pianist with baritone Pierre Bernac, for whom he wrote many of his excellent songs (he is widely considered the best composer of French song after Fauré’s death).  But the most significant events were set in motion by the death in an automobile accident of a friend, composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, in 1936.  This took place right before Poulenc was due to meet Bernac in Uzerche for a working vacation.  As soon as Poulenc arrived, he decided to visit the nearby pilgrimage church of Rocamadour, which has a famous statue of the Black Virgin.  This visit, at a time of emotional vulnerability for Poulenc, prompted two major changes in his life: he re-embraced Catholicism, and he embarked on the series of choral compositions that play such an important part in his output.  The first fruits of this were the Litanies à la vierge noire for women’s voices (1936), the Mass in G (1937), and the Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitance (1938–1939), as well as the secular Sept chansons (1936) and Petites voix (1936; also for women’s voices).  Nonchoral works from the 1930s include the chamber work Suite française (1935); the piano composition Les soirées de Nazelle (finished 1936), the song cycle Tel jour, telle nuit (1937; texts by Eluard), the Organ Concerto (1938), and the Sextet for Piano and Winds (completed 1939).

Poulenc spent most of the war years at his country home in Noizay, which was part of occupied France.  Works composed during this time include the ballet Les animaux modèles (finished 1942), the motets Exultate Deo and Salve regina (both 1941), the cantata Un Soir de neige (1944), the comic opera Les mamelles de Tirésias (the Breasts of Tirésias, finished 1944), the melodrama L’Histoire de Babar (finished 1945), and, most significantly, Figure humaine (1943) a 12-voice cantata of the resistance on poems published in secret by Eluard.  Postwar compositions include the piano duet L’Embarquement pour Cythère; three excellent sonatas for flute, clarinet, and oboe; the song cycle Le travail du peintre (Eluard); La dame de Monte Carlo for voice and orchestra; the operas La Voix humaine and Dialogues des Carmélites (his masterpiece); and the choral works Stabat mater, the Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël; Ave verum corpus (for treble voices), Sept répons des ténèbres, and his most popular work, the Gloria.


The Gloria was commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation, written in 1959, and premiered on 20 January 1961 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Chorus Pro Musica, conducted by Charles Munch.  It was supposedly Poulenc’s favorite choral work.

The Gloria is a standard part of the Catholic mass, set in polyphony from the fourteenth century onwards.  As the most joyful text of the mass, it is not part of the Requiem mass but appears in everything else.  While we most often encounter it with its companions Kyrie, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus, stand-alone Glorias date back to the fourteenth century.

Because the Gloria is one of the longest texts in the mass, composers usually subdivide it into multiple sections.  The norm before 1600 was two or three subdivisions.  If two subdivisions, Qui tollis was the usual place to split, but Qui sedes was also possible.  Three subdivisions generate more variety, e.g. at Domine Deus and Qui tollis, at Qui tollis and Qui sedes, at Qui tollis and Cum sancto.  Baroque composers liked more subdivisions: think of Bach with nine in the B minor mass and Vivaldi with a dozen in his Gloria.

Poulenc has six, and they generate very lopsided text distributions.  The text, translation, divisions, and initial tempo designations are given below (Poulenc also tosses in a stray “Gloria” at the end of the third movement).

1. Maestoso (majestic)

Gloria in excelsis Deo
Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to men of good will.

2. Très vif et joyeux (very lively and joyful)

Laudamus te.
Benedicimus te.
Adoramus te.
Glorificamus te.
Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam.

We praise you.
We bless you.
We adore you.
We glorify you.
We give you thanks for your great glory.

3. Très lent et calme (very slow and calm)

Domine Deus, rex coelestis,
Deus pater omnipotens,

Lord God, heavenly king,
God the father almighty,

4. Très vite et joyeux (very fast and joyful)

Domine fili unigenite, Jesu Christe,

Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten son,

5. Très lent (very slow)

Domine Deus, agnus Dei, filius patris,
Qui tollis peccata mundi
Miserere nobis.
Qui tollis peccata mundi.
Suscipe deprecationem nostram

Lord God, lamb of God, son of the father,
Who takes away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us.
You who take away the sins of the world,
receive our prayer.

6. Maestoso (majestic)

Qui sedes ad dexteram patris,
Miserere nobis.
Quoniam tu solus sanctus,
Tu solus Dominus,
Tu solus altissimus, Jesu Christe,
Cum sancto spirito
In gloria dei patris. Amen.

You who sit at the right hand of the father,
have mercy on us.
For you alone are holy.
you alone are the Lord.
you alone, Jesus Christ, are most high,
with the holy spirit
in the glory of God the father. Amen.

While the movements are unequal in the amount of text they use, they generate three pairs in terms of character: the opening and closing movements each commence “majestically” and move to steady rhythms thereafter; movements 2 and 4 are fleet (4, with its single phrase of text, zips by in a flash), and 3 and 5 provide the necessary slow contrasts, where Poulenc accordingly changes the orchestration by cutting way back on the brass.  Those two each feature the soprano soloist, who returns at the end of 6 when the tempo shifts to “Extraordinairement calme, sans traîner” (extraordinarily calm, without dragging) to provide a serene conclusion to the work.

Poulenc purposely wrote the Gloria in a nontraditional manner.  He said of the second movement that he was thinking “of the [Benozzo] Gozzoli frescoes in which the angels stick out their tongues; I was thinking also of the serious Benedictines [monks] whom I saw playing soccer one day.”  He certainly received criticism for the many places where the tone is not especially devout.  Large parts of it retain the whiff of the “enfant terrible” that he and his fellow Les Six members embodied at the start of his career.  As Roger Nichols puts it, the “choral writing is unsanctimonious to the point of willfulness.”

The work is not especially easy to sing.  The style has been described as “pointillistic,” and Poulenc is certainly fond of very short phrases (some only a measure long) juxtaposed like pieces in a mosaic.  Meter changes are frequent, dissonances are sprinkled liberally over what is actually an essential diatonicism, and diminished seventh chords are apparently used more frequently than by any composer since Verdi.  Shrock has a delicious description of Poulenc as having a “penchant for stringing together short cubist motifs, all separated by rests” (cubist motifs?  Qu’est-ce que c’est?)  Alwes remarks on the “awkward, often difficult voice leading,” and notes that it is “notoriously difficult to perform well.”  I personally loathe the F Gb A motive that pops up two times in a row in the alto part beginning eight measures before rehearsal 24, and the wrenching harmonic transition from movement 5 to 6 is, I believe, universally detested by choruses.  But I will also confess to feeling a certain pride at nailing the sticky parts—made all the stickier by a vocal score that has sworn off any piano reduction to help us.  Quelle dommage!  Mais c’est la vie!

April 2024