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Always emotionally volatile, Poulenc had a profound religious experience when he visited the shrine of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour in 1936, following the death of a friend, composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, in an automobile accident. This led him back to Roman Catholicism and triggered a series of large and small sacred works, beginning almost immediately with the Litanies à la vierge noire, which he completed in one week.
His setting of the Gloria was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation and dedicated to Serge and Nathalie Koussevitzky. Charles Munch led the Boston Symphony, the Chorus Pro Musica, and soprano Adele Addison in the premiere, January 20, 1961, which the composer attended on his last trip to the United States. (He died of a sudden heart attack two years later. At his request, the only music at his funeral was by Bach.)
Poulenc’s general style became more austere after 1936, particularly in the sacred works. But much of the Gloria is playful and even theatrical. (It was composed during the year after his last opera, La voix humaine, premiered.) The energetic forward drive of the opening movement, for example, is heightened by the illusion of syncopation Poulenc creates by putting accented syllables of the text on off-beats, something he also does in other movements.
The “Laudamus te” is another movement of great rhythmic verve, impelled by constant off-beats in the strings. Poulenc gives each phrase of the text a crisp, distinctive setting, which he reiterates in a musical mosaic.
The serenely floating “Domine Deus,” with its finely tuned interplay of soloist, chorus, and orchestra, has been a favorite of elegantly expressive sopranos. There is a harmonically contrasting section, and a calm conclusion that merges elements of the other two sections.
Vivaldi’s treatment of “Domine Fili unigenite” was coincidentally as a vigorously dotted movement marked “alla francese.” Poulenc’s is marked “very lively and joyful” (like his “Laudamus te”) and it has the most chordal chorus writing in the work, driving through an orchestral romp.
The closest parallel to Vivaldi’s setting, however, comes in Poulenc’s beautifully poised “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei,” a similarly reflective movement with the chorus completing thoughts begun by the soloist. Poulenc’s soprano gestures here are inversions of the ones in the third movement, with an orchestral framework that suggests Prokofiev in harmony and scoring.
For his finale, Poulenc begins with a sort of neo-medieval recessional, with modal inflections and more homophonic choral writing. He closes this section with bare, acapella amens, and then relaunches the text in a murmurous passage marked “Extraordinairement calme.” This finds its way to its own amens, first thunderous, finally in a distant ppp echo.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.