In a letter dated 1942 Poulenc wrote: “I know perfectly well that I’m not one of those composers who have made harmonic innovations like Igor [Stravinsky], Ravel or Debussy, but I think there’s room for new music which doesn’t mind using other people’s chords. Wasn’t that the case with Mozart–Schubert?” Indeed, Poulenc’s music was driven by a lively sense for melodic invention, set against traditional, even old-fashioned harmonic backgrounds.
This duality was one of many in the life of the composer. He suffered fits of manic-depression, characterized by deep sadness and doubt followed by maniacal states of optimism. French critic Claude Rostand remarked that: “In Poulenc there is something of the monk and something of the rascal.” Poulenc associated with the modernist circles at Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop in the rue de l’Odéon, where he met Apollinaire, Éluard, Breton, Aragon, Gide, Fargue, Valéry and Claudel, yet remained faithful to the simplicity and transparency of French neo-classicism. Introduced to Paris musical circles by his piano teacher, Spanish virtuoso Ricardo Viñes, Poulenc soon struck a friendship with a group of young composers who would present concerts at the studio of the painter Émile Lejeune, in the rue Huyghens in Montparnasse. In a 1920 review of a concert featuring all of them, Henri Collet baptized Poulenc, Milhaud, Auric, Honegger, Tailleferre, and Durey the “Groupe des Six.”
Though largely self-taught, Poulenc soon caught the attention of patrons and colleagues alike, including Stravinsky, one of his influences, who helped him to get his music published. Despite his many associations with other artists, Poulenc’s compositional style remained firmly independent throughout his long career. His delight in writing for the human voice, fuelled partly by the sacred works composed after his religious re-awakening in 1936, is already present in this early Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano (1926). Dedicated to Manuel de Falla, this sparkling piece opens with a presto movement, featuring the oboe and the bassoon as the story-tellers. A largely homophonic piano provides plenty of opportunities for the two wind instruments to alternate cadenzas. Poulenc uses long and contrasting lines, shifting between the harmonies of A major and A minor, to create narrative tension.
The second movement is a lyrical pastorale, described by Poulenc himself as “sweet and melancholic.” The finale, a brisk rondo, continues the pastorale-feel of the preceding section, presenting miniature horn-calls, and concluding with a joyful fanfare.
Poulenc’s professional success was steady; his music was a welcome breath of fresh air, perceived as natural and impulsive, unrestricted by the overt formalism and intellectual games that many of his modernist contemporaries were accused of.
Poulenc died in 1963 of a sudden heart attack in his apartment in Paris.
Barbara Moroncini has a Ph.D in Musicology from the University of California, Los Angeles.