Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Gallic Spirit of Francis Poulenc

Milhaud, Cocteau and Poulenc in later years

Ned Rorem remarks somewhere in his voluminous Diaries--I've skip-read large parts of them--that what most attracted him to French music was its "light" sunny surfaces, seamlessly constructed out of clear, distinct sounds. None of that dark, foreboding, Germanic ratiocination, none of that macabre Russian eccentricity, none of that saccharine Italian excess. As Saint-Saens succeeded Berlioz, the Neo-Classicists succeeded Debussy. The new wave of French music after WWI wanted clarity and directness, and they could be mischievous too, and playful, and tart. Though Les Six--the group of six young French composers circa 1920 (Poulenc, Milhaud, Auric, Honegger, Durey and Tailleferre)--had congregated around Cocteau--their real spiritual inspiration was of course Satie, who had proposed the association.

Their attitude had something of the anti-intellectual about it, too--in reaction to the atonal rationality of Schoenberg, and Stravinsky's often jagged enjambed compositional style. Though their actual period of "collaboration" was brief--only a few months--the moniker has had a persuasive historical attraction, since its members went on to have their several meaningful careers, going their separate ways over the decades. It was their initial interests which unites them in the critical imagination: Their interest in a music of conviction, rather than the hovering mists and tendrils of Impressionism (Debussy or Ravel); their interest in jazz; their interest in street music--of parades and circuses and carnivals--and the music of the popular theater and dance-halls; in foreign folk rhythms and children's music. These were revolutionary ideas in 1920, the year the group existed. These attitudes shocked the musical establishment, already reeling from the scandal of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (1913) and as they would shortly be by George antheil's Ballet Mecanique (1924). The changes wrought by the coming technical innovations of the 20th Century would be expressed through the irreverent provocations and fearless experimentation of the post-WWI period, and Le Six were an integral part of that trend.

I have always been intrigued by the music of Darius Milhaud, but I must confess to saving a special place in my heart for Francis Poulenc, whose whole oeuvre has always seemed to me to possess a grace and energy and freshness which is unsurpassed in the history of 20th Century music.

The Young Poulenc

Francis Poulenc was born into a wealthy family, the Poulenc of Rhone-Poulenc, the big pharmaceutical corporation. His father Emile was the second generation director of the chemical firm--one of whose products was the psycho-active drug Thorazine. As a consequence of this prosperous condition, the young Francis never had to work to make a living, and could devote himself to musical composition, which he began to do while still a teenager, becoming a familiar in the Parisian avant garde literary and cultural scene. Some of his first compositions were settings of poems by Apollinaire. Though he followed a course of musical training by studying formal composition, he was purportedly a self-taught musicien, and as a competent keyboard performer, many of his early works are for that instrument. For nearly a hundred years, his Trois Mouvements Perpetuals [1919]--written before he was 20--have been concert hall favorites. Their pure limpid lyricism is characteristic both of the French folk idiom (like Severac, Chabrier and Fauré) from which they derive, and of the wistful innocence of Satie's miniatures. Among my personal favorites from his early period are the Concert Champetre[1928], the third movement of which here has saved me many times from a brooding melancholy too trivial to mention.

Poulenc is described in some accounts as a spoiled hedonist who could seldom rouse himself sufficiently to complete compositions once begun. Frankly homosexual (which he referred to as his "Parisien" side), Poulenc had been raised a Catholic, and the moral conflict this brought about in his personal affairs touched his musical soul deeply. The successive deaths of friends and lovers during the 1920's and 1930's eventually led to his decision to compose liturgical works--perhaps an improbable development in one whose early iconoclasm had been so spirited. In 1936 he visited the shrine of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour, and apparently had an epiphany. The strong works of his middle period for me--Dialogues des Carmelites [1953] and the Gloria [1961] (listening to this one on YouTube takes several segments)--are the direct expression of a devout, strongly emotional mind, finding salvation in its amazement at universal joy, coming through the fire of intense dilemma, of a resignation to redeem the blandishments of fleshly attraction. On a Sunday morning, the Gloria will make you feel like going on a picnic, which after all is perhaps what religion should be about in the end.

In later age

It was inevitable perhaps that Poulenc would eventually be inspired to write a musical setting to a child's story, and this is precisely what happened one day at the composer's country house in 1940. Francis was busy composing a serious piece at the keyboard, when one of his little cousins, named Sophie, grew impatient with him, and peremptorily strode over to the piano and placed her copy of Babar the Elephant on the music stand, upside-down, demanding that he "play" it. Poulenc at once began to improvise a set of interpretations for the narrative of the little elephant, and thus was born the musical version we now know. Composed on the keyboard, it was eventually set for full orchestra. The obvious comparison is with Prokofiev'sPeter and the Wolf, but the two suites are quite different in approach and effect. This version with voice-over by Jacques Brel--one, two, three--is pleasant enough, especially if you already are familiar with the tale, since this performance is in French. My favorite in English is by Peter Ustinov.

The cover of the first edition of the first Babar book

As may be apparent from the photographs here, Poulenc had a very gamey French visage, with an enormous fin for a nose, rather sadly lascivious eyes, and largish ears. A favorite of caricaturists, he was famously, and more than once, the subject of Cocteau's napkin-pencil.

Cocteau caricature

And a later one

Perhaps if you have a face like this, you let your art do your talking for you. Poulenc's art is the trick of putting disparate moods and methods into close proximity, and making it all hang together. Occasionally, his work can sound like spoof, as in the "morse code" movements of hisSonata for 4 Hands [1918], sandwiched between which is the sweetest little entre'act you ever heard.

What is a life devoted to the creation of beauty and excitement through the medium of music, undistracted by worldly cares or barren necessity? We may be unsuccessful in love, or bent over the wheel of labor, or scattered across a panoply of distraction(s). Ultimately, as Cyril Connolly famously said once, "The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence." And the truism is of course applicable to all the other arts. The deeper irony is that we don't know how or when we're likely to create anything even resembling something called a "masterpiece." It's as likely to occur when we least expect it, like running into an old friend of many years back on the street. A flood of feeling and reclaimed memory sweep over one, altering the very landscape of the present moment. Had Poulenc never written anything again as enchanting as Trois Mouvements Perpetuals, his immortality might well be secured. Writers write, and pin-ball champions clickety-click.

Composers tinker with combinations of notes or tap their feet to a catchy rhythm, and before you know it a little magic is conjured into being. Who knows where in the mind such things are born? As we move forward in time, the heroes of our youth recede inexorably into smaller and tinier versions of themselves. We live in the present but dwell in the past. What is the linkage between sequences of sounds that establishes a pattern that seems just right, instead of merely random and flat? I can only say that when I hear a piece like Poulenc's Suite for Piano in C Major [1920], I am transported; I am floating among white billowy clouds, my heart dances and I daydream about the days of wine and roses, of the morning I stepped into a Paris street on my first morning in the City of Light, the day I first read James Schuyler's The Crystal Lithium, or the afternoon when, wading for the first time the rushing rapids of the Madison River in Montana, I hooked into a lively Rainbow who nearly dragged me in over my head, or the evening when I first saw Chinatown, with its unutterably sad denouement to Jerry Goldsmith's score.

The composition of beautiful melodies has always seemed to me a divine inspiration. A beautiful melody is like being tickled--it feels just a little too good, it can't be endured for long, either you cry out in an excess of sensation, or melt. In my experience, such shivers of oracular possession are elusive, and fleeting.

The poet William Stafford insisted that every writer (or poet) should spend a certain amount of time every day before a typewriter, attempting to summon the muse. Sometimes--often, certainly--she wouldn't appear, and one would wait an hour or two in vain, punching out scraps and phrases of pointless meandering speculative blather. But occasionally, luckily, one would hit upon a summary line or a thread of argument, and one knew the wraith of seduction had snuck in and touched you with the wand.

Professional writers and composers of course don't write out whole works in one smooth run. You salvage or snatch phrases or bits and pieces of work--fragments--and later revisit them, or try to incorporate these into a larger design. They may become seeds, germinating into variable elaborations, or they may resist tinkering, and remain undigestible.

Poulenc died at only 64, exactly my own age, in 1963, of a heart attack. In 1963 I was a 10th grader at Silverado Junior High School in Napa, California. 64 feels very young to me, in the body I now occupy. And yet a school-mate I once knew and loved then, fell dead on a mountain trail last year, unexpectedly, alone--presumably of an unexpected heart attack. At any point in our lives, chance may visit us with a little tap on the shoulder, summoning us to another appointment, one we hadn't anticipated. Art may serve as a kind of reminder of the pathos of that eventuality, the immediacy of our awareness of mortality--its joy and sadness. It's a wake-up call we periodically need. That's sort of what I feel with this piece of Poulenc's: Mélancolie[1940]. It's only a little supper music riff, perhaps. Maybe you have to be in the right mood.

Poulenc's music strikes me as the perfect embodiment of the best of French culture in the 20th Century. A clear eye, an immediacy and frankness, joy and sadness and boredom in equal measure, and a worldliness that is the distillate of centuries of feeling, born along on successive generations of youth and age. What do we possess, what do we perpetuate, unless it is music such as this? Poulenc's music often seems like pastiche, in that its rapid and unanticipated changes of mood and manner suggest a chaotic jumbling of unassembled parts. But with familiarity, these longer works begin to seem more natural and predictable in their progression of loud and soft, strict and slack, lyrical and vacant, fast and ponderous, sweet or sour.

As with many 20th Century composers, Poulenc liked to break rules. Starting with a standard form, such as the piano concerto, he would alternate fee-fie-fo-fum base thumps with a rhumba chatter, then slip effortlessly into a murmuring legato under a yearning melody, only to splice in a fluttering, querulous interrogative by the woodwinds. Just this kind of hijinks is indulged in the Concerto for Two Pianos [1932], which concludes with an echoing, crystalline skim over a dreamy winter landscape. Then, with perfect poker-faced equanimity, he evokes the young Mozart (or a 20th Century incarnation of him) in the touching second movement. But even here, his nervous mind can't linger for long, as he segues into soothing orchestral schmaltz, sounding as much like a B movie score as a serious concert piece, before slipping back into ersatz Mozart or Haydn. Perhaps I'm a dry orchestral aficionado, but I find such pieces of bright brittle gesticulating to be as irresistible as New Orleans praline candy.

In a light moment

For me, Poulenc is like a glass of prosecco, light, sweet, ingratiating, just a little corny at times, leavened with anxiety and a frisson of regret. The perfect alembic of the Gallic spirit.

Encore: the Toccata [1928].

Poulenc's Tomb

1 comment:

Sunny West said...

Curtis, Thank you for introducing me to Poulenc's music....very beautiful and emotionally evocative. Your review and reflections are equally informative about Poulenc and yourself. Nice writing.