'Poulenc takes a tune – and, as far as I can see, anyone tune would do as well as another – and having presented it to you unadorned, proceeds to develop it by the simple and primitive expedient of non-tonal counterpoint…As for scoring, you merely let a fiddle in E flat accompany an oboe in E, and round off your effort, if necessary, with a trumpet in F; and you conclude the work with that lovely and expressive chord which can be achieved at the piano by sitting on the notes.' And 'He is, before all, a melodist, always graceful and winsome.'
The first of these quotations is an extract from a report written by Mr Neville d'Esterre for The British Musician of a concert held at Bournemouth in October, 1926, and refers to Poulenc's Overture in C, and the second is a sentence taken from a programme-note written by Mr Keith Douglas for the Chamber Music Festival held at Bradford in October, 1927, and is a reference in general terms to the same composer's music. Not having heard the Overture in C, I cannot attempt to reconcile two such apparently conflicting statements but what I have heard of the music of Francis Poulenc induces me to subscribe wholeheartedly and energetically to Mr Douglas's dictum.
Francis Poulenc was born in Paris on January 7, 1899, and attracted considerable attention with his first work, the Rhapsodie nègre for flute, clarinet, piano, string quartet and voice, when it was performed at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier in December, 1917, at a concert of works composed by young French musicians. This work, clumsy though it may be in places, but always interesting and often fascinating, is highly individual and is the product of one of the few artists whose works are stamped with their own personality from the very first.
About the time of the first performance of the Rhapsodie nègre the young composer was called to military service, but in spite of this he found time in 1918 to write several works including a piano sonata for four hands, a sonata for two clarinets and the popular Mouvements perpétuels.
Shortly after the end of the Great War Henri Collet, the well-known French critic, having met Poulenc and five other young musicians who forgathered at the same studio and centred themselves round Erik Satie, wrote an article in which they were compared with the famous Russian 'Five'. In consequence they became known to the world as 'Les Six', but the close association inferred by this name is little more than journalistic imagination, for however close they are or have been in personal friendship, they follow very diverse paths in their work with the possible exception of Poulenc and Auric, who have a good deal in common.
The compositions of Poulenc which are best known in England are Les biches (or 'The House Party'), a ballet often produced by Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes, and some of the piano works including the Mouvements perpétuels already mentioned, a Suite (1920), Napoli (1921), Impromptus (1921), and Promenades (1921). The latter is an interesting and arresting work being divided into several sections each of which represents a form of travel. Thus we proceed 'on foot' to an easy-going 6/8 rhythm, 'by motor car' to a violent presto agitato, 'on horse-back', 'by boat', 'by aeroplane', 'by motor bus', 'in a carriage', 'by railway', 'by bicycle' and 'by stage coach' each in a typical and picturesque fashion. This composition is extremely clever but in an unobtrusive way and not at the expense of the musical expression and content.
Other compositions include a Comédie-bouffe in one act called Le Gendarme incompris, several groups of songs including 'Cocardes', a fine setting of three poems by Jean Cocteau in which snatches of refrains whistled by the gamins of Paris are introduced skilfully and naturally, and several chamber music compositions in which a predilection for wind instruments is revealed. Thus Poulenc has written sonatas for clarinet and bassoon and for horn, trumpet and trombone respectively and a trio for piano, oboe and bassoon.
The encouragement of young composers is a matter which should receive more and more attention from recording companies, and in urging the claims of Francis Poulenc to such encouragement a peculiar pleasure is gained from the fact that he is really young and not one of those who are still accounted 'young' though well on the wrong side of 50.
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