top of page

Nicely Recorded Performances: Poulenc's Complete Music for Wind Instruments

The MHS Review 371 Vol. 10, No. 11 1986

click on the cover to return to the table of contents

David M. Greene


not yet released.png

Finally getting around to seriously reading Virgil Thomson's delightful The State of Music (the 1961 recension of the 1932 original), I was momentarily surprised to find the author citing Poulenc as the perfect example of a modern composer wealthy enough to create without having to worry about the economic necessity. I suppose that, like most of us, I am susceptible to the persuasiveness of myth--in this instance, the one that all artists are either born poor or have poverty thrust upon them by their impractical approach to life.

Poulenc was the next-to-youngest of that con­stellation of post-WWI French-born composers incorrectly dubbed Les Six by a reviewer named Collet. The eldest, Louis Durey, never really identified himself with the others and quickly dissociated himself from them. Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983) attracted little attention. Georges Auric, Poulenc's junior by five weeks, was best known as a film composer.

The Big Boys of the six were, in their hey­day, thought to be Honegger and Milhaud. No one took Poulenc seriously, except a few rather specialized and sophisticated singers who doted on his songs, the texts of which were often far­-out and the musical language of which was closest to that of the music hall.

In his superbly evocative notes to this album, Ned Rorem (himself no mean writer of songs and in some ways the inheritor of Poulenc's mantle) points out that, contrary to all reasonable expectations for a man regarded in his day as a clown, Poulenc's current reputa­tion has outdistanced those of all the rest. Not a single one of the others, for example, ever had an opera produced at the Met, which in re­cent years has not only staged two of Poulenc's but also revived them. Rorem explains this phenomenon, somewhat bitterly, by saying that the reason for the volta face is that "over the past 20 years the public has been permitted to claim, with a straight face, that superficiality is a profound attribute."

In photos taken in their youth Rorem finds strong facial resemblances between Poulenc and the late poet W.H. Auden-ironic, he feels, in that they were in many other ways polar op­posites. Personally, I have always thought that Poulenc in his last years looked not unlike the great comedian Fernande!. Comedy was, in fact, one of Poulenc's chief tools, though, as with Auden. it usually took the form of wit that emphasized his seriousness. And he could be quite serious, as he was in his only full-length opera, Dialogues des Carmelites, and in those choral works that were an expression of his strong religious faith.

Poulenc's output was not large. There were the three operas, as well as four ballets, and a good deal of music for plays and films, much of which is unpublished and most of which is neglected. Apart from four concerti for keyboard instruments, the orchestral work is mostly bits and pieces. There is about a score of choral works (some of them collective) and about 35 piano compositions ( Poulenc was himself a good pianist, if not a virtuoso).

Then there are the songs --perhaps the most notable body of such works from any 20th­ century composer (do I hear cries of "Ives!" or "Warlock!" or even "Rorem!"?), though in all they fill only five LPs. Finally there is the chamber music: 14 compositions, which, ex­cept for a guitar piece and a sonata each for violin and cello, all involve wind instruments.

Poulenc, it appears, preferred winds to strings (Rorem says he looked like a trumpet and sounded like an English horn), and is said to have sent some of his orchestrally intended pieces out to others for instrumentation. Again, Rorem notes that Poulenc's style was born full­-blown and never changed. so that though 44 years separate the two-clarinet Sonata from that for clarinet and piano, it could have been a month. I don't know that I agree: the late works seem to me less irreverent and more in­trospective, but what do I know?

And if the style does not change, there is in­finite variety. And what is the style? Thomson's characterization of how the "rich" composer usually writes is not far off target: "He goes in for imagistic evocation, witty juxtapositions, im­precise melodic contours, delicacy of harmonic texture and of instrumentation, meditative sen­suality. tenderness about children, evanescence, the light touch, discontinuity, elegance."

These performances are nicely recorded and played about as well as you are ever likely to hear them. One cavil: why was the funny little Sonata for trumpet, horn. and trombone left out?

Review of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Music for wind instruments and piano Francis Poulenc

bottom of page