Francis Poulenc, 1899-1963
A native Parisian, Poulenc was born in 1899 at the dawn of modernism and emerged as a young, brash composer in the artistically fantastic 1920’s. With five other French contemporaries as kindred bohemian spirits, Poulenc formed an artistic society if not a sort of “school” calling themselves the Nouveaux Jeunes but, from a journalist’s label, ultimately known as the Groupe des Six. Inspired by the aesthetics of composer Erik Satie and multi-talented writer Jean Cocteau, Poulenc and his confreres reacted against the older schools: the religious mysticism of César Frank, the “impressionism” of Debussy and Ravel and anything resembling the excesses of 19th century Romanticism that surely came to its just and horrifying end with the Great War. Instead, Le Six aimed for simplicity, clarity, freedom and wit with a love of popular song from the French Music Hall and Jazz. When a London published asked the 20-year-old Poulenc for description of himself, he wrote:
“. . . My four favorite composers, my only masters, are Bach, Mozart, Satie and Stravinsky, I don’t like Beethoven at all… I loathe Wagner… In general, I am very eclectic, but while acknowledging that influence is a necessary thing, I hate those artists who dwell in the wake of the masters… Now, a crucial point, I am not a Cubist musician, even less a Futurist and, of course, not an Impressionist. I am a musician without a label.”
Poulenc wrote some of the most accessible and delightful music of the 20th century. Mostly tonal (occasionally bitonal), his instrumental music exhibits a strong consistency featuring a kind of neo-classical clarity, a modern, youthful vivacity, a sweet lyricism just bordering on the nostalgic and a brilliant handling of instrumental color. This is true of his pieces for two pianos and orchestra as well as his most intimate chamber duos. Poulenc had a characteristically French penchant for wind instruments that dominate his winning collection of chamber pieces including his most famous works: the trio for oboe, bassoon and piano, the sextet for wind quintet and piano, and his three final duo sonatas for piano and flute, oboe and clarinet respectively. Inspired by the final sonatas of Debussy, Poulenc hoped to compose four, each dedicated to the memory of a departed composer. After completing three (the last was intended for bassoon and piano), Poulenc died suddenly in 1963 at the age of 64. The Sonata for Clarinet and Piano was his last completed work, composed for Benny Goodman and dedicated to Arthur Honegger, one of the original six. The sonata received its debut at Carnegie Hall by Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein in 1963.