Sunday, 7 January 2018


Today, we celebrate the birth of French composer and pianist, Francis Poulenc, born 119 years ago today, the heir-assumptive to his family’s lucrative privately owned pharmaceutical company.

Poulenc, who would later become an avid soldier during the culmination of WWI (and a short stint in WWII) however, had other things in mind for his future than joining the family business.

From a very tender age, he would marvel at his mother, an amateur pianist, set atmosphere to the family lodgings with a delightful hodgepodge of both classical and simple, frolicky works - the latter, to amuse her young (and, as time would see, quite impressionable) son, of course.

Although strictly verboten by the master of the household, his father, Émile, from pursuing a life in music, young Francis would begin lessons on the piano by the age of five. Through his pre-pubescent and teenage years, young Poulenc would familiarize himself with the music of French composer Claude Debussy, the Austrian master of the lied, composer Franz Schubert (in particular his famous Winterrise cycle), and, chiefly, the scandalous (yet utterly delicious) cacophony of Russian-born, Parisian legend Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which Poulenc would later claim as his single greatest influence in pursuing a life in the arts – his fathers’ wishes be damned.

Spanish virtuoso pianist Ricardo Viñes
was instrumental in helping Poulenc
reach the stars.
Three years after Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky caused an uproar in Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Elysées with their deeply polarizing performance, a then 17-year old Francis delved deep into the world of music – mingling with the avant-garde poets of the day, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Paul Éluard and Louis Aragon - setting, in private, their texts to music. Many of these ‘practice’ pieces are said to have been later destroyed by Poulenc himself, after having been so fortunate as to being taken under the wing and tutelage of Spanish virtuoso pianist and teacher Ricardo Viñes, in whom Poulenc once revealed that he “owed everything” to the tutorship of this fine Spanish maestro. There lay some doubt as to when exactly the duo began practicing together. However it is believed Francis met with, and began his tutorship as early as 1914 – officially becoming Viñes pupil by 1916.*

The pairing of these two musicians could not have been more fruitful for young Poulenc. The virtuoso Viñes -a graduate of the Paris Conservatoire, no less - was so sought after, he was selected to premiere some of the works of leading French musical icons of the day, including works of Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy and the ever-eccentric composer Erik Satie. Young Francis did not take his sessions with his professor lightly, and, according to the composer himself, neither did Viñes: Poulenc would later claim his esteemed teacher would was known to occasionally “rap at [his] shins” with heavily “buttoned boots” until Poulenc was able to correct his pedaling technique on the piano.

"Le Nègre au turban" by Delacroix.
Apparently, a good kick to the shin was exactly what the doctor ordered for young Francis. After just three years* under Viñes tutelage, a confident Poulenc decided he was ready or the public stage – quite literally. Unlike the riot that ensued in Paris with Stravinsky’s Rite, which drew boos, hisses, a little bit of cheering and a whole lot of drunken pummeling of thy neighbor, Poulenc’s premiere performance of Rapsodie left the audience aghast, not only by the composer’s drôle sense of humor, nor alone by the tenor who "threw in the towel" at the tail-end of the performance, refusing to sing what were known to be entirely inane, ludicrous lyrics – but also by the composer’s gall: Poulenc’s’ Rapsodie nègre, a 5-movement vocal and orchestral work for flute, clarinet, string quartet, piano and baritone, was scored by the composer during France’s love affair with “Art nègre” (African art – in particular sculpture) which began at the dawn of the twentieth century, attracting such artists from the French School as Henri Matisse, Eugene Delacroix and Pablo Picasso to

“[blend] the highly stylized treatment of the human figure in African sculptures with painting styles derived from the post-Impressionist works of Cézanne and Gauguin."[1 - see: African Influence in Modern Art - MET].

The issue with Paris’ newfound love affair with African art was a lack of knowledge of African nations, customs - and most importantly, it's vast array of languages. There was, however, at least one person who didn’t lack at least some knowledge of the many languages of the giant continent: Poulenc himself - who, like many a Parisian, browsed through the local book shops for traditional African verse that he could later set to music. He espied a book of published verses edited by Marcel Prouille and Charles Moulié: “Les Poésies de Makoko Kangourou,” allegedly written in the language of Liberian but soon discovered to be a total hoax, penned by some pranksters, and stuffed to the brim with a litany of nonsensical words, and the occasional bawdy Parisian slang!

Neverthemind, Poulenc decided – and charged full speed ahead at setting the poem to lyrical verse, deciding its either now or never – for it was during this season of the budding composers’ life, surrounded by the likes of Ravel, Satie and co, encouraged by his muse Igor Stravinsky and praised by his renowned tutor Viñes, that he had better set this new work of his to stage before he lost his nerve (remember, this would be the first public perfomance of any of Poulenc's works - as formentioned, he had destroyed all previous attempts at composition prior to meeting Viñes). Rapsodie would be the very first time anyone outside of his practice sessions would hear the music – and come to know it's creator: Francis Poulenc - le nouvel homme sur la scène.

The highly anticipated premiere would be held Dec 11 1917 at Paris' Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier. Poulenc and all who surrounded and supported him through his musical journey expected the performance to go off without a hitch – but, alack! A hitch there were a many.

The baritone assigned the vocal parts during the third and final movement was not impressed. Sure, the music was beautiful indeed, but the inane gibberish of a writer taking the mickey, soured the singers ego:

During the third movement, the baritone began to sing the malarkious ode:

"Honoloulou, pota lama!
Honoloulou, Honoloulou,
Kati moko, mosi bolou
Ratakou sira, polama!

Wata Kovsi mo ta ma sou
Etcha pango, Etche panga
tota nou nou, nou nou ranga
lo lo lulu ma ta ma sou.

Pata ta bo banana lou
mandes Golas Glebes ikrous
Banana lou ito kous kous
pota la ma Honoloulou..."

So, what exactly do those trite lyrics mean? Your guess is as good as mine.

By the fifth movement, the interlude (vocal section) was to be repeated. The boastful baritone, feeling his manlihood slip away at the beginning of each verse, suddenly “threw in the towel.” According to Poulenc himself,

“[the singer said] it was too stupid and that he didn't want to be taken for a fool. Quite unexpectedly, masked by a big music stand, I had to sing that interlude myself. Since I was already in uniform, (remember Poulenc doubled as a soldier for the French Army during this period) you can imagine the unusual effect produced by a soldier bawling out songs in pseudo-Malagasy!" [2: language of Madagascar].

Surprisingly, the audience found the whole debacle hilarious (and the gorgeous music certainly went a long way to help matters), and was declared an immediate success!

If not already queued, skip ahead in the video below to the 3:11 mark to hear the first solo - which the baritone meandered his way through, and then 8:20 to hear it repeated - this is where the singer "threw in the towel," and Poulenc himself, not exactly known nor praised for his singing abilities, ran onto the stage, still dressed in his military garb, and began to belt out the nonsensical lyrics - much to the amusement of the audience:

During his tenure as estudiante to Viñes, Francis would balance his highly prized sessions with a role in the French army during the culmination of WWI, first serving as a conscript from 1918-1921, and remaining during the immediate post war period. (He would later take up orders again as a soldier during the Second World War; serving in June 1940 in an anti-aircraft unit at Bordeaux. After France surrendered to Germany, Poulenc was demobilized from the army July 18th of that year).

During this period, the then 18 year old served a stint on the Franco-German front (during July and October 1918). Shortly following his success on the frontlines, Poulenc was assigned a series of auxiliary posts, ending as a typist at the Ministry of Aviation. These less intense duties allowed time for Francis to work on his compositions.

Ironically, Poulenc would share the same bittersweet critiques by the public and press as he had once shared privately about his mother whilst sitting cross legged on the carpet as a child, enraptured at one moment by the seriousness of her classical household performances on the piano, and gideously giggling at the more frolicky and lighter fare she would often perform - much to her son’s amusement. Rapsodie and its minor scandal so amused it’s dedicatée, Erik Satie, and fellow composers Ravel and Stravinsky, that the latter used his influence to connect the rising star with a publisher, in whom Francis would secure a contract - a gift of such great generosity - bestowed upon Francis by his musical idol nonetheless - was a treasure never forgotten by Poulenc.

As 'a whole,' the daring soldier-cum-composer Poulenc was neither loved nor hated by the press - he had a particular panache that was perhaps welcoming to the public during the hardships of war.

First impressions, however, are made to last: Rapsodie’s impromptu solo vocal by a frazzled Poulenc during the work’s finale – all whilst dressed in military garb – combined with the known fact that he had managed to make such beautiful music out of utter gobbledygook – the composer became known by the colloquial tongue-in-cheek “Leg Poulenc,” a petit maître (dandy – but yet a talented one at that) – with even the snobbiest of the snobby critics noting that that it was the composer's "good luck that the public mood was turning against late-romantic lushness in favor of the freshness and insouciant charm of his works, technically unsophisticated though they were."

The composer's fresh, "technically unsophisticated" works, and the praise lauded upon him, slightly back-handed though they may have been, soon spread across Europe. In Britain, one critic Ernest Newman  wrote of the new man about town:

 "I keep my eye on Francis Poulenc, a young man who has only just arrived at his twenties. He ought to develop into a farceur of the first order."



N.B.: I am currently busy with studies - as time permits I will re-visit this post to add all hyperlinks for easier access to related articles here at Unraveling Musical Myths.

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