View Full Version : OTF - The pilgrimages of Francis Poulenc

February 29th, 2012, 05:02 AM
My next few posts under the OTF monicker will depart somewhat from Opera, and will address works that I feel are appropriate for the Lenten season. I consider myself more spiritual than religious (if that makes any sense at all…) but Lent is usually when my Catholic roots take hold, and I turn to the sacred and spiritual titles of my music collection to set the mood for relection and quiet, pensive time.

Today’s post focuses on the sacred and secular works of spiritual inspiration by French composer Francis Poulenc. Poulenc’s life has its many paradoxes – Poulenc is an early 20th century “born again Catholic” who happened to live an openly gay lifestyle in a rather liberal Parisian artistic entourage. This paradox leads, in my personal opinion, to some inner turmoil which also manifests itself in Poulenc’s output; something critic Claude Rostand coined in the expression «moine ou voyou» (monk or punk).

There are two specific notewirthy losses in Poulenc’s life that were followed by pilgrimages to the well-known French shrine of the Black Virgin at Rocamadour (http://www.et-in-arcadia-ego.com/html/Et_in1.htm): the passing of composer and critic Pierre-Octave Ferroud in 1935, and that of fellow gay artist Christian Bérard in 1949. Biographers suggest that the 1935 Rocamadour pilgrimage also was the beginning of Poulenc’s re-embracing of his Catholic faith (which he’d more or less put aside after his father’s death in 1917).

My first selection is his Stabat Mater, composed in 1950 and dedicated to Bérard.

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Going back to the pilgrimage of 1935, Poulenc composed a number of sacred works following his visit to the shrine: Litanies à la Vierge noire de Rocamadour, for ladies’ choir and organ (1935), Messe en sol majeur for a cappella mixed chorus (1937) and Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (1938-39) which will be our secoind selection :


Among the secular works written in that period, there is his concerto for organ, timpany and strings in G minor, composed between 1934 et 1938. This work was commissioned by Winnaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac, heir to the sewing machine company of the same name. The Princess was not only a patron, but something of an amateur organist, and the work was designed originally as an “easy piece” for her to act as soloist. Poulenc’s état d’âme at the time is best summarized in this exceropt from a letter he sent fellow-composer Jean Françaix: «The concerto (…) is not the fun Poulenc of the concerto for two pianos, but rather Poulenc on his way to the cloister.» What works for me here is the paradox of a modern musical language applied to a somewhat by-gone instrument. This isn’t a concerto by Handel or Vivaldi…


From that point on, Poulenc will more or less go from secular to sacred/spiritual works. Sinfonietta (1947), Huit chansons françaises (1945), Gloria (1961):

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In 1953, Poulenc will encounter the draft of a libretto by Flavio Testi based on a play by Jacques Hébertot and Georges Bernanos, Dialogues des carmélites. Poulenc will devote himself fully to puting the Testi libretto to music, even adapting Barados’ dialogue for a French version of the opera. The resulting opera in Italian was premiered in Milan on 26 Jaunary 1957, and the French version (featuring Régine Crespin and Denise Duval) was created in Paris on June 21st of the same year.

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March 2nd, 2012, "I Think You Will Love This Music Too" will be adding a new montage "Messiaen, the Spiritual Composer" to its Pod-O-Matic Podcast (http://itywltmt.podomatic.com/). Read our English and French commentary March 2nd on the ITYWLTMT Blogspot blog (http://itywltmt.blogspot.com).

February 29th, 2012, 07:50 AM
Just love the Litanies à la Vierge noire.

I think Poulenc's religious inspired pieces, are so much better than his "secular" works....