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A Little Part Of Poulenc In All Of Us

French composer Francis Poulenc (photographed in 1960 in New York) is famous for his music and his many contradictions.
John Jonas Gruen
Getty Images
French composer Francis Poulenc (photographed in 1960 in New York) is famous for his music and his many contradictions.

Fifty years ago today, French composer Francis Poulenc had a massive heart attack in his Paris apartment and died. He was only 64, but he left us with an assortment of durable music that still sparkles with elegance today.

When music buffs talk about Poulenc, one quote inevitably pops up: "In Poulenc there is something of the monk and something of the rascal." That line, by music critic Claude Rostand, is often repeated, but it's worth a little investigation on the 50th anniversary of Poulenc's death, as the sentiment resonates throughout his life and music.

I like to think there's a little of Poulenc's contradictory nature in all of us. A little of Walt Whitman's blend of conflict and cockiness, as in these lines from Leaves of Grass:

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The idea that we "contain multitudes" is what makes life exciting. And Poulenc led a pretty exciting life, filled with contradictions. Looking back on his privileged childhood, he noted the influence of two seemingly opposite roots in his family tree — the devoutly Catholic strand from the south of France on his father's side and the artistic, cosmopolitan strand from his mother's Parisian background.

Poulenc wrote music that popped like corks from Champagne, pieces dizzy with the sounds of Parisian music halls and jazz. His 1932 Concerto for Two Pianos is a good example. The music pivots from a saucy dance complete with maracas to mock seriousness in the wink of an eye.

But Poulenc also composed from the opposite perspective. The Mass in G, the Stabat Mater and the Gloria are works of great emotional depth and spirituality. And then there's his opera The Dialogues of the Carmelites. Part psychological thriller, part commentary on totalitarian government and religion, the drama ends like no other. One by one, a group of nuns marches slowly to the guillotine. The haunting, defiant Salve Regina they sing is punctuated by repeating swooshes of the giant blade.

Poulenc was well aware of the opposing forces of light and dark in his music. As he told music historian Roland Gelatt, balancing the two is an important element in the French sound.

"You will find sobri­ety and dolor in French music just as in Ger­man or Russ­ian," Poulenc said in 1950. "But the French have a keener sense of pro­por­tion. We real­ize that somber­ness and good humor are not mutu­ally exclu­sive. Our com­posers, too, write pro­found music, but when they do, it is leav­ened with that light­ness of spirit with­out which life would be unendurable."

Although Poulenc could be witty and effervescent, his spirit wasn't always so light. He was prone to bouts of the blues. He was once in love with a woman, but he also came to terms with his homosexuality. He relished his friends and Parisian social life, but he also craved the solitude of his country home in Touraine, where he spent time composing. He was a religious man who wasn't above a risqué comment or two.

Nadia Boulanger, the legendary French pedagogue, saw the contradictions in the composer's character. "Poulenc's personality was much more complex than what met the eye," she said. "He was entirely paradoxical. You could meet him as easily in fashionable Parisian circles ... or at Mass."

In the book Setting the Tone, Ned Rorem, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer, essayist and Francophile, summarized the Poulenc sound with an amusing recipe: "Take Chopin's dominant sevenths, Ravel's major sevenths, Fauré's plain triads, Debussy's minor ninths, Mussorgsky's augmented fourths. Filter these through Satie by way of the added sixth chords of vaudeville (which the French call Le Music Hall), blend in a pint of Couperin to a quart of Stravinsky, and you get the harmony of Poulenc."

In the end, is Poulenc, with his fascinating inconsistencies, so different from most of us? Probably not. It's just that most of us don't express our contradictions and multitudes in music of extraordinary brilliance that will outlive us.

Do you love Poulenc's music? Have you got a favorite recording or memory of a performance? How would you introduce someone to his work? Please tell us in the comments section.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.