Les anges musiciens

Practicing has been less of a chore lately due to a larger-than-usual concentration of songs by Francis Poulenc in the to-do pile. Poulenc has an unshakeable spot in the top bracket of my all-time favorite composers, but it’s hard to explain exactly why. I usually fall back on turning the most common Poulenc criticism inside-out: yes, I say, he just wrote the same song over and over again, but it’s a song I happen to like. A joke, but in a way, it starts to get at just what it is about his music I find so endlessly bewitching.

Two of the songs I’m practicing this week—the “Air champêtre” from the 1931 Airs chantés, and “Il vole” from the 1939 cycle Fiançailles pour rire—both end with nearly identical passages. The “Air champêtre”:

And “Il vole”:

That figure—the repeated open-voiced roulade outlining V7-I—sounds an awful lot like a stock gesture, but I’ve only ever run across it in Poulenc. And I think that’s one of the keys to what makes Poulenc’s music tick: his ability to come up with patterns and phrases that sound like clichés, but are completely idiosyncratic and original.

More than that, though—it’s not just his facility for melodic invention, but the fact that he uses such passages as if they were pre-existing clichés. Neither the “Air champêtre” nor “Il vole” foreshadow or set up the closing figure in any way; it’s just dropped in, tacked on, like a trill over V-I in Mozart or a 4-3 suspension in a Lutheran chorale. Poulenc is, I think, having some fun with the semiotics of musical endings. We’re used to pieces ending with a predictable plugged-in cadential module; Poulenc plugs in a module, but it’s not the predicted one, and our musical expectations are yanked in two directions at once.

Poulenc’s fondness for these kinds of endings—a sudden, brief introduction of new material—owes something to Schumann lieder, and both composers exploit an ability to make such endings feel like the product of unconscious intuition rather than deliberate calculation. But where Schumann’s often extensive postludes serve to bring to the fore the emotions that have been simmering under the surface, Poulenc’s have the effect of hinting at an unfamiliar vernacular just out of earshot. To compare with another composer: if Webern’s music sounds like it comes from a planet where nobody composes like earthlings do, Poulenc’s music sounds like it comes from a planet where everybody composes like Poulenc. It has both the satisfaction of tradition and the frisson of originality. It feels like common practice music, but the practice itself is completely individual.

Poulenc’s illusion of an established rhetoric creates a similar combination of intimacy and disorientation as literary experiments with invented languages—compare the fictional Russlish of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, for example. For Poulenc, though, it’s also crucial to his sense of musical structure, which is surprisingly disjunct. Perhaps some of this is due to his fondness for setting Surrealist and proto-Surrealist poetry, but I think that, even more, it reflects the influence of cinema, which, after all, was the most avant-garde medium of the young composer’s day. (That “Il vole” cadence, implacably winding around itself, sounds like nothing so much as the last few frames of film lapping against the take-up reel.) Poulenc almost completely eschews a Romantic sense of development in favor of cinematic montage—but it doesn’t seem random or scattershot, because his musical materials always feel like they’re serving some pre-existing symbolic or rhetorical purpose, even if it’s a completely invented one.

In other words, I think Poulenc knew exactly what he was doing: taking the raw materials of tonal music and finding a way to make them behave in a radical way. He figured out how to take his ear for sensuous tonal beauty and his avant-garde aesthetic and, not just cleverly patch them together, but actually have the two reinforce each other. It’s a long way from the insouciance of Les Biches or “Toréador” to the devastating power of Dialogues des Carmélites, even though the basic musical language, amazingly, has hardly changed.

Darcy James Argue had this to say this week about one of his favorite composers: “I can’t help but feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with people who would dismiss music of such astounding vitality and artistry because it happens also to be very pretty.” I would say the same thing about Poulenc—in fact, the more years I spend with his music, the more I realize that its sheer prettiness is, in fact, one of the least interesting things about it, and, given how damned pretty it is, that’s saying something. The real beauty of Poulenc’s music goes very deep indeed.


  1. Rorem’s the only composer egomaniacal enough to collect all his own stylistic tics into one song and call it “For Poulenc.” 🙂I have a Fred Hersch album that includes a jazzy version of the Cantilena from the Flute Sonata with Toots Thielemans playing the solo line on harmonica. Gorgeous.

  2. I completely agree about Poulenc. I think “Fleurs” (from Fiancailles…) is just about the most perfect song ever, although even there he can’t resist ending it with a little wink from the piano. That used to bother me, but I’ve grown to love that ending as much as the rest of the song.I’m pretty sure those endings you cite are based on the end of Chopin’s “Butterfly” etude – it particularly makes sense in the case of “Il vole.”

  3. I was going to post this on your earlier Poulenc review, but… I honestly don’t hear the foreknowledge of bad times in the Sextet (which I’ve played–the piano part.) Maybe I’m shallow, but I think it’s fun: gorgeous, charming, sexy, exuberant, farcical, aren’t-we-chic fun. I love the piece, the Trio, the Flute Sonata, Dialogues des Carmelites, and Fiancailles pour rire (how can you resist a text like “my cadaver is soft as a glove”?) but I think maybe you’re reading history back into the Sextet, rather than finding it there.

  4. I needed to find a few 30-60 second self-contained musical pieces with a beginning, middle and end for a huge video project, and nothing was working until a friend lent me a 2-CD set of Poulenc’s piano works. The more I listened to each piece, the more I began to admire Poulenc’s genius for miniatures. The composer he most recalled, in fact, was Haydn who has a similar wit and sanity about him.

  5. rootlesscosmo: You can probably smooth out a lot of the sharp edges in the Sextet in performance, but especially compared with other, similar Poulenc pieces, there’s a darkness and desperation that always stands out to me. You can get a sense of it in another Poulenc piece, the “Two Poems of Louis Aragon,” which I think are from 1942 or so. The first one, “C.”, is most definitely a wartime song, in mood and text; but the second, which bears a lot of similarities to the Sextet, is one as well—that forced, end-times gaiety that always comes off as more shrill and pointed than the real thing.It’s very possible that I am reading too much into it, but given Poulenc’s talent for finding the exact calibration of emotion, whenever I sense a certain mood in his music, I always assume it’s there for a reason. (Of course, part of the greatness of that piece is that it’s everything you say, as well.)Michael: I nearly included something about that “Fleurs” ending—for those who don’t know it, it’s one of his most ethereal songs, a wash of D-flat Major pastels, almost a parody of his sensuous style—and then he ends it, out of the blue, on D-flat minor. A joke? A portend? Hard to say—but again, it comes with the sense of absolutely meaningful rhetoric.

  6. Anyone who dismisses Poulenc for being superficial has never heard the extremely moving “Élégie”, written in memory of Dennis Brain. It’s one of the most harrowing pieces I know.Poulenc also bears the dubious distinction of being the only composers to ever make me guffaw during a live performance. The piece in question was “Chansons gaillardes”. With no text to hand for the audience, and being the only one in the crowd, apparently, who understood French, I was reduced to stuffing a glove in my mouth to keep from disrupting the concert. Hysterically funny stuff.

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