Understanding the multiple contradictions of Poulenc in two new books

Posted on: August 11, 2020

“I’ve been holed up in [composer Francis] Poulenc’s world on account of two absorbing new books: Roger Nichols’s ‘Poulenc: A Biography’ (Yale) and Graham Johnson’s ‘Poulenc: The Life in the Songs’ (Liveright),” writes Alex Ross in Monday’s (8/10) New Yorker. “Both do justice to a composer who has often been overshadowed by the giants with whom he shared the early and mid-twentieth century. He was no originator, like Schoenberg or Stravinsky, nor did he possess Britten’s or Shostakovich’s command of manifold genres. He was, however, a composer of rare gifts, particularly in the setting of sacred and secular texts. As the decades pass, he grows in stature, and his aloofness from musical party politics matters less…. Both accounts undermine the popular image of Poulenc—carefully cultivated by the man himself—as the epitome of Parisian suavity and ebullience. He was, in fact, a turbulent, even tortured character: sometimes arrogant, sometimes self-castigating, sometimes lovable, sometimes impossible. That complexity only adds to the interest of the music…. The Organ Concerto (1938) interlaces brimstone dissonances with rollicking fairground strains. The Gloria (1959-60) exudes an almost scandalous joy, as if a crowd of drunken angels were dancing down the boulevards.”