1899-1963. 20th-century French composer, mainly self-taught, a member of "Les Six". He was, perhaps, the most Satie-esque of the posse, eschewing the dissonance of Milhaud and the Teutonic rigor of Honegger for works that were light-hearted but not Lite. He became heavily Catholic (but still openly gay) in middle age, and wrote many liturgical works; his Stabat mater was, along with Krzysztof Penderecki's, a great modern contribution to the form.

Francis Poulenc is one of the most renowned composers and pianists of the 20th century. His originality made him difficult to appreciate, and to understand, in his time, but his often-playful style, always tragically emotional, and melodies are just as masterful as the Greats that preceded him. A prominent reason for this was his out-of-standard beginning in composition; one that was largely done without a teacher. His music was often rejected, and the mainstream listener will often find it challenging to enjoy. In essence, however; Poulenc seemed to write only for himself. His work is a look into his mind, relentlessly pushing boundaries, almost as if he is playing with the listener’s sanity.

Born 1899 Paris, Francis Poulenc was introduced to music at an early age. He was taught piano by his mother at five, and his uncle Ricardo Viñes at 16, acquiring love of music, poetry, and beauty. He was strongly influenced by composers Stravinsky and Satie, also having an appreciation for Maurice Chevalier of French vaudeville. Though he studied no formal composition, by 1918 he had published his first work, Rapsodie Nègre. Also in 1918, his pieces, Trois mouvements perpètuels, would enjoy great praise in the years after World War I, eventually becoming his best-known piano work.

By the time Poulenc had begun composition study with Charles Koechlin in 1921, he had already been dubbed as part of Les Six. This French caste, named by Henri Collet, a French critic, was made up of five other composers: Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Louis Durey, and Germaine Tailleferre. In the same piece, Collet names “The Russian Five” and draws their parallels, the inaccuracy of which often results in criticism. The members of Les Six were each very unique; but it is true that all held some universal traits, including their reactionary sentiment towards heavy romanticism (especially German) and Debussy’s impressionism.

During the years between the World Wars, Poulenc composed several songs, where he became known for his ability to put music to lyrics (specifically poetry), a ballet (Les Biches or The Houseparty in 1924), as well as Concert Champêtre in 1928, a piece for harpsichord and orchestra.

In 1936, Poulenc’s close friend, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, died in a car accident. As a result, Poulenc returned to the Catholic religion of his childhood, and his music took a sharp turn towards the spiritual. Works such as Litanies à la Vierge Noire (1936), Mass in G (1937), and Quatre Motets pour le temps de Pénitence were written in this time; as well as hundreds of songs, a move accentuated by performances and collaborations with singer Pierre Bernac. During the Nazi occupation, Poulenc put the essence of resistance into his music, such as in the cantata Figure humaine.

In the decades after the war, Poulenc wrote less. In all, he had composed almost no work for orchestra (i.e. symphonies), but had three operas, a piano concertino (Aubade), a piano concerto, and a two-piano concerto. On January 30, 1963, Francis Poulenc died in Paris.

In all, Poulenc was one of those rare cases of fearlessness. His music is almost rebellious in its essence and its changes over time reflect a virtually apathetic progression in ideas. The playful façade, once understood, reveals a much more emotional depth than when first approached. Like most good music, Poulenc’s takes relistening for appreciation, and not all will love it. This is unfortunate, because it is very beautiful.

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