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Francis Poulenc

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UNIVERSITY OF CINCINNATI Date:___________________ I, _________________________________________________________, hereby submit this work as part of the requirements for the degree of: in: It is entitled: This work and its defense approved by: Chair: _______________________________ _______________________________ _______________________________ _______________________________ _______________________________
Page 1: Francis Poulenc

UNIVERSITY OF CINCINNATI Date:___________________

I, _________________________________________________________, hereby submit this work as part of the requirements for the degree of:


It is entitled:

This work and its defense approved by:

Chair: _______________________________ _______________________________ _______________________________ _______________________________ _______________________________

Page 2: Francis Poulenc

Poulenc’s Development as a Piano Composer: A Comparison of the Solo Piano Works and the Mélodies

A thesis submitted to the

Division of Research and Advanced Studies of the University of Cincinnati

in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of


in the Division of Keyboard Studies of the College-Conservatory of Music



Kirk A. Severtson

B.A., Luther College, 1997

M.M., University of Cincinnati, 1999

Committee Chair: Kenneth Griffiths

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Recognized as one of the greatest twentieth-century French composers, Francis Poulenc

(1899-1963) wrote both songs and piano works throughout his career. His body of mélodies, in

particular, is widely regarded as the culmination of the genre, while his piano works, on the whole,

are of a less consistent quality. His early works in both genres, such as the Trois mouvements

perpétuels and Le Bestiaire, reflect the outwardly fresh and simple aesthetic associated with Satie

and the rest of the Groupe des Six. Beginning in 1925, the style of writing between the songs and

solo piano works began to diverge, a result of Poulenc’s differing methods of composition.

Compared to the mélodies, which began with a careful study of the poetry, many of the piano pieces

were improvised at the keyboard and suffer from an over-reliance on pianistic effects.

Three watershed events occurring around 1935 were responsible for bringing his mélodie

style to full maturity: a new recital partnership with baritone Pierre Bernac, a religious awakening,

and the discovery of a musical language for the surrealist poetry of Paul Éluard. These events

greatly affected the accompaniments of the songs, such as the masterful cycle Tel jour, telle nuit,

but Poulenc expressed frustration that he seemed unable to translate this new style into his piano

works. His final stylistic period is signaled by a unity of piano writing across the genres, in which

all of his stylistic elements are synthesized into a fully mature whole. This thesis traces the

development of Poulenc’s piano style throughout his compositional career by comparing the

mélodies and solo piano works.

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TORÉADOR By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1933 Editions Salabert (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Salabert (SACEM). COCARDES By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1920 Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). VALSE, FROM ALBUM DES SIX By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1920 Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). SUITE POUR PIANO By Francis Poulenc Copyright © for all countries 1926, 1991 Chester Music Limited, London, United Kingdom All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Reprinted by permission. CINQ IMPROMPTUS By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1989 Chester Music Limited, London, United Kingdom All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Reprinted by permission. PROMENADES By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1923, 1989 Chester Music Limited, London, United Kingdom All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Reprinted by permission. POÈMES DE RONSARD By Francis Poulenc Copyright by Heugel 1925, Heugel Editeur, Paris. Tous droits de reproduction, de traduction, d’arrangement, d’adaptation et d’exécution réservés pour tous pays. Reprinted by permission.

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CHANSONS GAILLARDES By Francis Poulenc Copyright by Heugel 1926, Heugel Editeur, Paris. Tous droits de reproduction, de traduction, d’arrangement, d’adaptation et d’exécution réservés pour tous pays. Reprinted by permission. VOCALISE By Francis Poulenc Copyright by Alphonse Leduc et Compagnie 1929, Paris. Tous droits d’exécution, de transcription et d’adaptation réservés pour tous pays. Reprinted by permission. PASTOURELLE By Francis Poulenc Copyright by Heugel et Compagnie 1929, Heugel Editeur, Paris. Reprinted by permission. AIR CHANTÉS By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1928 Editions Salabert (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Salabert (SACEM). THREE NOVELETTES By Francis Poulenc Copyright © for all countries 1930, 1960 (Renewed) Chester Music Limited, London, United Kingdom All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Reprinted by permission. TROIS PIÈCES By Francis Poulenc Copyright by Heugel 1931, Heugel Editeur, Paris. Droits d’exécution réservés pour tous pays. Reprinted by permission. NOCTURNES By Francis Poulenc Copyright by Heugel 1932, Heugel Editeur, Paris. Tous droits de reproduction, et d’exécution réservés pour tous pays. Reprinted by permission. TROIS POÈMES DE LOUISE LALANNE By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1931 Editions Salabert (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Salabert (SACEM).

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QUATRE POÈMES D’APOLLINAIRE By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1931 Editions Salabert (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Salabert (SACEM). CINQ POÈMES DE MAX JACOB By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1932 Editions Salabert (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Salabert (SACEM). CAPRICE (D’APRÈS LA FINALE DU BAL MASQUÉ) By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1932 Editions Salabert (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Salabert (SACEM). CONCERTO EN RÉ MINEUR By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1934 Editions Salabert (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Salabert (SACEM). VALSE-IMPROVISATION SUR LE NOM DE BACH By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1932 Editions Salabert (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Salabert (SACEM). IMPROVISATIONS (#1-10) By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1933 Editions Salabert (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Salabert (SACEM). VILLAGEOISES By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1933 Editions Salabert (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Salabert (SACEM). PRESTO IN Bb By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1934 Editions Salabert (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Salabert (SACEM). DEUX INTERMEZZI By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1934 Editions Salabert (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Salabert (SACEM).

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HUMORESQUE By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1935 Editions Salabert (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Salabert (SACEM). BADINAGE By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1935 Editions Salabert (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Salabert (SACEM). CINQ POÈMES D’ÉLUARD By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1935 Editions Durand (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Durand (SACEM). SUITE FRANÇAISE By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1935 Editions Durand (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Durand (SACEM). LES SOIRÉES DES NAZELLES By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1937 Editions Durand (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Durand (SACEM). TEL JOUR, TELLE NUIT By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1937 Editions Durand (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Durand (SACEM). TROIS POÈMES DE LOUISE DE VILMORIN By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1938 Editions Durand (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Durand (SACEM). PRIEZ POUR PAIX By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1939 Editions Salabert (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Salabert (SACEM). MIROIRS BRÛLANTS By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1939 Editions Salabert (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Salabert (SACEM).

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CE DOUX PETIT VISAGE By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1941 Editions Salabert (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Salabert (SACEM). FIANÇAILLES POUR RIRE By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1940 Editions Salabert (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Salabert (SACEM). BANALITÉS By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1941 Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). INTERMEZZO IN Ab By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1947 Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). FIANÇAILLES POUR RIRE By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1940 Editions Salabert (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Editions Salabert (SACEM). MÉTAMORPHOSES By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1944 Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). DEUX POÈMES DE LOUIS ARAGON By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1944 Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). MAIN DOMINÉE PAR LE CŒUR By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1947 Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). …MAIS MOURIR By Francis Poulenc Copyright by Heugel et Compagnie 1948, Heugel et Compagnie Editeurs, Paris. Droits d’exécution et de reproduction réservés pour tous pays. Reprinted by permission.

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CALLIGRAMMES By Francis Poulenc Copyright by Heugel et Compagnie 1948, Heugel et Compagnie Editeurs, Paris. Droits d’exécution réservés pour tous pays. Reprinted by permission. LA FRAÎCHEUR ET LE FEU By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1951 Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). THÈME VARIÉ By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1952 Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). PARISIANA By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1954 Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). LE TRAVAIL DU PEINTRE By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1957 Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). IMPROVISATION (#13) By Francis Poulenc Copyright © 1958 Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM). Permission kindly granted by Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM).

All rights for the world on behalf of Editions Durand (SACEM), Les Editions Max Eschig (SACEM) and Editions Salabert (SACEM) administered by BMG Music Publishing France (SACEM). All rights for the US on behalf of BMG Music Publishing France (SACEM) administered by BMG Songs, Inc. (ASCAP).

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The researcher into the life and music of Francis Poulenc is blessed with a veritable

abundance of primary material in the form of interviews, correspondence, recordings, and various

articles and lectures by the composer. The most detailed primary sources, however, are about his

mélodies: his own Journal de mes mélodies, and Francis Poulenc, the Man and His Songs, written

by his longtime recital partner, Pierre Bernac. Poulenc’s song diary was first published in 1964, and

later published in a parallel French/English edition in 1985. However, the 1993 French language

edition, edited by Renaud Machart, restores numerous excisions and is the most faithful

reproduction of his original commentary on the songs.

Keith W. Daniel’s Francis Poulenc: His Artistic Development and Musical Style (1982),

though now over twenty years old, remains the most thorough, genre-by-genre analysis of the

composer’s style, though many other authors have focused on individual works and genres.

Poulenc research was further enhanced by the wealth of scholarship completed in

celebration of the 1999 centenary of the composer’s birth. Two of the most thorough and important

sources on Poulenc within the last decade were undertaken by Carl B. Schmidt: The Music of

Francis Poulenc: A Catalogue (1995) and a biography, Entrancing Muse: A Documented

Biography of Francis Poulenc (2001). This definitive biography now replaces the venerable work

of Henri Hell, Poulenc’s first biographer. The FP numbers given for each work throughout this text

refer to the Schmidt catalog.

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ABSTRACT .............................................................................................................................ii

COPYRIGHT NOTICES AND PERMISSIONS .................................................................. iii

FOREWORD ..........................................................................................................................ix

LIST OF MUSICAL EXAMPLES .........................................................................................xi


1. INTRODUCTION...................................................................................................1

2. OVERVIEW OF CAREER AND STYLE..............................................................4 Poulenc and the Piano .........................................................................................4 Poulenc and the Voice.........................................................................................8 Elements of Style ..............................................................................................11

3. EARLY LIFE AND COMPOSITIONS................................................................18 Early Influences.................................................................................................18 Simplicity ..........................................................................................................21 Complexity ........................................................................................................28

4. INVENTIVENESS AND THE “POULENC SOUND” .......................................36 Stylistic Trends..................................................................................................36 1925–30.............................................................................................................38 1931: A Return to Song.....................................................................................54 1932–36: Virtuosic Piano Works ......................................................................62

5. ÉLUARD/SERIOUS STYLE PERIOD ................................................................80 Toward an Éluard style .....................................................................................84 Full maturity after Tel jour................................................................................96 Slowdown in Composition ..............................................................................112 A Final Apollinaire Cycle ...............................................................................120

6. FINAL MATURITY ...........................................................................................127 Final conclusions.............................................................................................143

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY ...........................................................................................145 Primary Sources .......................................................................................................145 Biographical and Analytical Sources .......................................................................146

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Example Page

1. Nocturne #1, mm90–92..........................................................................................................13

2. “Montparnasse,” mm22–26....................................................................................................13

3. Improvisation #9, mm30–33 ..................................................................................................14

4. Humoresque, mm49–60 .........................................................................................................14

5. Miroirs brûlants, “Tu vois le feu du soir,” mm1–3 ...............................................................17

6. Suite in C, III, mm82–83........................................................................................................22

7. “Toréador,” mm34–39, piano part only .................................................................................24

8. Valse, mm45–52.....................................................................................................................24

9. Cocardes, “Enfant de Troupe,” mm9–12...............................................................................25

10. Le Bestiaire, “Le Dromadaire,” mm15–22 ............................................................................25

11. Suite in C, I, mm107–12.........................................................................................................26

12. Valse, mm138–45...................................................................................................................26

13. Cocardes, “Miel de Narbonne,” mm10–13............................................................................27

14. Cinq Impromptus, I, mm12–13 ..............................................................................................30

15. Cinq Impromptus, II, mm43–46.............................................................................................31

16. Promenades, “À pied,” mm25–33 .........................................................................................32

17. Poèmes de Ronsard, “Le Tombeau,” mm11–12 ....................................................................33

18. Chansons gaillardes, “La Maîtresse volage,” mm9–16.........................................................41

19. Chansons gaillardes, “Sérénade,” mm10–13 ........................................................................42

20. Vocalise, mm26–27, piano part only......................................................................................42

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21. Pastourelle, mm1–4 ...............................................................................................................43

22. Airs chantés, “Air Vif,” mm48–54.........................................................................................45

23. Airs chantés, “Air Vif,” mm1–4.............................................................................................45

24. Novelette #1, mm29–36..........................................................................................................46

25. Nocturne #1, mm71-74 ..........................................................................................................47

26. Chansons gaillardes, “Madrigal,” mm1–16 ..........................................................................48

27. Novelette #2, mm1–8..............................................................................................................49

28. Trois pièces, “Pastorale,” mm16–20 ......................................................................................50

29. Trois pièces, “Hymne,” mm1–2.............................................................................................51

30. Trois pièces, “Toccata,” mm39–42 ........................................................................................51

31. Nocturne #1, mm43–54..........................................................................................................53

32. Trois poèmes de Louise Lalanne, “Le présent,” mm29–33 ...................................................54

33. Trois poèmes de Louise Lalanne, “Chanson,” mm15–18 ......................................................55

34. Trois poèmes de Louise Lalanne, “Hier,” mm7–10 ...............................................................55

35. Quatre poèmes d’Apollinaire, “L’Anguille,” mm68–74 .......................................................57

36. Quatre poèmes d’Apollinaire, “Avant le Cinéma,” mm22–25 ..............................................58

37. Cinq poèmes de Max Jacob, “Chanson bretonne,” mm30–33...............................................59

38. Cinq poèmes de Max Jacob, “Berceuse,” mm19–22 .............................................................60

39. “Caprice (d’après la Finale du Bal Masqué),” mm23–24 ......................................................61

40. “Caprice (d’après la Finale du Bal Masqué),” mm82–39 ......................................................62

41. Valse-improvisation sur le nom de BACH, mm83–86 ...........................................................63

42. Valse-improvisation sur le nom de BACH, mm41–48 ...........................................................64

43. Improvisation #2, mm40–43 ..................................................................................................66

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44. Improvisation #6, mm5–8 ......................................................................................................67

45. Novelette #2, mm41–44..........................................................................................................67

46. Concerto en ré mineur, III, mm40–43 ...................................................................................68

47. Villageoises, “Rustique,” mm11–15 ......................................................................................69

48. Presto in Bb, mm37–40 .........................................................................................................72

49. Intermezzo #2, mm9–12 .........................................................................................................73

50. Badinage, mm45–51 ..............................................................................................................74

51. Humoresque, mm45–51 .........................................................................................................74

52. Badinage, mm1–3 ..................................................................................................................75

53. Suite française, I, mm1–4 ......................................................................................................75

54. Les soirées de Nazelles, Var. VII, mm2–5.............................................................................78

55. Cinq poèmes d’Éluard, “Rôdeuse au front de verre,” mm1–5...............................................78

56. Cinq poèmes d’Éluard, “Peut-il se reposer,” mm1–3 ............................................................85

57. Cinq poèmes d’Éluard, “Plume d’eau claire,” mm1–4..........................................................87

58. Cinq poèmes d’Éluard, “Amoureuses,” mm39–40................................................................88

59. Tel jour, telle nuit, “Bonne journée,” mm1–6........................................................................91

60. Tel jour, telle nuit, “Une ruine coquille vide,” mm24–29......................................................92

61. Tel jour, telle nuit, “Une herbe pauvre,” mm1–6...................................................................93

62. Tel jour, telle nuit, “À toutes brides,” mm20–23 ...................................................................94

63. Tel jour, telle nuit, “Figure de force,” mm20–24...................................................................94

64. Trois poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin, “Aux officiers de la garde blanche,” mm1–4 .............98

65. Miroirs brûlants, “Tu vois le feu du soir,” mm33–36 .........................................................100

66. Miroirs brûlants, “Tu vois le feu du soir,” mm26–28 .........................................................101

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67. “Priez pour paix,” mm5–10..................................................................................................102

68. Nocturne #8, mm9–12..........................................................................................................103

69. “Ce doux petit visage,” mm10–14 .......................................................................................104

70. Fiançailles pour rire, “Violon,” mm12–14 .........................................................................106

71. Intermezzo in Ab, mm41–43 ................................................................................................108

72. Banalités, “Chanson d’Orkenise,” mm1–4 ..........................................................................110

73. Banalités, “Hôtel,” mm1–4 ..................................................................................................110

74. Métamorphoses, “Reine des mouettes,” mm1–2 .................................................................114

75. Métamorphoses, “C’est ainsi que tu es,” mm15–16 ............................................................114

76. Deux Poèmes de Louis Aragon, “C,” mm1–4......................................................................115

77. “Main dominée par le cœur,” mm1–4..................................................................................117

78. “… mais mourir,” mm20–24................................................................................................118

79. “Montparnasse,” mm31–34..................................................................................................119

80. Calligrammes, “L’Espionne,” mm16–20.............................................................................122

81. Calligrammes, “Mutation,” mm9–16...................................................................................123

82. Calligrammes, “Il pleut,” mm1–4 ........................................................................................123

83. Calligrammes, “Aussi bien que les cigales,” mm51–59 ......................................................124

84. Calligrammes, “Voyage,” mm33–39 ...................................................................................125

85. La Fraîcheur et le feu, “Rayon des yeux…,” mm9–10 .......................................................129

86. La Fraîcheur et le feu, “Le matin les branches attisent…,” mm12–16 ...............................129

87. Cinq poèmes d’Éluard, “Plume d’eau claire,” mm7–9........................................................130

88. La Fraîcheur et le feu, “Tout disparu…,” mm5–7...............................................................130

89. La Fraîcheur et le feu, “Homme au sourire tendre…,” mm1–6 ..........................................131

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90. Thème varié, Var. II, mm1–3 ...............................................................................................133

91. Thème varié, Var. III, mm1–4..............................................................................................133

92. Parisiana, “Jouer du bugle,” mm1–4...................................................................................135

93. Le travail du peintre, “Marc Chagall,” mm1–8 ...................................................................138

94. Le travail du peintre, “Jacques Villon,” mm35–41 .............................................................139

95. Le travail du peintre, “Juan Gris,” mm1–6..........................................................................141

96. Improvisation #13, mm1–4 ..................................................................................................141

97. Novelette #3, mm1–4............................................................................................................142

98. Novelette #3, mm68–77........................................................................................................142

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Francis Poulenc (1899–1963) is noted as one of the most important French composers of the

twentieth century. His compositional career spanned nearly fifty years, from his first surviving

work, Rapsodie nègre (1917) at the age of 18, to his final work, the Sonata for oboe and piano

(1962), completed just months before his death. His output covered many genres, including ballets,

operas, keyboard concertos, chamber music, songs, and choral works. Yet, despite this wide array

of genres, it is clear that Poulenc felt particular affection for two instruments: the piano and the

voice. Over half of his published works were for voice in various combinations or with other

instruments, and the piano figured in over two-thirds of his compositions.1

Poulenc’s musical education and careers as composer and performer were grounded in the

piano. His only musical training was as a pianist, and he was active as a soloist and accompanist all

of his life. Further, his tendency to compose at the keyboard meant that a number of orchestral and

instrumental chamber works were conceived at the piano and initially written out in piano score.

With the piano occupying such a central role in his musical life, an understanding of Poulenc’s

keyboard style and how it developed over the course of his career is therefore central to

understanding the composer and his works.

Poulenc’s other major fascination was with the voice, for which he wrote songs, operas, and

choral works. This may be due to his early exposure to poetry and literature and his close personal

contacts with contemporary writers in Paris. His interest in the voice was furthered by his close

friendships with singers, including Suzanne Peignot and Denise Duval, and a longtime recital

1 By rough count, the piano is employed in ninety-nine published works, compared to forty-eight that do not use the piano.

Page 18: Francis Poulenc


partnership with Pierre Bernac, with whom he found ample and immediate performing opportunities

for his new songs. Bernac, in particular, was a trusted advisor whose opinion of his works he

valued highly. Poulenc paid careful attention to the prosody, mood, and tone of his musical

settings, which were always rooted in an intimate understanding of the poetry. His mélodies,

written throughout his career, represent the perfect marriage of his two greatest musical loves, and

stand among his greatest and best-known achievements.

Since he wrote in both genres throughout his life, it is therefore particularly appropriate to

compare his writing for the piano alone with his writing for voice and piano, for which he described

very different compositional processes. Through this comparison, we may better understand the

differences between the genres and trace his stylistic development as a composer for the piano.

Given Poulenc’s pianistic facility, it may be surprising that he himself considered solo piano

his “least representative genre.”2 While the best of his piano works compare favorably with his best

works in other genres, the overall quality is quite uneven, with some works sometimes descending

into empty displays of virtuosity. His considerable skill at improvisation often assisted him in

composing for the piano, but too often, an overdependence on idiomatic figuration and

passagework, particularly during the years 1925 to 1934, resulted in works that were overly facile

and devoid of true musical interest.

The songs, on the other hand, rarely suffer from this flaw, due to his keen interest in the

primacy of the poem. His composition of a song did not generally begin at the piano, but rather

with careful study of the sound, meter, and meaning of the words, and even physical layout of the

poem on the page. He rarely began composing at the beginning of the song, but rather conceived of

individual phrases in piecemeal fashion. Only later did he connect the pieces together, often

2 Poulenc: “c’est ma musique de piano la moins représentative de mon œuvre,” quoted in Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, Mes amis musiciens (Paris: Éditeurs français réunis, 1955), 133.

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through a variety of creative modulations. The result of this kind of process was a close marriage of

voice and piano, the two highly dependent on one another.

Beginning in 1935, Poulenc underwent a kind of midlife crisis during which time he strove

to achieve greater simplicity and clarity in his piano accompaniments. The songs dating from this

period of maturity show remarkable differences in piano textures and harmonic language, changes

that he retained for the rest of his life. During this period, however, Poulenc’s interest in solo piano

works slackened considerably, for he was seemingly unable to incorporate these changes into his

solo piano writing. It was several years before his piano pieces began to show signs of his

compositional maturity, but the best of his late piano works finally incorporate styles and techniques

that he developed while writing his mélodies. His final period, beginning around 1949, is signaled

by a complete synthesis of his earlier styles and a unity of piano writing between the genres.

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Poulenc and the Piano

Poulenc’s connection to the piano as performer and composer was lifelong and profound.

His experience playing the piano began at the age of five when he began to take lessons from his

mother, Jenny Royer. She was an “accomplished amateur pianist,” who “instilled in Poulenc a love

for music in general and for the piano in particular.”1 Poulenc said: “My mother played the piano

exquisitely.… Endowed with an impeccable musical instinct and a lovely touch, she enchanted my

childhood.”2 His piano study continued with Mlle Boutet de Monvel, “who had excellent technical


It was, however, study and subsequent lifelong friendship with the Catalan pianist Ricardo

Viñes, beginning in 1914, that had the greatest importance for his career in music. Viñes was an

important premier interpreter of modern French music, playing “the piano music of Debussy and

Ravel years before any other pianist dreamed of touching it. Indeed, for a long time, all the first

performances of these two composers’ piano works were given by him, as well as countless first

performances of music by other composers, French, Russian, and Spanish.”4 Through Viñes’

influence, in the years 1914–18, Poulenc was introduced to music of a wide variety of contemporary

composers, from Satie to the composers of the Second Viennese School. Viñes was particularly

1 Carl B. Schmidt, Entrancing Muse: A Documented Biography of Francis Poulenc, Lives in Music Series, no. 3 (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2001), 5.

2 “Ma mère jouait du piano d’une façon exquise.… Douée d’un sens musical impeccable, et d’un ravissant toucher, elle a enchanté mon enfance,” Francis Poulenc and Claude Rostand, Entretiens avec Claude Rostand (Paris: R. Julliard, 1954), 13.

3 “qui avait d’excellents principes techniques,” ibid., 28. 4 Calvocoressi, quoted in Schmidt, Entrancing, 20.

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influential in Poulenc’s eventual development of a unique pedaling style and pedaling indications in

his works for the piano (see below). Poulenc’s affinity for his piano teacher was such that he

dedicated his earliest published piece to Viñes (the first of the Trois pastorales, FP 5, written in

1917, but not published until 1928 as the first movement of Trois Pièces, FP 48). Viñes also

premiered and championed the Trois mouvements perpétuels (FP 14, 1918), which found enormous

popularity and secured Poulenc’s membership in the Groupe des Six. Poulenc said, “All that I

know of the piano, I owe to this inspired master, and it is he who determined my vocation.”5

A childhood friend, Jacques Soulé, described Poulenc’s piano playing:

I was astonished then to see his large hands with round fingers run across the piano with agility; and while listening to him play with the velvet touch which already characterized his playing, I asked myself if this was the same Francis whom I had just seen spoil so many tennis shots.6

He was also skilled at improvisation and frequently entertained guests at soirées or parties with his

musical impressions of his friends.7 Poulenc’s career as a pianist was extensive:

His finest work was undoubtedly with [recital partner Pierre] Bernac, but he also toured successfully with [cellist Pierre] Fournier and [soprano Denise] Duval and collaborated successfully with [pianist Jacques] Février on his Concerto in D minor. Recordings, which he made with all but Fournier, remind us today of his excellence.8

Poulenc’s last public performance was given with Denise Duval on January 26, 1963, just four days

before his death.9

5 “Tout ce que je sais de piano, je le dois à ce maître génial, et c’est lui qui décida de ma vocation,” Francis Poulenc, “Mes maîtres et mes amis,” Conférencia: Journal de l’Université des Annales 29 no. 2 (15 Oct. 1935): 522.

6 Jacques Soulé, quoted in Schmidt, Entrancing, 30. 7 Musical portraits of his friends that he improvised during such evenings at his country home in the Touraine

eventually resulted in his longest work for piano, Soirées de Nazelles (FP 84, 1930–36). Similarly, Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant (FP 129, 1940–45), for narrator and piano, originated as a series of musical improvisations based on the book by Jean de Brunhoff.

8 Schmidt, Entrancing, 468–69. 9 Timothy Bruce Sloan, “A Study of the Piano Works of Francis Poulenc” (M.M. thesis, University of

Cincinnati, 1981), 17–18.

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From study of piano, composition for piano naturally followed. Of the first twenty-four

compositions listed in the Schmidt catalog, seventeen works were written for, or included, piano. In

all, Poulenc wrote thirty-two sets and individual pieces for piano solo or four-hands.10 His final

piano work was the fifteenth Improvisation (FP 176, 1959), but his writing for the piano extended

even to his final completed compositions, the oboe and clarinet sonatas (FP 184 and 185, 1962).

Poulenc’s piano works were variously championed by piano virtuosi such as Ricardo Viñes

and Arthur Rubinstein, and denounced by music critics. This diversity of opinion about his piano

works may be due to his own pianistic facility and his improvisatory method of composition. The

piano writing as a result, particularly early in his career, was often idiomatically pianistic and

employed facile figurations that appealed to the virtuosi that championed some of his works.

However, Ned Rorem felt that “because he was a glib, a natural, keyboard technician he was

inclined to pass off as finished compositions what in fact were passing improvisations, a dazzling

froth floating on nothing.”11

Poulenc felt most comfortable composing music while seated at the piano, particularly

earlier in his career; this preference was a natural result of his overall comfort with the piano idiom.

As he explained later in life, “I work more at my desk now than in the early days, but I’ve always

used the piano a lot,”12 and he expressed some guilt for this, envying composers such as Milhaud

who could “compose in railway carriages.”13

10 Keith W. Daniel, Francis Poulenc: His Artistic Development and Musical Style (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1982), 163.

11 Ned Rorem, “Francis Poulenc,” in A Ned Rorem Reader (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 289. 12 Francis Poulenc, Moi et mes amis, conversations assembled by Stéphane Audel (Paris: Éditions La Palatine,

1963), 36. 13 Ibid.

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Compared to the songs, which were inspired by poetic images, the piano works inspired by

improvisation are called “Poulenc’s most artificial, least personal body of music.”14 Lacking a

germinating text, many of his piano works were given abstract titles; as he explained: “For my

piano music, the slightest contact with the keyboard releases the creative spirit in me. Since this

genre of composition doesn’t create an image for me, I give them abstract titles: Improvisations,

Novelettes, Intermezzi, etc.”15 However, Poulenc acknowledged that these piano works sometimes

seem devoid of musical inspiration, saying: “It is because I know pianistic writing too well that I

made a mess of many of my pieces. Cleverness, tricks, and pianistic facility often supplant a true

musical interest.”16

Poulenc’s own opinion about his piano works was decidedly mixed, believing their true

value fell somewhere between the high opinion of the virtuosi and the dismissal by the critics.17 He

gave a remarkably lucid account of his best and worst piano music in an interview with Claude


I tolerate the Mouvements perpétuels, my old Suite in C, and the Trois pièces. I like my two books of Improvisations a lot, an Intermezzo in Ab and certain Nocturnes. I condemn without reprieve Napoli and the Soirées de Nazelles. I don’t care much about the rest of it.18

As an accomplished pianist, he felt it was “paradoxical, but true, as they say: it is my piano music

that is the least representative of my works.”19 It was instead his mélodies that he considered

among his best, most personal works.

14 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 163. 15 Poulenc, “Mes maîtres,” 526. 16 “C’est parce que je connais trop bien l’écriture pianistique que j’ai raté beaucoup de mes pièces. L’habilité,

le truc, le jeu des ficelles, suppléent, hélas! souvent à un véritable intérêt musical,” Poulenc, Entretiens, 31–32. 17 “Je pense très sincèrement que ma musique de piano n’est, ni si bien que le prétendent les virtuoses, ni si

moche que l’ont écrit certains de vos confrères. La vérité est entre les deux,” ibid., 32. 18 “C’est très simple, je tolère les Mouvements perpétuels, ma vielle Suite en ut, les Trois pièces (anciennes

pastorales). J’aime beaucoup mes deux recueils d’Improvisations, un Intermezzo en la bémol et certains Nocturnes. Je condamne sans recours Napoli et les Soirées de Nazelles. Pour le reste, je ne m’en soucie guère,” ibid., 35.

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Poulenc and the Voice

Poulenc’s mélodie output spanned nearly the same period as his piano works. Compared to

the inconsistent quality of the works for piano solo, Poulenc’s songs are more consistently of a

higher quality. While he once claimed, “Singing is my greatest love,”20 unlike his dual role as

piano performer and composer, he was not known for any talent as a singer himself.21 During a

radio interview with Claude Rostand in 1954, Poulenc teased the interviewer by threatening to sing

his early “Toréador” (a fake “chanson Hispano-Italienne”), but then confessed, “Dear Claude, I only

wanted to scare you! No, I will not sing ‘Toréador,’ because I am incapable of singing it, and I do

not wish to set myself up for ridicule.”22

His earliest songs were written for voice with instrumental ensemble, after which piano

arrangements followed. These include the sets Le bestiaire (FP 15, 1919) and Cocardes (FP 16,

1919). After these works, the vast majority of his mélodies were written for voice and piano,

including his final published songs, La courte paille (FP 178, 1960). Poulenc also wrote

extensively for the voice in other genres, including cantatas, melodramas, operas, and a large body

of choral music. But it is of his 152 songs23 that he wrote his Journal de mes mélodies, which he

began in 1939, “in the hope it would serve as a guide to interpreters who might take some interest in

19 Poulenc: “Chose paradoxale mais vraie, dit-il, c’est ma musique de piano la moins représentative de mon œuvre,” quoted in Jourdan-Morhange, Mes amis musiciens, 133.

20 Poulenc, quoted in Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 37. 21 On one occasion he was forced to make a singing appearance for the premiere of his Rapsodie nègre (FP 3,

1917): “At the last minute the singer threw in the sponge, saying it was too silly and that he didn’t want to look a fool. Quite unexpectedly, masked by a big music stand, I had to sing that interlude myself. Since I was already in uniform, you can just imagine the unusual effect produced by a soldier bawling out songs in pseudo-Malagasy!” Schmidt, Entrancing, 44.

22 “Cher Claude, j’ai voulu vous faire peur! Main non, je ne chanterai pas ‘Toréador,’ car j’en suis incapable, et je ne veux tout de même pas être ridicule à ce point,” Poulenc, Entretiens, 134–36.

23 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 243.

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my poor music.”24 In this important resource, Poulenc described the genesis of each song and

carefully directed the performer toward his desired interpretation of it. In his justification for

writing the Journal, Poulenc directly compared his piano works and the songs: “My piano pieces

are often massacred, but never as much as my songs, and, heaven knows I place a higher value on

the songs.”25 He also recognized that he wrote differently for the piano when it was paired with the

voice. He said: “A song, a cycle, is the opposite of an improvisation, at least for me;”26 and “The

strange thing is that when the piano becomes accompanimental in the mélodies, it is then that I


One reason that Poulenc’s songs were more successful than his piano works is because of

the inspiration he found in the poetry. His musical response came primarily via visual images

evoked from the text:

If I am abstract in my piano works, in my mélodies, on the contrary, I am incurably visual. A poem must contain an image for it to entice me. If it doesn’t have a precise subject, I need at least an atmosphere.28

While the text was the greatest inspiration to Poulenc as he wrote his songs, he was also careful to

point out that “the ‘accompaniment’ of a song is equally as important as the piano part of a violin

24 “…dans l’espoir de servir de guide aux interprètes qui auraient quelque souci de ma pauvre musique;” Francis Poulenc, Journal de mes mélodies, notes by Renaud Machart (Paris: Cicero / Éditions Salabert, 1993), 13. Footnote citations for the French version are given in this text as “Poulenc, Journal;” those from the French/English version (Francis Poulenc, Journal de mes mélodies (Diary of My Songs), bi-lingual edition, translated by Winifred Radford, London: Victor Gollancz, 1985) as “Poulenc, Diary.”

25 “On massacre souvent mes pièces de piano mais jamais tant que mes mélodies, et Dieu sait que je tiens plus à celles-ci qu’à celles-là,” ibid., 13.

26 “Une mélodie, un cycle, sont le contraire d’une improvisation, du moins pour moi,” Poulenc, Entretiens, 63. 27 “Ce qu’il y a d’étrange c’est que, dès que le piano devient accompagnement de mélodies, alors j’innove,”

ibid., 32. 28 “Si, pour mes œuvres de piano, je suis abstrait, pour les mélodies je suis, au contraire, irrémédiablement

visuel. Il faut qu’une poésie fasse image pour me tenter. S’il n’y a pas de sujet précis, j’ai besoin tout au moins d’une atmosphère,” Poulenc, “Mes maîtres,” 526.

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sonata,” showing that he strove to give equal attention to the voice and piano.29 This poetic

inspiration resulted in a completely different compositional process, which he described at length in

this remarkably detailed depiction of a composer at work:

When I have chosen a poem, the musical realization of which I often don’t complete until months later, I examine it from all angles. When dealing with Apollinaire or Éluard, I attach the greatest importance to the layout on the page, to the white spaces, to the margins. I speak the poem to myself many times. I listen to it, I search for the traps, I sometimes underline the difficult places in the text. I note the breaths; I try to discover the internal rhythm in a line that is not necessarily the first. Then, I try to set it to music, bearing in mind the different densities of the piano accompaniment. When I stumble over a detail of prosody, I don’t worry about it. I sometimes wait for days; I try to forget the word until I see it as a brand new word.30

While few composers give this much detail about their compositional process, Poulenc gave

specific examples of this process, even explaining the genesis of a song phrase by phrase:

Believe me, a song, a cycle, is the opposite of an improvisation, at least for me. … I do not improvise my songs; a song like Montparnasse stayed nearly two years on the drawing board. … I first found the music for the verse, ‘un poète lyrique d’Allemagne’ … then several months later, ‘donnez-moi pour toujours une chambre à la semaine.’ This gave me the general color, the internal rhythm of the work; but, since I never transpose a phrase that I found in a given key for convenience, it is then that I truly began to construct my song to make them chain together logically.31

The result of such painstaking care and detail over the poem was one of Poulenc’s most beautiful

songs, “Montparnasse,” begun in 1941 and finally completed in 1945.

29 “‘L’accompagnement’ d’un lied est aussi important que la partie de piano d’une sonate pour piano et violon,” Poulenc, Journal, 14.

30 “Lorsque j’ai élu un poème, dont je ne réalise parfois la transposition musicale que des mois plus tard, je l’examine sous toutes ses faces. Lorsqu’il s’agit d’Apollinaire et d’Éluard, j’attache la plus grande importance à la mise en page du poème, aux blancs, aux marges. Je me récite souvent le poème. Je l’écoute, je cherche les pièges, je souligne parfois, d’un trait rouge, le texte aux endroits difficiles. Je note les respirations, j’essaye de découvrir le rythme interne par un vers qui n’est pas forcément le premier. Ensuite, j’essaye la mise en musique en tenant compte des densités différentes de l’accompagnement pianistique. Lorsque je bute sur un détail de prosodie, je ne m’acharne pas. J’attends parfois des jours, j’essaye d’oublier le mot jusqu’à ce que je le vois comme un mot nouveau,” Poulenc, Entretiens, 69–70.

31 “Croyez-moi, une mélodie, un cycle, sont le contraire d’une improvisation, du moins pour moi. … Je n’improvise pas mes mélodies; qu’une mélodie comme Montparnasse est restée près de deux ans sur le chantier…. J’avais trouvé d’abord la musique du vers ‘un poète lyrique d’Allemagne’ … puis… des mois après … ‘donnez-moi pour toujours une chambre à la semaine.’ Cela m’avait donné la couleur générale, le rythme interne de l’œuvre, mais, comme jamais je ne transpose, par facilité, une phrase trouvée dans un ton, c’est alors que j’ai véritablement commencé à construire ma mélodie pour que tout s’enchaîne logiquement,” ibid., 63–64.

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If the detailed writing of a single song was sometimes a painstaking process, the overall plan

of an entire cycle, such as his Éluard masterworks, was equally important to him:

Do you know that for a song to hold together, you must construct it; and that for a cycle to be well-balanced, you must adhere to a very subtle plan for the linking of keys, tempos, and nuances? … Do you think it was by random chance that the first and the last songs of my cycle Tel jour, telle nuit adopt the same tonality of C major and an identical tempo? Do you think that it was merely gratuitous that I endowed the cycle with a coda for piano alone, that—as in Schumann’s Dichterliebe—prolongs the emotion?32

Poulenc paid great attention to the ordering of songs within a cycle, arranging each so that it

contrasted well with the next in the same way a painter displays his artwork: “It is all a question of

‘the hanging,’ as essential in music as in painting.”33

The lesser importance that Poulenc attached to his works for piano solo versus his mélodies

is observable in the fact that he wrote no diary for his piano works. Neither did he give such

detailed description of his approach to piano composition. This is probably indicative that the piano

pieces were much easier and natural for him to write, while he gave the songs more of his truly

creative energy. However, the devotion he lavished on the songs paid off for him in other ways, for

as he matured as a song composer, his writing for the piano also matured. Eventually, he was able

to incorporate the compositional techniques inspired by the written word into his solo piano works

as well.

Elements of Style

Various authors have identified different systems of periodization depending on the genre.

However, taking only the songs and piano works into account, we can distinguish four distinct

32 “Savez-vous que pour qu’une mélodie se tienne, il faut la construire, que pour qu’un cycle s’équilibre il faut tenir compte d’un plan très subtil pour l’enchaînement des tons, des tempi, des nuances? … Pensez-vous que c’est par hasard que la première et la dernière mélodies de mon cycle Tel jour, telle nuit empruntent la même tonalité de do majeur et un tempo identique? Pensez-vous que ce soit gratuitement que j’ai doté ce cycle d’une coda pour le piano seul qui permet au public, comme dans Les Amours du poète de Schumann, de prolonger en lui l’émotion?” ibid., 63.

33 Poulenc, Diary, 79.

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periods. The earliest period, termed “Fauve” (“wild”) by Claude Rostand,34 lasted from 1919 until

about 1925 and included the period of association with Les Six and his composition lessons with

Charles Koechlin. The second period, from 1925 to 1935, was more Neoclassical and includes his

first great songs and a greater coherence in the piano works. The third period shows a more serious

style, discovered in the watershed year, 1935, with his first settings of the poet Paul Éluard and the

beginnings of his recital partnership with Pierre Bernac. The final period of full maturity begins

around 1950 and shows the composer with a completely integrated, unified style across all genres.

Despite the development of style evident through each period of his career, there is a clear

“Poulenc style” that makes most of his music immediately recognizable as such after hearing only a

few measures. Within the greater context of the musical innovations by many composers of the

twentieth century, Poulenc must be considered a conservative, rarely employing more experimental

twentieth-century techniques. His music is most often tuneful, containing traditionally organized

elements of melody with a subordinated accompaniment. The quality of melody and style of

accompaniment often suggests the influence of Parisian popular entertainment, such as the music

hall, café-concerts, and music of the circus. The piano figures are frequently those of the

eighteenth- and nineteenth-century piano masters, such as Alberti bass, arpeggios, triadic chords,

and scalar passagework. He often constructed phrases in antecedent/consequent pairs, but deployed

them with flexibility of meter.

The most distinctive element of Poulenc’s style is the harmonic language. Ned Rorem

described a recipe for it thusly:

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

34 Poulenc, Entretiens, 49.

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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.35

Rich tertian chords of the seventh, ninth, and thirteenth serve not only dominant functions,

but also as consonant sonorities, as was Ravel’s practice. For example, many pieces begin with a

tonic-seventh harmony and many end on “color chords” with an added seventh or ninth. Often

extended tertian chords are found in chains, such as in the vi9 – ii9 – V13 – I9 final cadence of the

first Nocturne (see Example 1). In a particularly beautiful passage from “Montparnasse,” the bass

line moves functionally by fifths, while the harmonies are chains of seventh chords, of which the

vocal line is entirely comprised of the sevenths (see Example 2). In the earlier piano pieces, the use

of I9 and III9 chords is common in C major, lending the key a typically sunny color, while in his

more serious Éluard style, tonic minor-minor-seventh chords and minor-ninth chords predominate.

Along with the lush sonorities, Poulenc employed frequent and inventive modulations with

little or no preparation—a kind of “slippery” tonality that he said could “sometimes pass through a

35 Rorem, Setting the Tone, 276.

Example 1: Nocturne #1, mm90–92

Example 2: “Montparnasse,” mm22–26

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mouse-hole.”36 One favorite device was to simply restate a phrase transposed up a minor third (see

Example 3). Rapid modulations were used to generate harmonic instability during sections of

intensification. In Example 4, direct modulations to four different tonalities are used to prepare for

the dominant harmony that marks a return to the opening theme. In his mature style, creative

modulations were often necessary to link up phrases originally conceived in disparate tonalities.

36 “Mes modulations passent parfois par le trou d’une souris,” Poulenc, Journal, 51.

Example 3: Improvisation #9, mm30–33

Example 4: Humoresque, mm49–60

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Poulenc had a very specific conception of the performance of his piano music. It is worth

quoting Poulenc’s comments on several “major technical errors that disfigure my piano music to the

point of being unrecognizable.”37 First, he strongly disliked rubato, saying:

Once a tempo is adopted, never change it on any account until I indicate otherwise. Never stretch or rush a tempo. That drives me crazy. I would prefer all the wrong notes in the world.38

His scores are filled with cautions, such as “sans nuances,” “très mesuré,” “sans rubato,” and

“respecter strictement le mouvement métronomique.”39 In places where performers might be apt to

make a ritardando, such as major cadences or final codas, Poulenc frequently marks “sans ralentir”

or “strictement en mesure.”40 Along with the avoidance of rubato, he insisted on the observation of

his indicated metronomic tempos, nearly always specifically indicated on the score: “If pianists

would have confidence in my metronomic indications, very meticulously established, much

misfortune will be avoided.”41

The second common error was “l’avarice de pédale,”42 something about which he spoke for

some length in an interview:

As for pedal usage, it is the great secret of my piano music (and often its true drama!). One can never use enough pedal, you hear me! never enough! never enough! Sometimes, when I hear certain pianists playing my works, I want to yell at them: ‘Add more butter to the sauce! What is this, playing on a diet?’ … In a fast tempo, I have sometimes come to count on the pedal to realize, virtually, the harmony of a pattern that would be impossible to write,

37 “grandes erreurs techniques qui défigurent ma musique de piano, au point de la rendre méconnaissable,” Poulenc, Entretiens, 32.

38 “Une fois un tempo adopté, il ne faut en changer à aucun prix jusqu’à ce que je l’indique. Ne jamais allonger ou raccourcir un temps. Cela me rend fou. Je préfère toutes les fausses notes du monde,” ibid., 32–33.

39 Trois mouvements perpétuels, I, m1; Le Bestiaire, “Le Dromadaire,” m1; Mélancolie, m1; Air chantés, “Air Romantique,” m1.

40 Suite pour piano, I, m111; Fiançailles pour rire, “Fleurs,” m39. 41 “Si les pianistes faisaient confiance à mes mouvements métronomiques, très soigneusement établis, bien des

malheurs seraient évités,” Poulenc, Entretiens, 35. 42 Ibid., 32.

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integrally, in this tempo. … For repeated chords and arpeggios, one must blend them most of the time in order to allow the voice to come to the fore.43

Poulenc clearly felt that the issue of proper pedaling was one of the most essential elements of his

piano style. His constant reminders to the performers included score indications such as, “beaucoup

de pédale,” “créer une sorte de halo sonore avec les deux pédales,” “clair, dans un halo de pédales,”

and “durant toute cette mélodie, se servir beaucoup des pédales.”44

Finally, in the slow, lyrical pieces, his frequent use of repeated chords and arpeggiated

“filler” required a gentle touch. He detested “too much articulation of certain patterns of repeated

chords or arpeggios that must be played, on the contrary, very blurred,”45 and often marked such

passages with advice such as, “très égal et estompé.”46 This is especially important for the layered

textures he frequently employed in the Éluard settings, consisting of a sustained bass note, one or

more countermelodies, and repeated eighth-note chords to fill out the rhythm. For example, in

Example 5, from “Tu vois le feu du soir,” he indicates in the score, “the whole song should be

accompanied in a halo of pedals, the melody [‘chant’] sweetly brought out and the repeated chords

very blurred.” The “chant” mentioned refers not to the vocal line, but to the melodic content of the

piano accompaniment. He felt that the accompaniments were as lyrical as the vocal parts, and he

said: “There exists in my accompaniments a pianistic melody that only a perfect legato can

43 “Quant à l’usage des pédales, c’est le grand secret de ma musique de piano (et souvent son vrai drame!). On ne mettra jamais assez de pédale, vous m’entendez ! jamais assez ! jamais assez ! Parfois, lorsque j’entends certains pianistes m’interpréter, j’ai envie de leur crier: ‘Mettez du beurre dans la sauce ! Qu’est-ce que c’est que ce jeu de régime!’ … Dans un mouvement rapide, il m’est arrivé parfois de compter sur la pédale pour réaliser, virtuellement, l’harmonie d’un dessin qu’il serait impossible d’écrire, intégralement, dans ce tempo…. Pour les batteries et les arpèges, on doit les effacer la plupart du temps pour laisser le chant en dehors,” ibid., 33.

44 Trois mouvements perpétuels, I, m1; Les Soirées de Nazelles, “Final,” m90; Fiançailles pour rire, “Fleurs,” m1, Calligrammes, “Sanglots,” m1.

45 “le trop d’articulation de certains dessins en batteries ou arpèges qu’il faut, au contraire, jouer très estompés,” Poulenc, Entretiens, 32.

46 “Bleuet,” m1.

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reveal.”47 In many of his mature compositions, he often gave precise fingering in combination with

detailed pedal indications. In this way, clarity could be balanced with the blurred quality that the

composer desired.

47 “Il existe dans mes accompagnements une mélodie pianistique que, seul, un parfait legato peut extérioriser,” Francis Poulenc, “Mes mélodies et leurs poètes,” Conférencia: Journal de l’Université des Annales 36 no. 12 (15 Dec. 1947): 511.

Example 5: Miroirs brûlants, “Tu vois le feu du soir,” mm1–3

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Early Influences

Poulenc was born in Paris, where he lived most of his life,1 into a privileged family,

surrounded by the visual arts, literature, and music. While his father did not allow him to attend the

Conservatoire,2 he received early exposure to such diverse composers as Mozart, Chopin,

Schumann, Couperin, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg through the influence of his

mother.3 His beloved uncle Papoum was well cultured in art as well as music, and by early

adolescence, Poulenc was attending concerts and purchasing scores of new music.

He spent his childhood summers in the nearby village of Nogent-sur-Marne, as he fondly


It was paradise to me, with its open-air dance halls, its French-fry vendors, and its bals musettes… The bad-boy side of my music, you see, is not artificial as is often believed, because it is associated with my very dear childhood memories.4

The popular waltzes and dance-hall tunes became for Poulenc inextricably linked to these

memories, and for the rest of his life, he was fond of using musical allusions to these happy days to

evoke a carefree or nostalgic mood.

At the young age of 16, Poulenc spent a great deal of time in a bookstore on the Rue de

l’Odéon called Maison des Amis des Livres. Here a number of important avant-garde poets

gathered, including Léon-Paul Fargue, James Joyce, Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire, Louis

1 With the notable exception of the time he spent at his country home in the Touraine; however, Poulenc never felt an affinity with the country life and wrote some of his most “Parisian” music at his piano in Noizay.

2 Schmidt, Entrancing, 6. 3 Wilfrid Howard Mellers, Francis Poulenc (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), xi. 4 “C’était pour moi le paradis, avec ses guinguettes, ses marchands de frites et ses bals musettes qu’on baptisa

vers 1913… Le côté mauvais garçon de ma musique, vous voyez, n’est pas artificiel comme on le croit parfois, puisqu’il se rattache à des souvenirs d’enfance très chers,” Poulenc, Entretiens, 17–18.

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Aragon, and Paul Éluard.5 He also met Apollinaire on several other occasions, including the

premiere of his play, Les Mamelles de Tirésias, which Poulenc much later set to music. Poulenc

recalled especially the sound of Apollinaire’s voice:

Most important: I heard the sound of his voice. I think there is here something essential for a musician who does not want to betray a poet. Apollinaire’s timbre, like his entire œuvre, was at the same time melancholic and joyful. There was, in his speech, sometimes, a point of irony, but never le ton pince-sans-rire of a Jules Renard. That is why one must sing my Apollinaire songs without insisting on the comical sound of certain words.6

The young Poulenc’s literary taste was cultivated as he heard all these poets read their own poetry

and mingled with many of the poets whose poems he would later set to music.

At this same bookstore, he was present for an informal performance in 1919 of the first part

of Erik Satie’s important vocal work, Socrate.7 Two years earlier, Poulenc had witnessed the

premiere of Satie’s Parade, a ballet-collaboration with Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Sergey

Diaghilev, and the Ballets Russes. These encounters proved to be profound for Poulenc by

revealing to him an alternative aesthetic from those of Wagner and Debussy;8 as he said,

“everything I knew about Satie’s music—and I did know everything—seemed to me to be tracing a

new path for French music.”9

Poulenc wrote his earliest surviving works under the influence of Satie’s aesthetic. In

comparison to the ambiguity and complexity of the more serious Debussy style, Poulenc’s early

aesthetic was notable for its simplicity, sometimes to the point of banality. It featured a re-

establishment of a clear relationship between melody and harmony, of which the melodies are

5 Schmidt, Entrancing, 26–27. 6 Poulenc, quoted in ibid,, 48. 7 The performance was by Suzanne Balguerie with Satie at the piano, on March 21, 1919; ibid., 28. The

official premiere did not occur until February 14, 1920. 8 Ibid., 36. 9 Francis Poulenc, My Friends and Myself, conversations assembled by Stéphane Audel, trans. James Harding

(London: Dobson, 1978), 64.

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predominantly diatonic, simple and fresh; clear textures with uncomplicated rhythms; triadic

harmony, often with extensions of the ninth, eleventh, or thirteenth; and extensive use of octave

doubling of the melody, or doubling of the vocal line in the piano. However, like Satie’s music, this

otherwise innocuous music was also occasionally irreverent, employing effective use of surprise

“wrong-note” dissonance, abrupt harmonic or metric shifts, and the occasional tongue-in-cheek

score indication such as “excessivement lent.”10

The influence of Satie’s Gymnopédies is particularly felt in the Mouvements perpétuels (FP

14, 1918), Poulenc’s first published solo piano work. Its enormous popularity “greatly helped

define the budding aesthetic”11 of a group of like-minded composers, eventually labeled “Les Six”

by the music critic Henri Collet in 1920.12 The same characteristics evident in these pieces were

being promoted at the same time by Jean Cocteau in his essay Le Coq et l’Arlequin, including

“brevity, clarity, and a use of popular sources.”13

Poulenc’s earliest period , from 1918 to 1925, includes nine works for solo piano or voice

and piano: Trois mouvements perpétuels (FP 14, 1918), Valse from Album des Six (FP 17, 1919),

the Suite in C (FP 19, 1920), Six Impromptus14 (FP 21, 1920–21), and Promenades, (FP 24, 1921)

for piano; and Le Bestiaire (FP 15, 1919), Cocardes (FP 16, 1919), and Poèmes de Ronsard (FP 38,

1924–25) for voice. Of the vocal works, however, only the last was originally written with piano

accompaniment; the original versions of Le Bestiaire and Cocardes were for voice with

instrumental ensembles, but Poulenc made voice and piano arrangements at or about the same time

10 Cocardes, “Miel de Narbonne,” m9. 11 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 172. 12 Schmidt, Entrancing, 72. 13 David Conley McKinney, “The influence of Parisian popular entertainment on the piano works of Erik Satie

and Francis Poulenc” (D.M.A. thesis, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1994), 1. 14 This volume was heavily edited and republished as Cinq Impromptus in 1924 and further edited and

republished in 1939.

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as the full scores. Because of Poulenc’s admittedly keyboard-centric method of composition and

the idiomatic piano writing, it is likely that these pieces were conceived and composed at the piano,

even if eventually intended for instrumental ensemble.

The works from 1918 to 1920 all display similar characteristics and use essentially the same

techniques in writing for the piano in both genres. While Poulenc’s piano and song styles would

diverge in his second period, beginning in 1925, the characteristics inherited from Satie would

remain in Poulenc’s work for much of his career:

Of all the group [Les Six], he was to remain the most faithful to the ideal of simplicity and clarity favored by Satie; in addition, he would remain faithful for a long time to the aesthetic of the anti-sublime characteristic of the 1920s. Until around 1936, he would produce works in this fauve vein with a perpetually renewed inventiveness.15

Even in his maturity, Poulenc would still count the aesthetic of tunefulness, simplicity, and clarity,

among his guiding principles.


Poulenc intended that the simplicity, brevity, and clarity of his early works be matched by a

straightforward treatment by the performer. In an (unpublished) notation on a manuscript copy of

Mouvements perpétuels, Poulenc advised that “the whole should unfold uniformly and in a

completely uncolored fashion. The pianist must forget that he is a virtuoso.”16 These intentions are

often emphasized directly in score indications, such as: “en général, sans nuances, beaucoup de

pédale” and “incolore et toujours p” (Mouvements perpétuels, I), “indifférent” (Mouvements

perpétuels, II), “très mesuré” and “sans pédales, sans nuances… sans ralentir” (Le Bestiaire, I),

“sans nuances” (Le Bestiaire, VI), and “uniformément articulé et fort” (Suite, I).

15 Rostand, quoted in Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 95. 16 Poulenc: “Le tout doit se dérouler uniformément et d’une façon tout à fait incoloré. Le pianiste doit oublier

qu’il est virtuose;” quoted in Carl B. Schmidt, The Music of Francis Poulenc (1899–1963): A Catalogue (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995; reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 31.

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For pieces that are light-hearted, or even humorous, Poulenc disliked intentionally ironic or

humorous treatments of them, insisting that those qualities should come through a serious treatment.

He warned that “to sing Le Bestiaire with irony and above all knowingly is a complete

misinterpretation.”17 These admonitions are similar to those Satie gave against winking before

playing Embryons desséchés or from reading aloud to the audience the droll score instructions of

Sports et divertissements.18

Clarity is achieved throughout by a consistent dominance of melody over simple

accompaniments. The pianistic writing generally favors the key of C major, along with occasional

modal writing. This sometimes creates a feeling of pantonality, such as in the extensive scalar

melodies of the first two movements of the Suite. The feeling is interrupted occasionally by

“wrong-note” dissonance or even entire measures that seem to be placed in the wrong key (Example

6). Poulenc seems to avoid the use of key signatures, even when the music is in a clearly

established key, such as the Bb major of the first movement of Mouvements perpétuels, preferring

to reiterate the persistent accidentals.

Example 6: Suite in C, III, mm82–83

Cellular repetition, another hallmark of Satie’s style, is used to construct the brief and

otherwise uncomplicated forms in both the piano works and songs. The cellular patterns are often

17 “Chanter Le Bestiaire avec ironie et surtout des íntentions est un contresens complet. C’est ne rien comprendre à la poésie d’Apollinaire et à ma musique,” Poulenc, Journal, 14.

18 Robert Orledge, Satie the composer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 213.

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pianistic, seemingly discovered through improvisation at the keyboard. The various patterns are

assembled almost haphazardly in arbitrary orders, often in order to maximize contrast among them.

For example, in the first Mouvement perpétuel, the first two-measure pattern recurs identically in

mm3–4, mm8–9, and mm20–21, and in modified versions in mm14–15 and mm16–17. Intervening

cells are designed for maximum contrast: mm5–7 is a meandering three-measure cell that interrupts

the strongly downwardly directed melody of mm1–4. Further interruptions occur in mm10–11 and

mm11–12, where the Gb major melody contrasts with the insistent Bb major ostinato of the left

hand. In the second movement, the pattern of cellular repetition in the right hand (AA A’A’ BB

B’B’ CC DD A + tail) does not correspond to that of the left hand (AA AA AA BB BB CC A +

tail). In another example, the accompaniment of the eight-measure song “La Chèvre du Thibet”

from Le Bestiaire is built completely out of two cellular patterns (A A A B B A A A).19 This

cellular type of construction is not unique to his piano writing, however, for in the Sonata for Two

Clarinets (FP 7, 1918) “the ideas seem to fit together in any order of linkage.”20 This use of

ostinato patterns and repetition of cellular elements contributes to unity within the brief forms, but

also mundanity and simplicity free from the thematic or motivic development of Germanic music.

In addition to simplicity, another trait in evidence early in Poulenc’s career is the influence

of Parisian popular musical entertainment. During Poulenc’s childhood and adolescent years,

popular music was found in many different kinds of venues, including café-concerts, cabarets,

circuses, revues, and music halls. Poulenc himself was very fond of the street carnivals and bal-

musettes from his summers in Nogent-sur-Marne, and later in life, Poulenc employed allusions to

19 The first measure, including the pick-up note, is a five-beat pattern otherwise identical to the four-beat pattern except for the interpolation of the F major chord on the second beat of the measure.

20 Jon Ray Nelson, “The Piano Music of Francis Poulenc” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Washington, 1978), 52.

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popular styles in nostalgic songs reminiscent of earlier days. In his early works, however, these

allusions were simply part of an attempt at an unsophisticated style.

The early “Chanson Hispano-Italienne,” entitled “Toréador” (FP 11, 1918), is not properly

considered one of Poulenc’s mélodies, being “une fausse chanson de caf’ conç’” influenced by

Maurice Chevalier21, but it does serve as an early example of Poulenc’s popular music style. One

bal-musette device in particular would reappear frequently in his later works: the use of a right-hand

octave melody with chordal accompaniment in imitation of a barrel organ (see Example 7). This

same technique is used in the Valse (Example 8) and many other times later in his career, most

commonly when setting the quintessentially Parisian poetry of Apollinaire. In “Enfant de Troupe”

from Cocardes, the poem’s images are descriptive of the circus at Medrano, and Poulenc responds

with brash circus music (Example 9).

21 Poulenc, Entretiens, 135–36.

Example 7: “Toréador,” mm34–39, piano part only

Example 8: Valse, mm45–52

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Example 9: Cocardes, “Enfant de Troupe,” mm9–12

Another common technique Poulenc used is the doubling of a melody, either in octaves in

the piano, or between the piano and voice. This is a very common procedure throughout Le

Bestiaire: in the first song, “Le Dromadaire” (Example 10), and in the fourth, “Le Dauphin,” the

vocal line is doubled by octaves in the piano. Other piano/vocal doubling or melodic octaves occur

extensively throughout Cocardes, the Suite in C (see Example 11), and many other works from this

period and throughout his career.

Example 10: Le Bestiaire, “Le Dromadaire,” mm15–22

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Example 11: Suite in C, I, mm107–12

Another technique Poulenc developed early on is his tendency to create composite eighth or

sixteenth note rhythms by filling in melodic gaps where necessary with syncopated chords. For

example, in Example 11 above, the accompanying chords in the right hand fill in the rhythmic gaps

in the melody to preserve the constant flow of eighth notes. The result is a more lyrically flowing

texture where melody and accompaniment are closely wedded.

Finally, the light-hearted nature of the piano writing was often punctuated with flippant

endings in the form of small codettas or coloristic chords. The last measures of the Valse (Example

12) interrupt the bal-musette accompaniment noted above with a flashy flourish of bare octaves.

Similarly flashy endings occur at the end of “Le Dromadaire” and “Enfant de Troupe.” His

propensity for flashy or enigmatic endings lasted through his second period.

Example 12: Valse, mm138–45

The set Cocardes merits particular attention, for Poulenc said that it “responds very directly

to the fairground [popular music] style hoped for by Cocteau. It is my most Les Six work.”22 It was

22 “répondait très exactement au style forain souhaité par Cocteau. C’est mon œuvre la plus Groupe des Six,” ibid., 66.

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immensely popular among members of Les Six, as Milhaud recollects: “We would coerce Poulenc

into playing his Cocardes every Saturday, which he would do with the utmost grace.”23 They are,

in fact, the only songs written to texts of Cocteau.24

Not only do the “accompaniments seem to emerge from the style of Mouvements

perpétuels,”25 but the piano parts are independent enough that they could easily stand alone as solo

works. The phrases of the vocal part are often short, emerging from melodies already established in

the piano. In the first song, the accompaniment is reminiscent of the style of Mouvement perpétuels

with its widely spaced voices and cellular repetitions (see Example 13). It could easily stand alone

23 Darius Milhaud, Notes sans Musique (Paris: R. Julliard, [1963]), 103–4. Daniel, 19, quotes a lengthy description of Saturday “soirées” enjoyed by members of Les Nouveaux Jeunes, a more informal and wider group, including performers, painters, and writers, than what was later dubbed Les Six. He makes particular mention of the popular entertainment they frequented.

24 Poulenc actually set other texts of Cocteau to music; these, with the exception of the very early chanson “Toréador” were operas and melodramas.

25 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 254.

Example 13: Cocardes, “Miel de Narbonne,” mm10–13

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without the voice, whose fragments of melody seem to emerge from the melodies and textures of

the piano. The piano frequently is responsible for introducing new themes before being joined by

the voice (e.g. I: m10, mm13–14, and m21; II: mm1–5, mm15–16, and m19) and providing

connecting material between small vocal fragments (I: mm3–7; III: mm3–5 and mm7–12). In fact,

in the entire first song, the voice only sings for twenty-one out of the thirty-four measures, and only

nineteen out of the forty-two measures in the second song. The dominance of the accompaniment,

its control over the flow of the music, and the great dependence of the vocal line on it, suggest that

the piano part was written first and the voice was added to it.

One reason the piano works and the songs from this earliest period do not differ much in

their compositional techniques is that the texts Poulenc chose from this time, typified by brevity,

irony, and light-heartedness, perfectly accorded with the aesthetic of Satie and the improvisational

nature of Poulenc’s keyboard writing. When later text choices would lead Poulenc to discover other

aesthetics and keyboard techniques, he never abandoned this early aesthetic entirely. Rather, he

was able to incorporate new modes of expression alongside his existing ones.


After these early works, the next pieces “attempt [a] greater depth and seriousness,”26 but

suffer from being too complicated and in a style that did not come naturally to Poulenc. These

pieces include Cinq Impromptus (FP 21, 1920–21) and Promenades (FP 24, 1921) for piano and

Cinq poèmes de Ronsard (FP 38, 1924–25) for voice. They are often unnecessarily complex

harmonically and employ what Daniel described as “contrived dissonance.”27

26 Ibid., 175. 27 Ibid., 255.

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When he began the Cinq Impromptus at the end of 1920, Poulenc was perhaps feeling a bit

pigeonholed by his aesthetical association with Les Six. Poulenc therefore began attempting works

that would establish him as more of a serious composer, using more sophisticated harmonic and

contrapuntal techniques. This was not easy for him, however, as he had never received any formal

training in composition. In the midst of writing the complex Promenades for Rubinstein, Poulenc


I am ‘suffering from an attack of Stravinsky-itis.’ … The CRAFTMANSHIP, that is what is admirable in Stravinsky. … For two days I have been immersed in Renard. The counterpoint is extraordinary. The secret is that [Stravinsky’s] contrapuntal writing is a superimposition of very apt ‘themes’ rather than the Wagnerian hair-splitting you find in Honegger.28

He felt further frustration with a set of four songs he was writing to the poetry of Max Jacob.

Numerous references in his correspondence refer to several major revisions before he finally

completed them, but just two years later, he announced: “I have burned them. It was a stray work

bogged down in polytonality and other idiocies.”29

In June 1921, Sergey Diaghilev was in attendance for the premiere of Les Mariés de la Tour

Eiffel, a joint work by members of Les Six. He was impressed enough by Poulenc’s contribution to

it that shortly thereafter, he approached Poulenc with a commission for a ballet.30 It was exactly at

this time that Poulenc began to be interested in studying composition more formally, and by

September of 1921 wrote to Charles Koechlin asking for lessons:

Circumstances… have prevented any sustained study until now. I have therefore been obeying my instinct rather than my intelligence. I have had enough of this now and wish to put myself very seriously in your hands. I hope that you will accept a pupil as self-educated

28 Letter to Paul Collaer, 12 July 1921; Francis Poulenc: “Echo and Source:” Selected Correspondence 1915–1963, trans. and ed. Sidney Buckland (London: Victor Gollancz, 1991), 39–40.

29 Poulenc: “Je les ai brûlés. C’était une œuvre d’égaré dans la polytonalité et autres conneries;” Letter to Ernest Ansermet, Francis Poulenc: Correspondance, 1910–1963, ed. Myriam Chimènes ([Paris]: Fayard, 1994), 210.

30 The first written mention of the ballet that became Les Biches was in a letter to Poulenc from Diaghilev on November 15, 1921. The two must have discussed the possibility in person, for Diaghilev wrote, “This ballet interests me greatly and the details that you give me on the subject seem very amusing;” Correspondence (Buckland), 42–43.

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as myself and that my ignorance will not repel you. With your help I would like to become a musician.31

The composition lessons finally commenced in November of that year. While Les Biches was

completed by 1923, the lessons continued sporadically until March 1925.32 By then, Poulenc was

ready to turn away from this complex style toward his more natural inclinations.

The Cinq Impromptus were written over a six month period, from September 1920 to March

1921.33 The title Impromptus is ironic because the work is the most studied—seemingly the least

improvised—of all his works thus far. The writing in these pieces seems to be an extreme,

conscious rejection of the aesthetic of simplicity and lightness that had pervaded his earliest works;

they were, instead, “overly chromatic, dissonant for dissonance sake, in short, experimental.”34 The

score indications, such as “très agité” (I), “brusque – presser” (II), and “violent” (IV) along with

frequent indications of fff are a far cry from his earlier markings, such as “doucement timbré” and

“indifférent” (Mouvements perpétuels, I and II).

Passages of extreme chromaticism (Example 14) contrast with the simplicity and banality of

the early works. He is also extremely specific about dynamic markings: in just twenty-seven

31 Letter to Charles Koechlin, September 1921; Correspondence (Buckland), 42. Orledge (in Sidney Buckland and Myriam Chimènes, eds., Francis Poulenc: Music, Art, and Literature (Aldershot; Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1999), 13) speculates that Poulenc began lessons with Koechlin because he was planning to write Les Biches and felt he needed more training first.

32 Orledge, in Buckland, ed., Music, Art, Literature, 12, 28. 33 They were published as a group of six pieces in 1922, but a revision in 1924 resulted in the addition of one

newly composed impromptu (the third) and the deletion of two others.

Example 14: Cinq Impromptus, I, mm12–13

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measures of music (II: mm19–46), he employs sixty-seven separate dynamic instructions (Example

15), compared to just three dynamic indications in the last forty-eight measures of the Valse, written

just two years earlier. The fifth movement is a slow, somber dirge; both the slow pace and the left

hand ostinato pattern (mm1–10) are reminiscent of “Le Dromadaire” from Le Bestiaire. However,

the impromptu is darker than the song and utilizes a lower range of the piano. The coda slows and

fades to a piccardy third, compared to the song’s light-hearted tag that negates all its matter-of-fact


There are wisps of lighter qualities in this set, however. The second piece begins much

more in the popular vein of a street waltz (mm1–8), but employs bitonality in the return of the

theme (mm61–68); the right hand melody is dropped by a half-step for the return. The most typical

Poulenc movement is the third, with the jazzy feel of a cakewalk, and two measures (mm18–19) of

inexplicable lyricism that contrast sharply with the surrounding measures. It is probably not a

coincidence that this more light-hearted impromptu was written later than the rest, in 1924, toward

the end of this experimental period.

The set Promenades, a set of ten pieces, each a portrayal of a different means of

transportation (“À pied,” “En auto,” “À cheval,” etc.) were written during the summer of 1921.

They were received very well by the critic Jean Marnold: “The abundance of inspiration, the variety

34 Nelson, “Piano Music,” 31.

Example 15: Cinq Impromptus, II, mm43–46

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of rhythm, and the casual originality—all deeply personal—are quite simply stunning. In truth, it is

the work of a master.”35 Yet they are probably his most chromatic and rhythmically complex work,

with a more sophisticated structure than any other piano piece thus far. He described his intention


As for Promenades, here is how I have resolved the problem of short pieces. The plan is this: Prelude. 10 Promenades. Finale.36 I view the 10 promenades as 10 variations on 10 different themes (one for each promenade). The special technique used for each number will create in the end a sort of trompe-l’oreille [aural illusion] given that there will be one in thirds, another in repeated octaves, and so on. In this way I shall achieve a semblance of unity.37

Melodies, when they exist at all, are extremely chromatic (Example 16) and sometimes

subsumed by chromatic washes (portions of II) and bitonality. All but two of the pieces completely

defy key signatures. In one remarkable passage (for Poulenc) in the fifth piece, the hands are

35 Jean Marnold: “L’abondance d’inspiration, la variété de rythme, l’originalité désinvolte, au maxime degré personnelle, sont tout bonnement étonnantes. En vérité, c’est une œuvre de maître;” quoted in Schmidt, Catalogue, 79.

36 The prelude and finale were eventually dropped.

Example 16: Promenades, “À pied,” mm25–33

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notated in different time signatures simultaneously. Only two of the pieces, III and VIII, are more

typical of later Poulenc; the eighth, “En chemin de fer,” is in Poulenc’s trademark easy-going, calm

C major with Alberti bass, and even employs the tonic minor in its B section, just as the first

movement of his Suite in C does. One indication of Poulenc’s later dissatisfaction with both of

these sets is that he revised them later in life: the Impromptus in 1939 and the Promenades in


The first set of songs written after his study with Koechlin, and in fact the first since

Cocardes in 1919, were the Poèmes de Ronsard (1924–25). In these works, we can find much that

hints at the changes Poulenc’s style was to later undergo. For example, the relation of the voice and

piano is more independent and complementary, with the piano enjoying true introductions,

interludes, and codas. The pianist’s four introductory measures in the first song, “Attributs,” have

the same function and very similar mood as the first four measures of “Air Vif,” from Airs chantés

(1927–28) The lyricism at “mais les soucis et les pleurs” in “Attributs” and throughout “Le

Tombeau” (Example 17) prefigures the lyricism of some of his later writing, the latter even of “Tu

vois le feu du soir” (1938) with its widely spaced bass and melody, the vocal line doubled in the

37 Letter to Paul Collaer, 12 July 1921; Correspondence (Buckland), 39–40. 38 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 175.

Example 17: Poèmes de Ronsard, “Le Tombeau,” mm11–12

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right hand, and gently syncopated accompanying chords. The rich harmonies and certain harmonic

progressions also hint at the mature Poulenc’s style, while the litany of “dé-“ words (“décharné,

dénervé, démusclé, dépoulpé”) anticipates Poulenc’s fascination with the litanies of Éluard.

Poulenc’s most free writing can be found in “À son page,” a drinking song that anticipates

“Couplets Bachiques” from Chansons gaillardes (1925–26), with its mostly four-square phrases

and joyous, highly pianistic, coda.

Poulenc was initially pleased with the work, writing of the premiere:

They have even pronounced for the first time since judging my music the words “magnificent” and “very moving,” for the fourth song (“Je n’ai plus que les os”). These adjectives, replacing “charming” and “delicious,” surprise me a little. I wasn’t trying to be such a big shot.39

However, he later claimed the set was written “with all possible negligence, except, thank God, that

of prosody.”40 Bernac blamed both Poulenc’s counterpoint studies with Koechlin that led to a less

spontaneous, more complicated style and his lack of an affinity with classical poetry for the failure

of the work.41

Two additional movements, not published until 1925, must be considered part of Poulenc’s

first period. The first two movements of Napoli (FP 40) were both written in 1922, before the

Ronsard settings. Daniel deems this work “as unsuccessful as the works which immediately

preceded it,” due mainly to its vaguely impressionistic second movement, “Nocturne,” employing

39 Poulenc: “On a même prononcé pour la première fois depuis qu’on juge ma musique les mots magnifique, très émouvant, pour la 4e mélodie (‘Je n’ai plus que les os’). Ces adjectifs remplaçant charmant, délicieux, m’étonnent un peu. Je ne pensais pas avoir pété si haut;” in a letter to Georges Auric, “Dimanche” [March 15, 1925]; Correspondance (Chimènes), 251.

40 “avec toutes les négligences possibles sauf, Dieu merci, de prosodie,” Poulenc, Journal, 15. 41 Pierre Bernac, Francis Poulenc, the Man and His Songs, trans. Winifred Radford (New York: Norton, 1977),


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unnecessary dissonance.42 Years later, Poulenc asserted, “I condemn without reprieve the


When considered in the context of his entire career, the works from this period must be

considered experimental. Poulenc may have felt that his association with Satie and Les Six was too

restricting on his future prospects as a serious composer and desired to explore a more studied

approach to composition. In doing so, both he and Koechlin seemed to discover that his true calling

as a composer lay in other directions: as Koechlin wrote to him in August 1924, praising the

melodies and charming harmonies of Les Biches, “You are right to write music that sings; that is the

essential thing.”44 With few exceptions, Poulenc rarely returned to such a needlessly complex


42 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 176. 43 Poulenc, Entretiens, 49. 44 Koechlin: “Vous avez raison de faire de la musique qui chante, c’est l’essentiel;” Correspondance

(Chimènes), 234.

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Stylistic Trends

After Poulenc’s period of study with Koechlin and the unusually complex and difficult

pieces of 1921–25, he returned to a generally simpler aesthetic, in which his earlier self-

consciousness is replaced with a greater self-assurance as a composer. Poulenc’s great facility for

piano composition is demonstrated by the sheer number of piano works he wrote between 1925 and

1936: he wrote more works in this period alone than from all his other periods combined. It is

during this time that his pianistic style began to diverge from the style of the songs, and this is

mostly due to the highly idiomatic nature of his solo piano writing noted in Chapter 2. Both the

piano accompaniments in the songs and the first piano works of this period employ a great variety

of textures and figurations with real musical interest, but later piano works often descend into

showy, but musically empty, pianistic patterns. The songs from this time do not suffer this

problem, however: with few exceptions, such as the intentionally banal Airs chantés, these years

show a more self-assured composer who is establishing techniques for dealing with a wide variety

of poetic moods and styles.

While this period is characterized by great uncertainty and experimentation, one can trace

the development of a recognizable Poulenc style beginning with the first set of songs of the second

period, Chansons gaillardes. The works from this period are sometimes called neoclassical, and

indeed, some include features that are similar to Stravinsky’s neoclassical works from

approximately the same time, such as a general clarity of texture, classical conception of structure

(including antecedent/consequent phrasal pairs), use of ostinato rhythmic and melodic devices, and

modest forms and forces. However, Daniel asserts that Poulenc’s neoclassicism is “less synthetic,

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less abstract, and less objective” than that of Stravinsky.1 Furthermore, the rich harmonic language

Poulenc developed, typified by frequent use of extended tertian chords and frequent and sudden

modulations to unrelated key areas, cannot properly be considered neoclassical, but rather unique to


Phrasal structures followed the tendency toward simplicity and clarity, with symmetrical

antecedent-consequent patterns common. However, Poulenc often avoided predictable patterns

through a slight metrical shift or disruption, the rhythmic equivalent of “wrong-note” dissonance.

Thus, an antecedent phrase of eight measures might be followed by a similar consequent phrase that

is shortened or lengthened by an entire measure or just a single beat. This disruption foils the

listener’s metrical expectations, and the result is slightly surprising and occasionally seems


Given the amount of music that Poulenc wrote in a short period of time, it should not be

surprising that some motives often recur in a number of works. These include certain formulaic

melodic patterns, customary modulations and their preparations, chord progressions with distinctive

use of extensions of the ninth and thirteenth, and specific pianistic textures. Often an entire passage

of a work bears strong resemblance to an earlier work. What is most interesting about this is that

most often, when Poulenc borrowed from himself, he borrowed motives from the songs for use in

the piano works, and only rarely vice-versa.

It is clear from the emergence of a recognizable “Poulenc sound” that he became much more

confident as a composer. However, the many compositional advances of this period are marred by

occasional missteps in both piano works and songs.

1 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 96.

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The third movement of Napoli (of which the first two movements were composed in 1922

and discussed above) is the first work to be considered part of his second period. Poulenc wrote of

his satisfaction with the movement in September 1925:

I finished a long piano piece, Caprice italien, in the genre of the Bourrée fantasque [of Chabrier]. I’m rather pleased with it. I believe in any case that it has a nice effect, for I played it to Lucien [Daudet], who cried out: what development, what blossoming!! I hope he’s not misleading me.2

Gone is most of the heavy dissonance of his experimental works; the piano writing here is

clearer and more brilliant than the preceding works. At just over five minutes and 336 measures

long, it is his longest single movement for piano thus far—longer, in fact, than the first two

movements combined. His experience writing the larger forms required for Les Biches no doubt

enabled Poulenc to overcome the inherent structural problems associated with his earlier cellular-

type writing. Comprised of a rather unusual ABC structure, the work is highly sectional and

employs a sequence of themes with brief reprises of earlier themes. While most of the B section is

on the whole more lyrical (a strain of lyricism that was hinted at in the Poèmes de Ronsard), the

facility of piano figuration increasingly dominates the remainder of the piece.

Shortly after this work, Poulenc composed the cycle Chansons gaillardes (FP 42, 1925–26),

his first truly successful songs originally for voice and piano.3 As is the case with his other most

successful pieces, this cycle represents a synthesis of experiments from earlier works. This set

incorporates the clarity and simplicity of Le Bestiaire; the pianistic facility and variety of “Caprice

2 Poulenc: “J’ai terminé un long morceau de piano, Caprice italien, dans le genre de la Bourrée fantasque. J’en suis assez content. Je crois en tout cas qu’il fait pas mal d’effet car, par expérience, je l’ai joué à Lucien qui a poussé de grands cris en disant: Quelle évolution, quel épanouissement!!! J’espère qu’il ne se trompe pas;” letter to Valentine Hugo [September 25, 1925]; Correspondance (Chimènes), 263–64.

3 The earlier Le Bestiaire and Cocardes were originally written for voice and chamber ensemble.

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Italien;” and the lyricism, fast/slow/fast ordering, and pianistic introductions, interludes, and

postludes of the Ronsard songs.

Poulenc chose the text for the eight songs from two collections of anonymous poetry from

the eighteenth century.4 They range from mischievous to bawdy, and sometimes the text is quite

innocent on the surface, but hides a “scandalous double-meaning.”5 According to Bernac, Poulenc

“detested smutty stories but liked obscenity;”6 Poulenc himself explained that he chose the texts

because he “needs a little musical vulgarity just like a plant needs compost.”7

The songs capture a true spontaneity of expression, ranging from whimsical, light-hearted

songs to more serious ones. They are organized according to a careful alternation of fast and slow

tempos, indicative of Poulenc’s attention to the overall effect of the piece through contrasts from

one song to the next.

This is the first set of songs that employs extensive text repetition, a device clearly required

in order to create larger forms, given the rapid delivery of these relatively brief poems. Earlier song

sets had either been limited in length by short poems (such as Le Bestiaire), or achieved greater

length using longer poems (such as Poèmes de Ronsard). These are the first successful songs to

achieve satisfactory length through text repetition, and this is another sign of the composer’s greater


Most impressive is how comfortable Poulenc seems writing for the piano in a wide variety

of tempos, moods, and modes of expression. For example, in the faster songs, the piano has some

4 The score mistakenly identifies the texts as all being from the seventeenth century, but Schmidt (Catalogue, 87, 125) clarifies that the sources were published in the eighteenth century. Poulenc had earlier set a poem from one of these sources as Chanson à boire (FP 31, 1922), for the Harvard Glee Club.

5 Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 213. 6 Ibid. Bernac premiered this cycle with Poulenc in 1926, but it was ten years before they would work together

again and form a recital partnership. 7 “J’ai besoin d’une certaine vulgarité musicale comme une plante recherche le terreau,” Poulenc, “Mes

maîtres,” 526.

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quite difficult, at times virtuosic, writing, but the voice and piano are well integrated: the piano

figurations in the brief introductions and interludes connect naturally with the vocal entrances, and

the voice part no longer seems conceived as an afterthought, as it does in his earliest songs.

Poulenc felt the piano part was very well written,8 and it is clearly “far more intricate [and] well

constructed” than his earlier song efforts, yet still “idiomatically pianistic.”9

The most pianistic songs are the fast ones, particularly the virtuosic third song, “Madrigal.”

It is Poulenc’s first example of a patter song, a style he was to use in many later songs and

analogously in later piano works. The fifth song, “Couplets bachiques,” has the most brilliant piano

figuration: virtuosic, but idiomatically written so that it lies well in the hand. The seventh, “La belle

jeunesse,” is likewise pianistic.

The light-hearted spirit of the fast songs is enhanced by some metrical playfulness that shifts

what might otherwise be rather predictable antecedent-consequent phrasal pairs. For example, in

the first song, “La maîtresse volage,” the eight-measure piano introduction, with its pair of balanced

phrases, establishes a context of four-measure phrasal pairs. The first antecedent vocal phrase (“Ma

maîtresse est volage, mon rival est heureux,” continues this pattern of four measures, but the

consequent phrase (“s’il a son pucelage, c’est qu’elle en avait deux”) is shortened by one beat to the

equivalent of three-and-a-half measures (Example 18). This metric shift underscores the punch line

of the text by making the off-balance music match the bawdiness of the text. The seventh song also

employs metric shifts to keep the music lively (this time through the addition of beats to both the

four-measure introduction and the first four-measure vocal phrase). The third song, however,

employs much more straightforward phrasing; its forty measures consist neatly of five pairs of

8 “Les accompagnements sont très difficile mais bien écrits, je crois,” Poulenc, Journal, 16. 9 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 256.

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balanced phrases. This is due to the fact that the entire poem sets up the punch line that occurs in

the final two lines of text.

The slow songs all employ some degree of modality, including modal mixtures. The use of

modality is somewhat unusual for Poulenc’s style, but here can be understood as suggestive of the

antiquity of the texts. The songs also utilize a great deal of vocal doubling in the piano, but unlike

in the earliest works, the piano writing here switches easily between doubling the voice and more

independent contrapuntal melodic lines.

While the most scandalous hidden meanings are found in the slower fourth, sixth, and eighth

songs, they are masked and counterbalanced by the most serious musical styles of the set. Further,

while the songs contain suggestive figures that could easily become too demonstrative for good

taste, such as the sigh motive of the sixth (“Ha!” mm28) and the upward portamenti of the eighth

(mm39–43), both Poulenc and Bernac warn the singer against overdoing such things to the point of

Example 18: Chansons gaillardes, “La Maîtresse volage,” mm9–16

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vulgarity. This is a further reflection of Poulenc’s desire to make the “audacity of language

acceptable” in a concert hall.10

The last song, “Sérénade,” is the earliest example of Poulenc’s nascent lyrical side; one clue

is the score indication for the voice, “doux mais très chanté.” Another feature is the flowing 6/8

rhythm in the piano, which, along with occasional countermelodies in the right hand, ensures an

even rhythmic flow for the piece (Example 19). This steadiness of rhythmic motion was to become

important throughout the rest of his second period.

Example 19: Chansons gaillardes, “Sérénade,” mm10–13

The next song Poulenc composed following Chansons gaillardes was the Vocalise-Étude

(FP 44, 1927). It is insignificant apart from the first appearance of a motive that recurs frequently

in later works, the most prominent of which is in the opening of his late-period Gloria (FP 177,

1959). It occurs several times in this vocalise (mm26–29, mm31–34, and mm70–74) and in the

“Pastorale” and “Hymne” of Trois pièces (FP 48, 1928) (see the melody of Example 20; compare

with Example 25, below).

Example 20: Vocalise, mm26–27, piano part only

10 Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 213.

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The next piece for piano was the Pastourelle (FP 45, 1927, transcribed in 1929), a

transcription of a movement from the 1927 collaborative ballet, L’Éventail de Jeanne.11 Despite the

fact that it was not originally written for the piano, Daniel claims that it is “the first piano work to

reveal Poulenc as a lightweight, but sincere, composer of lyrical salon music.”12 The music is

generally fresh and light-hearted; for example, the motion of the tenor line in mm1–4, as well as the

Bb-major-seventh harmony created by it, is suggestive of a popular flavor (Example 21). Metrical

shortening of antecedent-consequent phrases is also used effectively in this piece.

Example 21: Pastourelle, mm1–4

Poulenc “floundered in the [song] genre during the ensuing four years (1927–30),”13 an

observation which can be partly explained by his deliberate choice of bad poetry for the Airs

chantés (FP 46, 1927–28). The poems, which he called, “suitable for mutilation,”14 are by Jean

Moréas, a nineteenth-century poet who wrote in a classical style. Poulenc wrote in his Journal that

the third song, “Air Grave,” was “surely my worst mélodie” and that “this collection turned me off

writing mélodies for a long time. In short: a bad decision.”15 Despite his opinion of the work, and

11 Ten composers—Ravel, Ferroud, Ibert, Roland-Manuel, Delannoy, Roussel, Milhaud, Auric, and Schmitt—were asked to write a movement of three to five minutes for five strings, five winds, and one percussion player; Schmidt, Catalogue, 135–36.

12 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 176. 13 Ibid., 257. 14 “propices à la mutilation,” Poulenc, Journal, 16. 15 “…est sûrement ma plus mauvaise mélodie;” “Ce recueil m’a dégoûté d’écrire des mélodies pendant un long

temps. En bref: une mauvaise action,” ibid., 16.

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much to his chagrin, this set turned out to be quite popular. There are several possible reasons for

this: first, they stand nearly alone among his works written before 1931 in that they were written for

a soprano voice; second, the writing is outwardly quite vocal, along the lines of Chansons

gaillardes; and third, because “Poulenc, not having considered the words or the meaning of the

poem, has used his marvelous melodic gift.”16

The piano writing, though still pianistic, isn’t quite as successful as that of Chansons

gaillardes. Some awkwardness is evident in transitions between sections, and the voice and piano

are less consistently well integrated. In the first song, “Air romantique,” the nearly frantic

accompaniment (marked “extrêmement animé”) employs constant sixteenth-note motion that

creates a rhythmic foil for the more comfortable eighth-note motion of the voice. Poulenc

admonishes against the use of rubato in this song (“le tempo doit être implacable”17), even when the

energy is relaxed somewhat in the middle section of the ternary form (“respecter strictement le

mouvement métronomique”).

The second song, “Air champêtre,” is more bucolic, and uses metric shifts in the piano

introduction and interlude (mm29–32) that contribute to a light-hearted atmosphere. The third, “Air

grave,” is unusually clumsy for Poulenc; here the presence of a piano countermelody throughout

only contributes to an awkward vocal line. Its progressive tonality—beginning in F minor and

moving to A minor in the piano coda—is also unusual for Poulenc.

However, the accompaniment of the fourth song is well written for the piano; it could stand

quite well on its own, due to its nearly incessant doubling of the voice. A careful use of contrasts

throughout also contributes to its success. One such contrast is that of texture in adjacent phrases,

16 Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 204. 17 Poulenc, Journal, 16.

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such as the legato, p phrase in mm48–51 that is followed by a staccato, mf, left hand figure in

mm51–54 (Example 22). Another contrast is found in the melodic contour of the piano

introduction: the melody boldly begins with a leap of a fifth then meanders for a measure, before its

strongly directed sixteenth-note descent (Example 23). He frequently used this technique of

contrasting melodic construction later, as well (see the Quatre Poèmes d’Apollinaire, below).

Example 23: Airs chantés, “Air Vif,” mm1–4

After this decidedly mixed set, Poulenc did not write songs until 1931, apart from another

unsuccessful attempt at setting classical poetry: the Épitaphe (FP 55, 1930). This work is

remarkable only for a passage in the accompaniment employing octave tripling and requiring three

staves for its notation (mm9–13).

The next piano pieces are the two Novelettes (FP 47, 1927–28). They are the first piano

works following Chansons gaillardes to be written originally for piano, and these already show

some influence from the songs, particularly in their formal construction. However, they seem

derived from a more improvisational compositional method compared to the songs.

Example 22: Airs chantés, “Air Vif,” mm48–54

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The first Novelette, in C major, is a close cousin of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words

with its pastoral, tonal melody and flowing accompaniment sometimes mirroring the melody in

parallel sixths. Poulenc claimed that this key evoked “peaceful happiness” for him.18 He used it

quite commonly in his piano works: previously, in his Suite (1920), and later, for the first Nocturne,

the seventh Improvisation, and the Valse (from Album des Six). Since Poulenc seemingly found it a

convenient key for improvisation, it should not be surprising that C major is quite rare in the songs,

which were composed by a different method, in which he likely found it to be less evocative for

poetic expression.19

The first Novelette often employs diatonic extended-tertian chords, most often non-

functional seventh, ninth, or thirteenth chords (first used extensively in Chansons gaillardes). One

harmonic trademark, hinted at earlier in the third Impromptu (mm18–19), fully appears here for the

first time (Example 24). The motion of the tenor line—through the pitches C, B, Bb, and A—lends

18 Poulenc alludes to earlier pieces in C when he describes “Picasso,” from Le travail du peintre: “ut majeur ne veut plus dire bonheur paisible,” ibid., 58.

19 One notes the important exceptions of “Bonne journée” from Tel jour, telle nuit, and “Picasso” from Le travail du peintre.

Example 24: Novelette #1, mm29–36

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this work a similar popular flavor as that of the Pastourelle (Example 21, noted above), functioning

as a chromatically passing seventh tone (C major, first with a major seventh, then with a minor

seventh). Poulenc’s treatment of the device is typical in that the two successive phrases are nearly

identical except for the octave displacement of the melody. This same device, in the same tonality,

later appears in the “Pastorale” from Trois Pièces (mm20–23) and in the first Nocturne (mm71–74;

see Example 25).

Example 25: Nocturne #1, mm71-74

Balanced period phrasing is common in the first Novelette, just as in Chansons gaillardes.

The form is again ternary, and the A section seems fresh and spontaneous; the B section, however,

is less successful in that it seems more artificially contrived than spontaneously inspired. This is a

problem that would continue to plague parts of his piano pieces for most of his second period.

The second Novelette, on the other hand, shows a greater maturity, with writing that is

remarkably similar to “Madrigal,” from Chansons gaillardes: both are ternary with only an

abbreviated return to the opening theme and both are more through-composed than the first

Novelette, employing a progression of related themes. Poulenc seems content to place distinct

themes in succession without composed or developmental connections between phrases, especially

in the interior of the piece.

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It is specifically this construction of form that Poulenc seems to have learned from writing

his song accompaniments. In both “Madrigal” and the second Novelette, phrases are carefully

placed and contrasted to counterbalance the expression of the previous through melodic contour,

texture, and direction. The result is periodic phrasing with much greater coherence than he had

previously found, even in the first Novelette. One can see the immediate similarity between the

openings of the two works by comparing Example 26 and Example 27.20 Both are in a minor key,

and both are in a style that might be called “scampering.” The opening, antecedent phrases of each

20 One could equally well consider the four phrases commencing at the vocal entrance, which demonstrate the same features described for the given examples. It should also be noted that the third Improvisation, in B minor, opens with another very similar example, also in minor.

Example 26: Chansons gaillardes, “Madrigal,” mm1–16

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contain an upward flourish followed by a detached, descending contour. The following, consequent

phrases counterbalance the initial gestures by sweeping upward in a legato manner until the final

descent on a strong cadence. The next antecedent-consequent pairs begin with chromatic

meandering and close with another strong cadential figure. Thus, in both pieces the four phrases are

carefully ordered so as to create a unity and balance, contrasting by texture and melodic contour;

they would not, for example, proceed logically if placed in any other order. This is a more carefully

crafted structure of phrase than we saw in the earliest writing for the piano, in which the ordering of

phrases or ostinato patterns seemed at best arbitrary.

The Trois pièces of 1928 (FP 48, rev: 1953) are a strange mixture of styles, owing to the

large span of time over which they were composed. The pieces have their genesis in the three early,

unpublished Pastorales (FP 5, 1917) that were composed the year before Mouvements perpétuels.

The first piece retains the title “Pastorale,” and according to Poulenc, is “nearly identical to the

Example 27: Novelette #2, mm1–8

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original version.”21 Certain aspects are almost certainly from the 1928 revision, such as the

predominance of the C major and C major-seventh harmonies (Example 28). This use of these

harmonies with the passing B natural to B flat was observed in the first Novelette (Example 24,


Example 28: Trois pièces, “Pastorale,” mm16–20

The second piece, “Hymne,” was newly composed in 1928 and is strongly neoclassical with

its stately double-dotted figuration and ornate written-out ornamentation, which Poulenc said

resembled the harpsichord writing of Concert champêtre (FP 49, 1927–28).22 It prominently

features the motive that was earlier used in the Vocalise, but here the use is closer to the éclatant

style of the opening of the Gloria (see Example 29 and Gloria, mm1–4). Its harmonically unstable

middle section accelerates through a rapid progression of dense harmonies until its peak at m37,

where it begins a descent back to C major. The opening theme, in Eb, returns in the coda, but just

when it appears the final cadence will conclude in Eb, the harmony abruptly changes to G minor for

the final two measures.

21 “presque identique à la version originale,” Poulenc, Entretiens, 31. 22 “assez proche du Concert champêtre,” ibid., 31.

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Poulenc retained the opening and conclusion of the third pastorale for the brilliant

“Toccata,” which, true to its name, features all manner of pianistic figuration employing near-

constant use of sixteenth notes. “A pianistic showpiece with a certain amount of substance,”23 the

toccata’s figurations all fit easily within the hand, and it seems likely that Poulenc invented them

while improvising at the piano. The harmonic progression and symmetrical phrasing in mm39–42

(Example 30) are especially typical of later Poulenc. The melody begins in C major and then

sweeps into the lowered submediant, Ab. The antecedent is redeployed in sequence a step higher,

then winds its way back to the starting key of C major. The phrases also contain contrast of texture

and melodic contour: the four accented quarter notes are contrasted by a sweeping reply that ends

23 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 177.

Example 29: Trois pièces, “Hymne,” mm1–2

Example 30: Trois pièces, “Toccata,” mm39–42

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with signature appoggiaturas above the local tonic. The internal contrast is balanced by the

symmetry of the phrases. The mood of the quiet A minor passage (mm68–71) is strongly predictive

of his treatment of the same tonality in two works from thirty years later: the thirteenth

Improvisation and the middle section of the Intermezzo in Ab. The showy conclusion utilizes

alternation of the hands in a highly chromatic passage just before the final cadence, another feature

common in his second period piano works.

The following piano piece, Pièce brève sur le nom d'Albert Roussel, (FP 50, 1929), is from a

collection of works by eight composers, entitled Hommage à Albert Roussel. Poulenc’s

contribution, an attempt at a very free use of soggetto cavato, is again rather insignificant except for

several passages that are strikingly similar to other works from about the same time. The melody in

mm14–17 bears a strong resemblance to the opening of the first Nocturne (mm1–8), while the end,

with its single-note quasi-militaristic rhythmic theme is closely related to the coda figuration of the

Pastourelle (and also used at the end of the fourth Improvisation, 1932). Such passages of striking

similarity between pieces, common throughout this second period, are likely due to Poulenc’s

improvisational method of piano composition: motives and figures that were already “in his fingers”

were easily rediscovered and used again, either consciously or not.

The eight Nocturnes (FP 56) were written over a period of eight years, from 1930 to 1938.

Poulenc’s tendency toward abstract titles for his keyboard works is again in evidence here. The set

is uneven in quality, and Poulenc himself said he only cared for a few of them. Only the first was

written during 1930, and so the others, most of which were written in 1934, will be discussed

chronologically at the appropriate time.

The first Nocturne, in C major, is one of the best of the set. Here Poulenc affirms his

associations with this signature key, the peace and grace of this piece placing it alongside works

noted above (including the Suite, first Novelette, and seventh Improvisation). The harmonic

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language is generally pantonal, embracing diatonic seventh chords such as D minor-seventh and F

major-seventh, and only touching on a single accidental, F#, in the first ten measures. As in the first

Novelette, a constant stream of eighth notes creates a flowing style (the score contains the

instruction: “l’accompagnement très estompé et régulier”). As is becoming fairly common in his

piano writing by now, the climax at mm44–51 is achieved by a rapid progression of tonalities,

including a melody used in sequence that leaps into each new key (B major, G minor, and Bb

major; see Example 31). As if to balance out the turbulence of the previous measures, the following

four measures are notable for their static harmony and undirected melody in the left hand. This use

of adjacent contrasts shows Poulenc was paying more careful attention to the developmental flow

and overall effect of larger sections of music than in his earlier works.

Example 31: Nocturne #1, mm43–54

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1931: A Return to Song

In 1931, Poulenc again found success in the mélodie genre, composing three sets of songs in

this year alone. The first set was Trois poèmes de Louise Lalanne (FP 57, 1931), to poems that

were actually written by Marie Laurencin and Guillaume Apollinaire and published under a

pseudonym. Poulenc was likely amused when he learned of the deception from Marie Laurencin

after he completed the songs.24

The piano writing of the first two songs is closely related to the piano works from this time,

but the third song is in a remarkably different style; it is in fact the first example of a song in

Poulenc’s tender and lyrical vein,25 entirely without precedent among the earlier piano works. The

first, “Le présent,” is written entirely in a whirlwind of bare octaves split between the hands,

consciously borrowed from the final movement of Chopin’s Sonata in Bb minor. The piano and

voice are tied closely together, with all of the notes of the vocal line doubled within the

accompaniment (Example 32).

Example 32: Trois poèmes de Louise Lalanne, “Le présent,” mm29–33

The second song, “Chanson,” employs a series of disparate piano figures, similar to the

method used in the “Toccata.” It is complex, yet fleeting, with extreme chromaticism. Poulenc’s

24 Schmidt, Entrancing, 183. 25 Keith Daniel identifies six categories or styles into which most of his songs may be placed: “songs with a

popular flavor,” “simple, child-like songs,” “prayer-like songs,” “tender, lyrical songs,” “patter songs,” and “dramatic songs.” These categories are not mutually exclusive and some songs cannot be easily categorized, but these styles help us to understand and relate the many different faces of Poulenc. Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 250–51.

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penchant for using a chain of secondary dominant-function chords is demonstrated in mm15–18

(G#13, C#M7, F#7, BM7; see Example 33). These rich harmonies, placed among the sparser

textures surrounding them, give a fleeting wisp of popular flavor.

Example 33: Trois poèmes de Louise Lalanne, “Chanson,” mm15–18

The third song, “Hier,” while at times quite chromatic, is striking for its more relaxed feel

and gentler figuration following the first two fast songs. Bernac wrote:

This poem by Marie Laurencin, so tenderly nostalgic, is quite authentically and typically feminine, and it inspired Poulenc to compose a song which foreshadows the tender, lyrical vein in which he was to write his most beautiful songs.26

The opening accompanimental chords consist only of bare thirds, the repetition of which throughout

creates at once a feeling of stasis and movement. The piano once again frequently doubles the

voice (see Example 34), while the repeated chords create a flow of eighth notes, yet preserve the

slower harmonic motion. The tempo indicated here is 66 beats per minute; this tempo and the

26 Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 56.

Example 34: Trois poèmes de Louise Lalanne, “Hier,” mm7–10

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subdivision of the beat with repeated chords are very similar to third-period songs such as “Bleuet,”

“Montparnasse,” “Aux officiers de la garde blanche,” and other songs typical of Poulenc’s nostalgic

and melancholic style.

Due to the Parisian slang and gossipy references to people and places in the often frivolous

texts, the Quatre poèmes d’Apollinaire (FP 58, 1931) are as purely Parisian as his earlier Cocardes.

These songs are well written and clearly in the established second period style because of their

light-heartedness, semi-popular nature, and effective use of patterns and techniques only hinted at in

the first period.

Once again, the relationship between voice and piano is well balanced, through both

frequent doubling of the vocal line in the piano and a careful division of musical interest between

the two partners. There are no piano introductions to the faster songs; rather, the text seems to

initiate and guide the musical mood, and vocal phrases are judiciously connected with occasional,

brief interludes. In the slower second song, the melancholic mood is established by a sinuous piano

introduction that continues throughout, with the voice participating as a kind of obbligato line.

The accompaniments are consistently idiomatic for the piano, but are never unnecessarily

flashy, as were many of his solo piano works from this time. The accompaniment of each song is

quite distinct, and generally maintains the same pattern throughout: for example, the first uses a

barrel-organ accompaniment with octave melody notes, the second employs a slow melody (or

sometimes countermelody) woven in the right hand among syncopated accompanying chords, and

the third and fourth employ pervasive triplets and duples, respectively.

The first song, “L’Anguille,” is a valse-musette in which the piano and voice are closely

doubled. The barrel-organ style (Example 35), in which the waltz-type accompaniment is shared

between the hands and the melody is included with the right hand, is not new to Poulenc; it is the

same as he had earlier used in “Toréador” (1918) and the Valse (1919), and later used in a number

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of other songs evoking a popular style.27 The piano is particularly effective at connecting the

otherwise disjunct vocal phrases together. It is through-composed and ranges far afield tonally from

the opening C major, but unity is achieved by the recurrence of the opening piano gesture (with a

jarring cross-relation) and by the persistent sweeping waltz rhythm felt one beat per measure.

The second song, “Carte-Postale,” is in the style of a “popular song of the 1930s,”28 with a

more lyric intimacy achieved through the ever-present melody in the piano and the never-ceasing

flow of eighth notes. The accompaniment here again could easily stand on its own without the

voice. Intimacy is achieved through the flowing piano style and complete lack of dynamic contrast

(marked p throughout).

27 These include “Berceuse” from Cinq poèmes de Max Jacob (1931), “Voyage à Paris” from Banalités (1940), and “Le disparu” (1946).

28 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 258.

Example 35: Quatre poèmes d’Apollinaire, “L’Anguille,” mm68–74

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Example 36: Quatre poèmes d’Apollinaire, “Avant le Cinéma,” mm22–25

The last two songs of the set, “Avant le Cinéma” and “1904,” are patter songs, both marked

“très animé.” The former is in a rapid 12/8 with leaps in both piano and voice that propel the music

forward until a passage of sudden lyricism at “Aussi mon Dieu faut-il avoir du goût” (Example 36).

The last song also comes to an abrupt stop at the coda, suddenly “très lent” after a full measure of


Throughout the Quatre poèmes, the voice and piano are closely linked through near-constant

doubling and effective use of connecting material in the piano accompaniment. While the language

and Parisian nature of the poems are very similar to those of Cocardes, the popular music influence

here results in longer vocal phrases and more consistent figuration compared to the earlier set. In a

letter to his publisher, Poulenc placed these songs among Le Bestiaire, Cocardes, and Chansons

Gaillardes as his best mélodies thus far.29

Poulenc’s third set of songs written in 1931, the Cinq poèmes de Max Jacob, (FP 59), are

also in a semi-popular vein. The poems are surrealistic in their fleeting succession of images, often

caricatures taken from daily village life in Brittany, and their range of moods, from earthy and bitter

to simple and ordinary.

29 Letter to Paul Rouart, [March 27, 1931]; Correspondance (Chimènes), 337.

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Daniel believes that Jacob’s “juxtaposition of unrelated or remotely-related imagery…

represents a poetic counterpart of Poulenc’s additive, non-developmental style.”30 Both the poetry

and Poulenc’s music are “above all descriptive,”31 compared to what Daniel called Apollinaire’s

“evocative” style (or later, Éluard’s “psychological” style).32 Poulenc’s uncharacteristic tendency

toward text painting (for example, the use of bird song in “Chanson bretonne,” Example 37) results

in a set of songs that do not display the same consistency as the Apollinaire settings.

Example 37: Cinq poèmes de Max Jacob, “Chanson bretonne,” mm30–33

Despite the poetic differences, there are a number of similarities with the other songs of

1931. The beginning of the third song, “La petite servante,” employs the same rapid octave

figuration and tempo (both are designated as 152 beats per minute) as “Le Présent” (Trois poèmes

de Louise Lalanne). The Jacob setting, however, is much more dramatic in its use of different

textures and moods for various sections of the poem. The fourth, “Berceuse,” is set incongruously

as another valse-musette with a barrel-organ style accompaniment. It is similar to “L’Anguille”

30 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 34. 31 “avant tout descriptives,” Poulenc, Journal, 18. 32 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 259.

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(even employing a cross-relation similar to that in the recurring piano figure; see Example 38), but

with a much more tuneful melody, in the style of Edith Piaf.33 Poulenc described the irony:

Everything is topsy-turvy in the poem: the father is at mass, the mother in a tavern, a waltz rhythm takes the place of a cradle song. It is redolent of cider and the acrid smell of the thatched cottages.34

The first measures of the fifth song, “Souric et Mouric,” are very similar to the beginning of “Le

Présent,” using the same contour and modal mixture of major and minor third in the vocal motive

and similarly punctuating piano octave chords.

Despite many similarities with other songs from this time, the Jacob settings generally use a

wider range of figurations than the Apollinaire settings in attempting to depict the images of the

poetry and reflect its frequent sarcasm and irony. Ironically, the effect of this overtly programmatic

writing is similar to the principle of adjacent contrasts used so much in the abstract piano works.

Poulenc further explored the poetry of Max Jacob in his “cantate profane,” Le bal masqué

(FP 60, 1932), for baritone and a chamber ensemble that prominently included piano. Poulenc

transcribed two movements for piano solo: the “Intermède,” and the final movement, “Caprice.”

These are particularly interesting to examine in light of the fact that they are hybrid works, with

33 Well-known chanteuse to whom he dedicated his final Improvisation, “Hommage à Edith Piaf,” in 1959. 34 Poulenc, Diary, 29.

Example 38: Cinq poèmes de Max Jacob, “Berceuse,” mm19–22

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parts conceived programmatically with a vocal line and other parts strictly instrumental and

transcribed for the piano.

Though the pieces are transcriptions instead of originally piano solo works, the piano plays

such a prominent role in the original instrumentation that Poulenc’s transcription is not much

different from the original piano part in the ensemble. Further, most motives and figurations are

shared in the original instrumentation between the piano and other instruments; they are very

pianistic and seem to have been worked out at the piano. For example, in the passage shown in

Example 39, the two hands alternate between black and white keys in very pianistic manner.

Example 39: “Caprice (d’après la Finale du Bal Masqué),” mm23–24

Like the Apollinaire and Max Jacob sets from 1931, the music shows a popular music

influence. The “Caprice” is built sectionally, beginning with an extended instrumental-only

passage, marked “frénétique,” that consists of a series of recurring themes with colorful, constantly-

changing instrumentation. The opening theme resembles a catchy dance hall tune, but it is written

at a dizzying tempo, as if to underscore the surrealist images of Jacob’s poetry. Despite the

flashiness, the patterns always seem to lie well in the pianist’s hands (see Example 40). More dance

hall influence is seen at rehearsal 68, where the slower tempo and rhythm of a tango suddenly

appears. The final section, the only passage that originally included the singer, retains a popular

flair but is reflective of the rather violent poetic images. This work and the Cinq poèmes (above)

establish a distinct Max Jacob style for Poulenc: infused with popular music influence, but with a

biting, sarcastic quality and without any hint of the nostalgia of his Apollinaire style.

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1932–36: Virtuosic Piano Works

Poulenc did not write any more songs during the next three years. Daniel speculates that he

may have been engaged in a period of self-analysis, during which time he fell back upon forms that

he found innately easier to write.35 This may explain the predominance of piano works in the years

1932–34, many of which were rather artificial and overly pianistic. Many of them are short,

individual pieces that Poulenc wrote under pressure from his publisher, Jacques Lerolle,36 who was

anxious to sell his music; therefore, Poulenc may not have given these works much effort. This

period of self-analysis was eventually proven worthwhile, for the mature Poulenc style was to

emerge out of it, beginning in 1935. Some hints of this more serious style have already been

observed (see “Hier,” above), and a few more may be found even in the facile piano works of these

intervening years.

35 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 35. 36 Schmidt, Entrancing, 182.

Example 40: “Caprice (d’après la Finale du Bal Masqué),” mm82–39

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Returning to the happier semi-popular vein of the Apollinaire songs, Poulenc’s Valse-

improvisation sur le nom de Bach (FP 62, 1932) was a scandalous inclusion in a volume entitled

Hommage à J. S. Bach comprised of mostly serious works by the composers Roussel, Casella,

Malipiero, and Honegger.37 It uses a motive based on Bach’s name (spelled musically as Bb-A-C-

B-natural) to launch a valse-musette that Keith Daniel deemed “unusual and critically

unsuccessful.”38 The incongruously light-hearted style of Poulenc’s homage alongside the more

serious attempts of the other contributors (which included preludes, fugues, and a ricercare), no

doubt explains the critical disapproval of Poulenc’s effort. Absent this context, however, the work

stands as a fine example of Poulenc’s style and compositional procedures.

The piano writing in the Valse is considerably chromatic, yet manages to retain the popular

flavor struck at the outset. Inspired by the great master of counterpoint, Poulenc chose to subject

Bach’s name to a variety of motivic manipulations, including use of the B-A-C-H theme in

retrograde (Example 41).39 Despite these highly uncharacteristic procedures, Poulenc’s style is

nevertheless evident throughout.

Example 41: Valse-improvisation sur le nom de BACH, mm83–86

The tempo indication of the Valse, in a rare departure from his usual insistence on strictness

of tempo once it is set, directs the performer to “begin a little under tempo at the beginning and then

37 Schmidt, Catalogue, 198. 38 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 179. 39 Schmidt cites the use of the B-A-C-H motive in retrograde and in simultaneities in the coda as atypical;

Entrancing, 198.

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speed up progressively to the end.”40 This direction accords with the popular nature of the piece,

but is not to be found among the songs, which frequently admonish: “surtout, sans ralentir” or “sans

nuances et strictement au même mouvement.”41

The valse-musette texture is most closely related to that of “L’Anguille” (Quatre poèmes

d’Apollinaire), with its sinuous right-hand melody sounded in octaves against a barrel-organ style

accompaniment split between the hands. In the song, the left-hand bass notes are marked “sans

pédale” and “très sec et ponctué,” with indications for the melody in the right hand of the piano: “le

chant lié” and “avec douceur.” While these same indications are not specified in the Valse, the

writing is clearly analogous and care should be taken by the performer to apply the indications there

as well. The meticulous markings in his songs, compared to those in his piano works, are further

indication of the relative importance he attached to the two genres.

Compared to the songs, which most often contain a single style throughout, the Valse is an

admixture of various styles, yet it is in various interjections and interpolations that we can hear

snatches that seem to be borrowed from his song styles. For example, two eight-measure phrases in

the Valse (the first of which is shown in Example 42) are surprisingly diatonic and lyrical within the

more chromatic context; this is similar to the abrupt lyricism of the last vocal phrase of “Avant le

40 Score indication: “commencer un peu au dessous du mouvement puis presser progressivement jusqu’à la fin.”

41 Score indications from “L’Anguille” and “Carte-Postale” from Quatre poèmes d’Apollinaire.

Example 42: Valse-improvisation sur le nom de BACH, mm41–48

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Cinéma” (see Example 36, above). Likewise, the melody in mm107–112 of the Valse is strikingly

similar to the melodic line of “L’Anguille” at the text “Tout ce que nous ferons Dimanche.” The

brusqueness of the coda of the Valse is not new to this period, however; enigmatic endings were a

trademark of Poulenc’s, dating from his earliest compositions, and he used this technique

throughout his life in song and piano works alike.

Poulenc’s fifteen Improvisations were composed over a period of twenty-eight years, but

were published incrementally in collections beginning with the first six in 1933. He considered

these to be among his better piano works, saying, “I love very much my two collections of

Improvisations.”42 Poulenc was actually very skilled at improvisations, and would often sit at the

piano during social occasions and improvise for the entertainment of the guests. Two later works,

Les soirées de Nazelles and L’Histoire du Babar, both had their roots in sketches improvised for the

delight of others. It should not be surprising, then, that each of these Improvisations has a very

distinct character, often borrowing from styles of well-known composers, such as Debussy,

Schubert, Prokofiev, Chopin, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schumann.43 The improvisations are

“fresh and brief, uncluttered and simple; they possess the spontaneity associated with improvisation

at the keyboard.”44

Many employ a ternary form, typically with the B section strongly contrasting with the A.

Used extensively in the second period piano works, this form is found with much less frequency

among the mélodies, which tended to follow the flow of the poetry instead of imposing an arbitrary

musical form. Thus, in the piano works, there is much greater contrast between major sections than

42 “J’aime beaucoup mes deux recueils d’Improvisations,” Poulenc, Entretiens, 35. 43 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 179–82. 44 Ibid., 179.

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in the songs, which more often ended up in the same style throughout or in a phrase-by-phrase

progression of pianistic figures.

The first Improvisation is an example of such a ternary procedure. The nervous, rapid

figurations in the A section are voiced in a single line that is split between the hands for convenient

execution. This is followed by a more lyrical, chordal second theme beginning in m18, with a

return to the A material following in m42.

The second Improvisation begins simply, reminiscent of a Schubert waltz or piece from

Schumann’s Album for the Young, but as it develops, the harmonic language becomes richer,

employing frequent seventh chords, particularly Bb minor sevenths (Example 43).

Example 43: Improvisation #2, mm40–43

The Prokofiev-like march style of the third is similar to passages of the second Novelette and

“Madrigal” from Chansons gaillardes. Its opening melody, in fact, exactly mirrors the contour of

those discussed above (see Example 26 and Example 27, above), but the sharp, dry quality soon

cedes to a more lyrical section beginning in m7. The melodic contours in mm11–12 and 17–18

(chromatic descents followed by large leap up to an accented appoggiatura on the tonic note) are

exactly the same as used in numerous passages of the first Nocturne. This middle section also uses

rich tertian extensions supporting a particularly ingratiating melody. The march-like material

returns at m43 to complete the ternary form.

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The fourth again employs figuration split between the hands to facilitate execution of what

is the most “pianistic” improvisation of the set.45 The fifth is another exercise in constant sixteenth

note motion, with syncopated chords or single notes filling in the rhythmic gaps of the highly

chromatic melodic line. Its pervasive use of a rhythmic motive (eighth, sixteenth, sixteenth) is used

gracefully to achieve a pleasant melodic contour with hints of a popular flavor. The sixth

Improvisation again shares the same character as the second Novelette’s march-like middle section,

and also with the third movement of the Concerto for Two Pianos (FP 61, 1932), written just

months before. Analogous passages abound: mm25–30 corresponds to mm45–48 of the Novelette

and mm44–45 of the concerto, and mm5–8 corresponds to mm41–44 of the Novelette and mm40–

43 of the concerto (compare Example 44, Example 45, and Example 46).

The tuneful, seventh Improvisation, written a year after the first six, recalls the first

Novelette and first Nocturne in its gentle and peaceful use of C major. The buildup to a climax

45 Ibid., 180.

Example 44: Improvisation #6, mm5–8

Example 45: Novelette #2, mm41–44

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through mm25–30 uses the same kind of harmonic turbulence as mm44–51 of the Nocturne. It

returns to its opening subject at m34 and ends on a non-functional dominant C9 chord.

In general, there is little influence of his vocal style of writing on these first seven

Improvisations. Each is a remarkably well-developed miniature drawing from a wide range of

influences and styles, but also drawing on certain established techniques and figurations. The

remaining eight improvisations, written between 1934 and 1959, will be discussed below.

The next collection, Villageoises (FP 65, 1933), which Poulenc subtitled, “Petites Pièces

Enfantines,” is delightful and quite straightforward. However, even in this intentionally accessible

style, two interesting features should be mentioned. The third piece, “Rustique,” is in a fast, but

lyrical, 4/4 meter in Bb major. In a passage beginning at m11, the theme is stated consecutively in

Ab major, B major, and D major, before finally arriving at an F dominant-seventh chord (Example

47). The direct transposition of themes up by the interval of a minor third is one of Poulenc’s

favorite means of building harmonic tension from this time on. The fifth piece, “Petite Ronde,” is

notable for its sparse texture: a solo melodic line in the first eight measures, then over a drone bass

octave for the next eight, then stated in bare octaves. The simplicity of textures, harmonies, and

forms (occasionally sprinkled with “wrong-note” dissonance, as in the first, “Valse Tyrolienne,

Example 46: Concerto en ré mineur, III, mm40–43

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m31) hearkens back to his first period works, but may be indicative that Poulenc was looking for a

greater economy of means, one that he would begin to discover just two years later in his third


The final piano work from 1933 is Feuillets d’Album (FP 68). The set has a strange mixture

of titles (“Ariette,” “Rêve,” and “Gigue”) that seems to combine baroque keyboard suites and

nineteenth-century character pieces. While the first piece opens with an uncharacteristic canonic

device (which he was to use in the Cinq Poèmes d’Éluard, 1935, below) and the harmonies of the

second are remarkably non-functional, the set as a whole is otherwise rather nondescript.

The year 1934 was a prolific one for Poulenc, during which time he wrote only one set of

songs, Huit chansons polonaises (FP 69), but wrote thirteen piano works and little else. The piano

works include the eighth, ninth, and tenth Improvisations, a number of Nocturnes, two Intermezzi,

and a number of individual works. For all the compositional activity, however, viewed as a whole,

the results from this year are probably the least imaginative and innovative works of his career. It

should not be surprising, then, that there are many passages that seem derivative of other recent

attempts. His creative ambitions, as it turns out, were only in hibernation, preparing for renewed

emergence in the following year.

Example 47: Villageoises, “Rustique,” mm11–15

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The most interesting work from 1934 is the Huit chansons polonaises. He composed these

in the same manner as Ravel did his Cinq mélodies grecques: by writing accompaniments to pre-

existing melodies and texts. Poulenc wrote that he was fully cognizant of Ravel’s precedent and

dreaded “the ghost of an Athenian Chopin.”46 The piano writing in this set is notably different from

the previous song sets three years earlier. This may be due to the amount of time that had elapsed

since, but is more likely due to a forced new compositional approach. Instead of beginning the

compositional process of the songs with a careful attention to prosody, Poulenc was confronted with

pre-existing melodies and had nothing else to do but “‘improvise’ an accompaniment.”47 That this

process was not quite as simple as he stated is evidenced by the fact that he worked on them over a

span of four months, January through April of that year. Of prime importance to this study are the

brief connective pieces (introductions, interludes, and postludes) as well as the way he harmonized

the vocal line.

According to Daniel, there are two stylistic advances in this set. First, the piano parts “show

a noticeable improvement in technique, appropriateness, and interaction with the vocal line, over his

mélodies of 1931–32;” this is demonstrated most clearly in the introduction to the first song and the

fifth and sixth songs.48 There are interesting contrapuntal lines, such as the chromatic tenor line in

the third song, and creative turns of harmony, such as the passage in mm9–16 of the fifth, with its

indolence that is predictive of “Violon” from Fiançailles pour rire (1939).

The other innovation occurs in the last piece: Poulenc’s self-assuredness writing in a

“strongly dissonant, chromatic idiom; … here the style seems perfectly natural and not labored.”49

46 Poulenc, Journal, 19. 47 “Après tout, y avait-il autre chose à faire qu’à ‘improviser’ un accompagnement?” ibid. 48 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 35–36. 49 Ibid.

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The texture of this final song is quite sparse, like the “Petite Ronde” from Villageoises, but unlike

the primarily diatonic melody of the latter, the chromatic lines in “Jezioro” are profoundly

expressive of the text. Both the mood and the use of only a single piano staff in the accompaniment

are reminiscent of Ravel’s “À son âme.” Because of the careful counterpoint of the final piece, the

melodic line must remain above the countermelody in the piano, and so this set should not be sung

by men in octave transposition. It was, presumably, the Polish language and melodies—not a

condemnation of their quality—that prompted Bernac to omit this set from his list of “concert


This set “signaled an expansion of technique and a deepening of seriousness, without which

the Cinq poèmes de Paul Éluard (1935), the other significant solo vocal collection of the period,

would not have been possible.”51 It is notable that the greatest stylistic innovations in 1934

occurred in the only vocal work of the year, leading the way to his mélodies of 1935 and after, and

that the least interesting output of this year were the piano works, composition of which fell off

sharply beginning in 1935.

The Nocturnes written during this year—the fourth through the eighth—are of varying

quality. Of the five, four were given programmatic titles. The fourth, “Bal fantôme,” a haunting

Chopin-like mazurka, dates from March of 1934 and was clearly inspired by his simultaneous work

on the Huit chansons polonaises. The form and rhythmic quality are those of Chopin, but the rich

chromatic harmonies are purely Poulenc. The indolent figure at m26 is very similar to that used

later in “Violon.” The sixth Nocturne features some interesting chromatic figuration, especially in

50 Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 19. 51 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 35–36.

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the middle of the piece, but the musical material is not sufficient to sustain the work for its entire

duration, and the piece is not well integrated overall.

For the remaining works of this period, Poulenc seemed to fall back on his earlier, more

comfortable idioms. The scampering, minor mode of the eighth Improvisation is directly related to

that of “Madrigal” from Chansons gaillardes (1925–26) and others already mentioned. Fast tempos

with rapid sixteenth notes abound: “Presto possibile” (the ninth Improvisation and the “Presto in

Bb”), “Presto con fuoco” (first Intermezzo), and “Prestissimo molto staccato” (“Humoresque”). The

harmonic side-slipping that is so typical of his second period is evident in abundance, particularly

direct modulation by the restatement of a phrase up a minor third (for examples, see “Humoresque,”

mm49–60 and numerous passages in the first Intermezzo).

Harmonic interest in lyrical antecedent-consequent phrase pairs is also created by an escape

to a new tonality followed by a side-slipped return to the tonic. In a phrase of the “Presto in Bb”

exactly analogous to one from the 1928 “Toccata” (Example 30, above), Poulenc ends the

antecedent phrase in the lowered sub-mediant, but deftly manages to return to the tonic by the end

of the consequent phrase (Example 48). This presence of a chromatically sculpted melodic phrase

in the “Presto” stands out by way of contrast with the immediately surrounding measures, which

consist entirely of dazzling figuration.

Example 48: Presto in Bb, mm37–40

The example above is successful because it contains an interior balance (the use of

antecedent/consequent phrases) and employs brilliant figuration while avoiding banality. However,

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overall these pieces are less successful, not for a complete lack of melodic interest of the kind we

have come to expect from Poulenc, but rather because many of the contrasting phrases are not

sufficiently balanced or integrated. Forms that are constructed using only a succession of

contrasting phrases are not always capable of sustaining musical interest for these longer pieces.

An example of a passage that attempts at contrast, but instead seems strangely dissociated

from the surrounding phrases, can be found in the second Intermezzo (Example 49). Instead of

using his trademark elevation of harmony by the interval of a minor third, the relationship between

measures nine and ten is only a half-step. The harmonies follow the circle of fifths from E to A, D

and G, and then return to the home key again by the use of a half-step. This is the same procedure

of a harmonic progression leaping out of the key (most often by the interval of a third), then turning

a corner and returning, all within four measures. However, this half-step relationship provides no

common tones to ease the modulation, and instead of sounding fresh and surprising, seems to stand

out from its context.

An example of a successful piano work from 1934 is the Badinage (“banter, jesting talk”), a

pleasant trifle and the epitome of the lightness of his second period works. Its clear, transparent

texture is dominated by pleasant melodic lines and a strongly functional bass. The melodic

contours and frequent shifts of tonality are so typical of this period that they seem nearly formulaic,

yet somehow still enticing. The playful quality is emphasized by the brief coda: following an A

minor-ninth chord (functionally ii9), the harmonic motion is interrupted by an unrelated chromatic

Example 49: Intermezzo #2, mm9–12

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figure, before concluding with a final cadence (D major-ninth to G major + M7). The identical

chords and procedure were also used for the lightweight coda to the Humoresque (compare

Example 50 and Example 51). This frequent repetition of previously-used formulas and patterns

indicates that Poulenc’s creativity and innovation during this time had waned considerably.

Example 50: Badinage, mm45–51

Example 51: Humoresque, mm45–51

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While Poulenc was to discover a new, more serious style in the early part of 1935, two piano

works from after that time stylistically belong to his second period of piano works. The first, Suite

française (FP 80, 1935), like the song “A sa guitare” (FP 79, 1935), was derived from incidental

music to the play, “Margot,” and was originally written for chamber ensemble. The suite is based

on themes by the sixteenth-century French composer, Claude Gervaise, making it neoclassical in the

same way that Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite was based on themes by Pergolesi. Poulenc frequently

uses modes to suggest an earlier style, but other Poulencian signatures abound, however, in the

frequent use of seventh chords, occasional “wrong-note dissonance,” and the establishment, then

disruption, of predictable metric patterns. Of the seven movements, the first and fifth seem closest

to his piano style; the opening of the first bears a strong resemblance to the opening of the

Badinage—both in G major employing frequent major ninth intervals (Example 52 and Example


Example 52: Badinage, mm1–3

Example 53: Suite française, I, mm1–4

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The most extensive work of the second period, however, is Les soirées de Nazelles (FP 84),

considered by Daniel to be the “epitome of inconsequential salon music.”52 It is written in the

quintessential pianistic style of his second period, with its roots in improvisation and highly

pianistic figuration. Poulenc’s work on it spanned seven years, from 1930 to 1936, during which

nearly half of his entire piano output was written. Because the original 1930 sketches have not

survived, it is impossible to tell authoritatively what features date from the early sketches, and what

were added in the process of revising. However, the work is such a composite of various styles that

certain features clearly belong to the earlier and others to the later.

The genesis of the work is described by Poulenc in the preface:

The variations that form the center of this work were improvised at Nazelles during long country soirées when the composer played “portraits” with some friends grouped around the piano.

We hope that today, presented between a preamble and a finale, they will have the power to evoke this game played in a salon in the Touraine, as a window open to the night.53

Poulenc actually first wrote about the piece in an October 1930 letter, describing “a little folly in the

spirit of Couperin’s Folies françaises. Title: Le Carnaval de Nazelles. It consists of a series of

short, linked pieces inspired by some neighbors but given (mostly) abstract titles.”54

The friends depicted in the portraits are unidentified except for the dedicatee, his “Tante”

Liénard, who is portrayed in the eighth variation, “L’alerte vieillesse;” he later confessed that the

52 Ibid., 186. 53 “Les variations qui forment le centre de cette œuvre ont été improvisées à Nazelles au cours de longues

soirées de campagne où l’auteur jouait aux ‘portraits’ avec des amis groupés autour de son piano. Nous espérons aujourd’hui que, présentées entre un Préambule et un Final, elles auront le pouvoir d’évoquer ce jeu dans le cadre d’un salon tourangeau, une fenêtre ouverte sur la nuit,” Poulenc, preface to Soirées de Nazelles.

54 “une petite folie dans l’esprit des Folies françaises de Couperin. Titre: Le Carnaval de Nazelles. Il s’agit d’une série de courtes pièces enchaînées inspirées par des voisins mais pourvues (la plupart) d’un titre abstrait,” Poulenc, letter to Marie-Laure de Noailles, [October 1, 1930]; Correspondance (Chimènes), 327. Poulenc further gives the projected titles and order of movements: “Le contentement de soi,” “La joie de vivre,” “L’instinct,” “La suite dans les idées,” “Le comble de la distinction,” “Le charme voulu,” “Les points des suspension,” “Romance,” “Frissons,” “Nerfs,” “Soupirs,” and “L’alerte vieillesse,” preceded by an Overture and followed by a Final. Since no early sketches survive, it is impossible to tell exactly how these movements align with the final version, since several movement names were changed.

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first and last sections were intended as a self-portrait. He also spoke of the wealth of associations

with his childhood:

It sings of the banks of the Marne, dear to my childhood: Joinville with its open-air cafés, its frites, its phonos-volubilis, its boats of amorous couples; Campigny and its Island of Love, where I loved to stroll with Raymond Radiguet; and finally, Nogent, where I spent all of my childhood.55

The set begins with a Préambule, followed immediately by a Cadence written in the fantasy-

like harpsichord style of Couperin, then eight character variations, and ends with another Cadence

and the Final. In the final performing edition, Poulenc recommends omitting variations four

through six, thus omitting what are indeed the weakest variations and shortening the work

considerably. Still, the work is stylistically disconcerting, combining, as it does, eighteenth-century

harpsichord figuration, nineteenth-century romantic character piece techniques and harmonies, and

Poulenc’s own signature style—most evident in the outer movements.

In a rare departure for Poulenc, he expressly indicates the use of rubato: in the Préambule

(“à peine rubato”), the first variation (“Commencer très au-dessous du mouvement et exagérément

rubato jusqu’à A”), and again in the seventh variation (“rubato”). If the use of rubato is intended to

convey a feeling of improvisation, it is notable that he did not indicate this in his set of

Improvisations, which are marked with his much more frequent indications, “sans ralentir” and

“surtout sans ralentir.” Instead, the relative freedom of tempo that Poulenc permits in this set must

be intended to give the effect of the listener hearing a very private performance through “a window

opened to the night.”

Many of the character variations seem to borrow from works written earlier in his second

period: the first in his scampering minor-mode style of “Madrigal” or the second Novelette; the

55 “J’y chante les bords de la Marne, cher à mon enfance: Joinville avec ses guinguettes, ses frites, ses phonos-volubilis, ses barques pleines d’amoureux; Campigny et son île d’Amour, où j’aimais à flâner avec Raymond Radiguet; Nogent, enfin, où s’est passée toute mon enfance,” Poulenc, “Mes Maîtres,” 526.

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third, “La désinvolture et la discrétion,” reminiscent of the happy-go-lucky style of “La belle

jeunesse” as well as that of the “Humoresque” (1934); and the fourth, “La suite dans les idées,”

using stark double-dotted chords and harpsichord-like embellishments reminiscent of the Concert

champêtre and “Hymne.”

The seventh variation, “Le goût du malheur,” however, is in a starkly different style that

borrows instead from his third period. Since this title is not among those listed by Poulenc from the

original 1930 sketches, it is therefore likely that it was newly composed during his revisions in 1935

or 1936. The strong similarity between the first phrase of the variation and that of “Rôdeuse au

front de verre,” from Cinq poèmes d’Éluard (written early in 1935), would seem to confirm this.

Both passages employ a prolongation of the exact same harmony (ambiguously either Bb minor-

ninth or Gb major-eleven), essentially identical left-hand figures, the same repeated chords in the

right hand, and a melody outlining the same few pitches (see Example 54 and Example 55).

Example 54: Les soirées de Nazelles, Var. VII, mm2–5

Example 55: Cinq poèmes d’Éluard, “Rôdeuse au front de verre,” mm1–5

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The score indications of the seventh variation, such as “lent et mélancolique,” “le chant

doucement en dehors,” and “doux et clair (l’harmonie très estompée)” were last commonly used in

the first period, and would become important parts of his third period style. Unlike many of the

other movements, the seriousness of the style of this movement demands that rubato not be used, in

accordance with Poulenc’s demands for other pieces in this style.

From 1935 to 1939, Poulenc wrote very little piano music, turning his focus instead to

mélodies and choral music. He never again produced such an abundance of solo piano music.

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The three years prior to 1935 seem to have been a stagnant compositional period for

Poulenc. This is indicated by the abundance of facile piano works, the dearth of vocal works, and

the lack of any real stylistic innovation in any genre. However, a series of three events of profound

importance combined to rejuvenate his compositional development and spurred him to new and

renewed genres.

The first significant event was the formation of a recital-duo with baritone Pierre Bernac, the

inaugural concert of which was April 3, 1935.1 The two had partnered together for the premiere of

Chansons gaillardes in 1926, but did not collaborate again until the summer of 1934, when they

gave a concert of Debussy songs in Salzburg. Immediately after the concert, they decided to form a

recital partnership:

After the concert, we decided to collaborate in a regular fashion and to create, in short, a team similar to those that perform violin-piano sonatas, with the same concern for balance and stylistic preparation going into our interpretation of vocal music.2

This partnership lasted for the next twenty-five years, during which time Poulenc wrote about 90

songs especially for their recitals together.3 Poulenc said that it was through accompanying Bernac

that he learned about song writing, saying:

All of the evolution that took place in my mélodies was due to Bernac. Just as Viñes had revealed to me certain secrets of pianistic writing, Bernac showed me the possibilities of singing, and since singing is my greatest love, I need say no more as proof of my happiness during these years of collaboration.4

1 Schmidt, Entrancing, 208. 2 Bernac, quoted in Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 36. 3 Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 27. 4 Poulenc, quoted in Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 37.

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As Poulenc came to know Bernac’s unique voice better, he could tailor phrases according to

Bernac’s specific abilities, and he, in turn, provided trusted and immediate advice to Poulenc about

works newly completed or in progress. Poulenc wrote in his Journal of the difficult prosody of a

phrase in “Tu vois le feu du soir:”

I hesitated a lot over the prosody of “l’été qui la couvre de fruits.” The syllable té, very closed, is in general rather difficult to pronounce on a high note. This was, however, my first version to which, after many experiments, I returned, in agreement with Bernac.5

On another occasion, Poulenc played some songs he had just written for Bernac, to poems of Jean

Cocteau. Sensing his disappointment in them, Poulenc leapt to his feet and gleefully tossed the

manuscript into the fireplace, promising him a much better set instead. The promised set turned out

to be the masterful Tel jour, telle nuit.6

The recitals became important times for Poulenc and Bernac to experiment with the ordering

of songs, both within recital groupings, and the flow of the entire recital. Through these trials

Poulenc came to learn how best to pair and group songs “in a manner calculated to show them both

in the most favourable light. It is all a question of ‘the hanging,’ as essential in music as in

painting.”7 These issues were of utmost importance in the cycles, but also for some songs—

published separately or in pairs—that were intended since their conception to be grouped together

in recital. It was through this process that Poulenc developed what he called “tremplin,” or

“springboard,” songs: generally fast, sometimes quite violent or troubled, songs that stood in the

greatest possible contrast to those preceding and following, which were often slower and lyrical.

The recital partnership with Bernac led directly to the second event of supreme importance

in Poulenc’s development: “Bernac’s vocal style prompted me to seek, quite naturally, a lyric poet.

5 Poulenc, Diary, 47. 6 Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 98. 7 Poulenc, Diary, 79.

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I immediately thought of Paul Éluard.”8 Poulenc wrote his first Éluard settings, the Cinq poèmes

d’Éluard, in 1935 for the duo’s inaugural recital, followed by Tel jour, telle nuit, in 1937.

Poulenc recalled his first encounter with the poetry of Éluard:

I actually admired Éluard since the day I met him, in 1917,9 at Adrienne Monnier’s bookstore on the rue de l’Odéon. … I have to admit it: I had at once a weakness for Éluard.10

Unlike Breton and Aragon, whom he met on the same occasion, Éluard held special interest for

Poulenc as “the only surrealist who could tolerate music.”11 Éluard had not yet developed his

surrealist techniques when Poulenc first met him, however, and the volumes from which Poulenc

drew the poems for his first sets, À toute épreuve, and Les Yeux fertiles, were not published until

1930 and 1936, respectively.12

Poulenc seems to have contemplated musical settings of Éluard’s poetry before 1935, often

at the urging of Auric,13 but wasn’t able to find the appropriate style for it: “All of his work is

musical vibration. But how could I tackle such poems as a composer?”14 After Poulenc finally

discovered the musical key to setting his poetry, he was delighted that “at last I had found a lyric

poet, a poet of love, whether it be human love, or love of liberty.”15 In all, Poulenc was to write

thirty-four songs and several important choral works to the poetry of Éluard.

8 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 37. 9 Poulenc, whose memory for exact dates was not always perfect, gave the date as 1916 in his interview with

Stéphane Audel in 1963; Poulenc, Moi et mes amis, 131–32. 10 “J’admirais, en effet, Éluard depuis le jour où je l’ai connu, en 1917, chez Adrienne Monnier, dans sa

librairie de la rue de l’Odéon… Dois-je l’avouer: j’eus de suite un faible pour Éluard,” Poulenc, Entretiens, 93. 11 “le seul surréaliste qui tolérât la musique,” ibid., 93. 12 Schmidt, Catalogue, 236 and 265. 13 Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 93. 14 “Toute son œuvre est vibration musicale. Mais comment aborder ses poèmes en tant que compositeur?”

Poulenc, Entretiens, 93. 15 “Enfin, j’avais trouvé un poète lyrique, un poète de l’amour, qu’il s’agisse de l’amour humain, ou de celui de

la liberté,” ibid., 94.

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The third important event in Poulenc’s life occurred in August 1936, while on a working

vacation in Uzerche:

I asked [Bernac] to drive me in his car to Rocamadour, of which I had often heard my father speak. … I had just learned, a day or two before, of the tragic death of my colleague Pierre-Octave Ferroud. The atrocious extinction of this musician so full of vigour had left me stupefied. Pondering on the fragility of our human frame, the life of the spirit attracted me anew.

Rocamadour led me back to the faith of my childhood. This sanctuary, certainly the most ancient in France, had everything to subjugate me. Clinging in full sunlight to a vertiginous craggy rock, Rocamadour is a place of extraordinary peace, accentuated by the very limited number of tourists.

With a courtyard in front, pink with oleanders in tubs, a very simple chapel, half hollowed into the rock, shelters a miraculous figure of the Virgin, carved, according to tradition, in black wood by Saint Amadour, the little Zacchaeus of the gospel who had to climb a tree to see the Christ.

The evening of this same visit to Rocamadour, I began my Litanies à la Vierge Noire for women’s voices and organ. In this work I have tried to express the feeling of “peasant devotion” which had so strongly impressed me in that lofty place.16

This religious awakening had a profound effect upon Poulenc’s musical style. The most immediate

and significant musical result was a large body of religious choral music, beginning with his

Litanies à la vierge noire (FP 82, 1936), and spanning the entire last twenty-five years of his life.

Daniel asserts that it was his “renewed religious fervor” in the choral music of 1936 that paved the

way for his mature Éluard settings.17

The style required by a cappella voices was quite different from his primarily melodic-

harmonic interest seen in most of his works until this time. In writing for three, four, six, or eight

independent voices, Poulenc may have drawn on his early tutoring by Koechlin in his few

composition lessons, particularly some highly chromatic exercises in which he harmonized chorale

tunes. A more recent influence, however, was his study and delight in the “polyphonic marvels” of

16 Poulenc, quoted in Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 28-29. 17 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 264.

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some motets of Monteverdi.18 Also contrasting with his second period style, the importance and

functionality of the bass line is much diminished. The effect of this religious awakening was not

limited to the choral music, however, for “the gentle, tender mood, characteristic harmonies, and

oscillating chord patterns would make their way into other genres in which he composed after


During 1935 to 1939—this period of compositional discovery and renewal—Poulenc wrote

very little piano music. Instead, mélodies, a genre he mostly neglected in the previous three years,

and choral works were of greatest interest to him. It is during this time that he developed his true

“serious” style.

Toward an Éluard style

His first Éluard settings were the Cinq poèmes de Paul Éluard (FP 77, 1935). There is some

discrepancy in the literature about when Poulenc began these songs. Schmidt states: “In 1935

Poulenc came across A toute épreuve (1930), a small collection of poems printed on pink paper.

Encouraged by Auric, he chose five to set to music…”20 However, in July 1931, in the midst of a

renewed interest in mélodies, Poulenc mentioned a planned group of songs entitled, “5 Poèmes

d’Éluard,”21 but it is not known whether these were the same poems he later set. Since no further

mention of these projected settings was made again until 1935, we may surmise that Poulenc may

have chosen the poems for the set in 1931, but did not proceed with their composition until the

planned recital with Bernac.

18 “merveilles polyphoniques,” Poulenc, Entretiens, 98. 19 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 41. 20 Schmidt, Entrancing, 215. 21 Letter to Marie-Blanche de Polignac, [July, 1931]; Correspondance (Chimènes), 341.

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Poulenc felt that the poetry of Éluard required a new musical language from what he had

been accustomed. He wrote in his Journal:

Groping around in this work. Key turned in a lock. Attempt at giving the piano the maximum with the minimum of means. Much thought in composing these mélodies to an exhibition of drawings by Matisse for a book of Mallarmé, where one sees the same drawing in pencil, full of hatching, of repetitions and the final attempt having retained nothing but the most essential, in a single stroke of the pen… It’s the piano reduced to its essence, that’s all… I have sought for years the musical key to the poetry of Éluard.22

The Matisse drawings to which Poulenc referred were on exhibit in 1933; in viewing these

drawings, he realized that his “accompaniments had grown increasingly complex and were in

competition with the vocal line. Matisse’s working method obviously struck a nerve with Poulenc,

who realized that a less encumbered piano part for his mélodies was appropriate.”23

Taken as a whole, the set is considerably more chromatic and employs a wider range of

expression and figuration than the works from his second period. Still, evidence of Poulenc’s

attempt at an economy of musical material can be found, beginning with the first measures of the

first song, “Peut-il se reposer” (Example 56). The voice begins in unison with the bare piano

22 “Œuvre de tâtonnement. Clef tournée dans une serrure. Tentative pour faire rendre au piano le maximum avec le minimum de moyens. Beaucoup pensé en composant ces mélodies à une exposition de dessins de Matisse pour un livre de Mallarmé, où l’on voyait le même dessin, au crayon, plein de hachures, de redites et l’épreuve finale n’ayant retenu que l’essential, dans un seul jet de plume… C’est du piano décanté, voilà tout… J’avais cherché, des années, la clef musicale de la poésie d’Éluard,” Poulenc, Journal, 19–20.

23 Schmidt, in Buckland, Music, Art and Literature, 200 and 207.

Example 56: Cinq poèmes d’Éluard, “Peut-il se reposer,” mm1–3

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octaves, and in its second phrase establishes a brief canon with the piano’s single line. While this

texture is interrupted by a violent and dramatic middle section marked “Subito allegro molto,” the

first section’s figuration and tempo return for the last four measures of the song. Poulenc wrote that

he regretted burning the draft of this song; otherwise, he could show critics that the simple texture

had evolved from a complex one, just as in the exhibit of Matisse drawings.24

The extreme violence of the second song, “Il la prend dans ses bras,” stands in strong

contrast to the relative peace of the first and third songs; it is his first true bridge song. Poulenc

called it “horribly difficult,”25 because of its highly sectional progressions of figurations and sharp

contrasts of dynamics, but it paves the way for later settings of Éluard poems that consist of a

succession of images.

Poulenc considered the third and fourth songs, “Plume d’eau claire,” and “Rôdeuse au front

de verre,” the best of the set, saying that in these songs, “the musical key to the poetry of Éluard…

truly grinds in the lock for the first time.”26 The third is only nine measures long; its near-constant

sixteenth note motion and unified expression are the result of a single poetic image. The melodies,

in both the voice and piano, are quite chromatic, but have a lyrical sweep that avoids harshness (see

Example 57). For example, the ascending line at “Fraîcheur voilée de caresses” is chromatic, but

sweeps lyrically upward before resolving in a typical way with a 9-8 appoggiatura approached from

below. Similarly, the piano writing is highly chromatic, but the bass note motion is quite

functional, consisting predominantly of resolutions by a fifth. The first three measures of the vocal

line consist entirely of pitches of an octatonic scale, as do all of the notes of the piano part in the

third measure, apart from the use of the pitch G in the first beat. This usage is undoubtedly quite

24 Poulenc, Journal, 19–20. 25 Ibid., 20. 26 “la clef musicale de la poésie d’Éluard … grince vraiment pour la première fois dans la serrure,” ibid.

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accidental, since, with only few exceptions, Poulenc studiously avoided the use of serialism or

development based on pitch sets.27

In “Rôdeuse au front de verre,” the harmonies are quite static, generally changing at most

once per measure (see Example 55 in Chapter 4, above). There is pianistic support for the vocal

line throughout using countermelodies, creating “true chamber music with the piano and the voice

as equal partners.”28 The use of seventh and ninth chords shows that Poulenc did not abandon

elements of his established style in his attempt at a new musical language. Rather, the rather static

harmonies combine uniquely with suspended textures to create an intimate mood that simply does

not exist in his piano works from the second period.29

The fifth song is evocative of a street at night in Paris, with its fast waltz-like 9/8 meter and

chanson-style accompanimental figures. It is therefore closer to some of the settings of Apollinaire,

except for the more sweeping chromatic lines, such as at “pour dévêtir la nuit” (mm12–13). The

piano writing likewise goes beyond the language of Apollinaire in reaching a significant climax

(Example 58) with chordal writing that resembles that of Rachmaninoff. The final measures, “Mon

27 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 73. 28 Richard Berry, “Francis Poulenc’s Settings of Poems of Paul Éluard for Solo Voice and Piano: A Reflection

of French Artistic Moods from 1920 to 1960” (D.M.A. doc., University of Missouri, Kansas City, 1985), 65. 29 See comparison of Var. VII of Les soirées de Nazelles in Chap 4, above.

Example 57: Cinq poèmes d’Éluard, “Plume d’eau claire,” mm1–4

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amour, ton amour, ton amour, ton amour,” use “wrong-note” dissonances with intervals of minor-

ninths; Berry believes these no longer carry a mocking tone, and sees this as evidence of Poulenc’s

fully assimilated style.30 The present author, however, believes that these “wrong-note” intervals

convey a sarcastic tone to the repetition of “ton amour.” This is indicative that Poulenc is

continuing to draw upon earlier techniques for use alongside his newfound ones.

The Cinq Poèmes d’Éluard show the direction Poulenc was to follow with his later Éluard

settings, but the overall quality of the set is uneven. While some economies of musical material

were noted above, in other places, Poulenc does not seem to have restrained himself in terms of

texture, richness of figuration, or chromaticism. The lack of key signatures throughout, despite its

strong chromaticism, testifies to the highly fluid harmonic language of the set. However, there are

numerous examples of “circuitous melodic resolutions,” melodies that appear jagged or disjunct,

but are actually “quite lyrical because of the diatonic approach and resolution of the large leaps.”31

While the second song does act as a bridge between the first and third, the ordering of the songs is

30 Berry, “Francis Poulenc,” 66–67. 31 Ibid., 64.

Example 58: Cinq poèmes d’Éluard, “Amoureuses,” mm39–40

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not as carefully designed as in later sets; one hears five disparate songs instead of a unified whole.

Daniel writes:

These are difficult melodies: the struggle that Poulenc underwent to turn that key is evident. Both the melodic lines and the accompaniments lack the simplicity and purity which we associate with his mature songs; there is a great deal of disjunct writing and chromaticism. … These mélodies give a hint of the depth, power, and sensitivity that Poulenc was seeking in the song genre.32

Poulenc’s next settings of Éluard were not mélodies at all, but in fact the Sept chansons for

mixed chorus (FP 81, 1936), based on five poems by Éluard and two by Apollinaire. They are

notable for several reasons. First, the initial poem he set, “Belle et ressemblante,” was originally

intended as a solo song, but Poulenc found that his piano accompaniment writing made the poem

too heavy: “One poem, Belle et ressemblante, literally bewitched me. … I had first thought of

writing a mélodie, but an accompaniment in the piano could only weigh it down. I then had the idea

of writing it for a cappella voices, and that was the beginning of the Sept chansons.”33 Therefore, it

is clear that he had not yet found an appropriate style of piano writing to convey the expression of

the poetry. Second, the Sept chansons are relevant to the present study because of his use of some

devices in the songs from this work. Poulenc responded in similarly violent ways to the poetry at

the beginning of “Par une nuit nouvelle” and in various songs, including “Je nommerai ton front”

(Miroirs brûlants, FP 98, 1939). There is also remarkable similarity between the delicate music at

“Un visage semblable à tous les visages” in the fifth movement and the music for “Il est bien plus

petit / Que le petit oiseau du bout des branches” in “Tu vois le feu du soir” (also from Miroirs

brûlants). Finally, “Belle et ressemblante” is the first Éluard poem set by Poulenc that is truly a

32 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 264. 33 “Un poème, Belle et ressemblante, m’envoûtait littéralement… J’avais d’abord pensé en faire une mélodie,

mais l’accompagnement au piano ne pouvait que l’alourdir. J’eus l’idée alors de le faire chanter a cappella et ce fut le début des Sept chansons,” Poulenc, Entretiens, 99.

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litany of poetic images, with the recurring text, “Un visage,” providing poetic unity.34 Poulenc

responded musically by changing the texture of the voices with each poetic image, just as he

changed moods and figurations frequently in “Il la prend dans ses bras” (Cinq poèmes, above).

However, Poulenc’s eventual preferred solution to the difficulty of litanies of images was to provide

unity of texture instead. For all these reasons, the choral Sept chansons are important for

understanding Poulenc’s development of a serious, mature style.

Poulenc’s efforts in setting the poetry of Éluard finally came to fruition in the masterful

cycle Tel jour, telle nuit (FP 86, 1937) and the several Éluard works that followed. These songs

display the truly mature Poulenc style with “their controlled lyricism, their balance between voice

and piano, their clear yet varied moods, and their interpretation of the Éluard poems.”35 Bernac

called them “indisputably one of his greatest achievements in the domain of song,” while the critic

Roland Manuel compared them favorably with Winterreise and Dichterliebe.36 Throughout,

musical decisions seem to be tied much more closely to the text than ever before.

The nine songs are carefully ordered to create a truly cyclical work, using more subtlety of

contrast than the simplistic slow/fast alternation in the Chansons gaillardes. Bernac writes:

Poulenc says, ‘In my opinion a song in a cycle must have a colour and a special architecture.’ The value of each one depends on its place in the ensemble, on the song which precedes it and that which follows. In fact some of the songs are intended only to form a transition in order to heighten the effect of the following one. The first and the last are in the same key and in the same tempo, establishing the atmosphere of calm and serenity which imbues almost the whole of the cycle.37

34 The choral work that immediately followed, the Litanies à la vierge noir (FP 82, 1936), for three-part women’s chorus and organ, is another example of Poulenc’s interest in litanies.

35 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 264. 36 Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 97. 37 Ibid., 97–98.

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The first song, “Bonne journée,” uses the key of C major to evoke “une joie bien calme.”38

Éluard’s familiar device of a recurrent phrase appears with the three occurrences of “Bonne

journée,” set each time to the same musical figure employing a raised fourth that seems to suggest

optimism.39 The genius of the song is that while Poulenc maintains an accompanimental walking

figure (Example 59), lending unity to the song, the musical effect of the pattern is able to change to

supply the contrasts as needed by the poem. Steadiness of tempo is of the utmost importance to

provide the unity that Poulenc desired; even the final chord, a poignant Bb over the modally

ambiguous C chord lacking a third, is marked “laissez doucement vibrer; strictement en mesure.”

Example 59: Tel jour, telle nuit, “Bonne journée,” mm1–6

38 Poulenc, Journal, 22. Poulenc continues: “C’est si rare, si merveilleux, une bonne journée. Les belles journées sont tellement plus banales.”

39 This device is reminiscent of Fauré, whose music Poulenc avowedly detested. However, various authors have found more than a few instances of borrowing or influence from Fauré, some of which may have been quite conscious. Poulenc also specifically mentions “l’unité de la Bonne Chanson” as a model for his construction of the similar first and final songs of Tel jour, telle nuit; Journal, 21–22.

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Example 60: Tel jour, telle nuit, “Une ruine coquille vide,” mm24–29

The second song, “Une ruine coquille vide,” employs a layered piano texture throughout

(Example 60). The prolonged bass notes (marked “tenu”), along with the pedals (“Les deux pédales

presque tout au long de cette mélodie”), sustain the relatively slow harmonic rhythm, while short

tenor lines and occasionally longer upper lines provide countermelodies to the vocal line. Finally,

the eighth note composite rhythm is completed by the syncopated chords in the right hand (what

Poulenc refers to as “batteries”); these must be played without accent, as they serve to suspend the

harmonies and poetic atmosphere. The individual components of this layered texture (composite

eighth-note rhythm, use of syncopated chords, occasional countermelodies) are not new, but they

are here completely synthesized into an organic whole that entirely supports the mood of the text.

This is a common characteristic of Poulenc’s most mature piano style.

The fourth song, “Une roulotte couverte en tuiles,” like “Plume d’eau claire,” from Cinq

Poèmes, consists of only nine measures. In comparison to the earlier song, however, the text is

declaimed in an essentially recitativo style, while the piano chords are sinuous and sinister.

The sixth song, “Une herbe pauvre,” is quiet and slow, with quarter-note rhythm throughout

in both voice and piano. The writing here, for the first time, seems influenced by his choral writing

in several respects. The voicing of the chords in mm1–10 and mm17–24 carefully preserves

individual lines, even with the frequent voice crossings. They frequently lack strong bass

functionality, but instead employ “oscillating harmonies” seen commonly in his choral music,

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including the first movement of Sept chansons, 40 written only nine months earlier. In Example 61,

three distinct harmonies are used in the pattern: 1, 2, 3, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 1. In

attempting to follow Matisse’s example in simplifying the piano writing, Poulenc looked to his

choral writing for its distillation and purity of sound.

Example 61: Tel jour, telle nuit, “Une herbe pauvre,” mm1–6

By contrast, the seventh song, “Je n’ai envie que de t’aimer,” employs much more functional

and directed harmonies. The “très allant et très souple” 12/8 meter and short countermelodies in the

piano’s tenor line bear the faintest marks of a popular music influence. The fact that these features

never rise completely to the surface is an indication that Poulenc “was able to incorporate them into

his more mature style… even after his encounter with the poetry of Éluard.”41

The third, fifth, and eighth songs are all trampoline songs: generally much faster, less

melodic, and sometimes quite violent, they come between slower, more lyrical songs. There is also

a great deal of contrast within the songs, usually encompassing dynamics from pp to ff. The meter

is not strict, but flexibly changes to accommodate the text throughout the songs. These elements

imply that the declamation of the text is the driving force behind the music. The end of the fifth

song, fff chords marked “très violent,” is calculated to provide maximum contrast with the following

song, marked pp, “clair, doux et lent,” and “très humble” (Example 62). Likewise, the eighth song

40 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 210. 41 Berry, “Francis Poulenc,” 41.

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begins “presto (très violent)” with sharp, dry, repeated chords in the piano marked “très sec et

haletant.” The second half of the song is much slower and doleful, but ends ff, in a style Poulenc in

other places marked “éclatant” (Example 63). The figuration in these measures recalls the walking

figures of the first and prepares for the return of the same pattern in the following, final song.

Example 63: Tel jour, telle nuit, “Figure de force,” mm20–24

Example 62: Tel jour, telle nuit, “À toutes brides,” mm20–23

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“Nous avons fait la nuit” is the longest song of the cycle, beginning in C minor but finishing

in the sunny C major of the first song. The same walking, eighth-note rhythm of the first song

provides flowing motion to support the voice, the lyricism of which “is scarcely equaled in the

vocal literature of the twentieth century.”42 While the specific pianistic textures change

approximately every two poetic lines, according to the needs of the text (m5: “Je te soutiens;” m9:

“Sillons profonds;” m16: “Je ris encore;” m20: “Des fous que tu respectes;” etc.), the relentless

eighth-note rhythm never flags until the last measures of the piano coda. The piano doubles the

voice for the first fourteen measures, but beginning in m15, the piano is allowed more melodic

independence from the voice. It begins a countermelody that, despite occasionally rejoining the

vocal line, continues unbroken into the coda. This extended coda for the piano alone is

Schumannesque in its cyclicality, reminiscent of Dichterliebe or Frauenliebe und -leben. Mirroring

the ending of the first song, the final C chord here also includes Bb as the seventh. However, unlike

in the first song, where the ambiguous tonality implied a potential dominant functionality, this time

an Eb is supplied as the third of the chord to establish a minor-seventh harmony. Through such

frequent use of this harmony during his third period, Poulenc has succeeding in establishing it as a

stable harmony suggestive of tranquility and happiness, and as such is the perfect concluding

harmony for this cycle.

What makes Tel jour, telle nuit such a remarkable work is the carefully-crafted unifying

elements of the cycle. Poulenc chose and ordered the poetry so that the expression of Éluard’s

wonderful and varied poetry of love is heightened and enhanced by the music; there is therefore a

clear accumulation of meaning, both poetic and musical, as the work progresses. The contrasts

within and between songs support the overall conception of the cycle, showing that he had learned

42 Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 105.

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that even “poems of violence have their proper and effective place. It is by their very presence that

the love songs are made most effective.”43

Keith Daniel asserts that Tel jour, telle nuit “represents the full development of Poulenc’s

vocabulary as a song writer. For the remainder of his career, Poulenc’s song style changed little.”44

If his song style was to remain little changed, his piano style did not reflect this until three years

later, in 1940, when the first hints of this maturity would be seen in a solo piano work.

Full maturity after Tel jour

Following Tel jour, telle nuit until 1940, Poulenc focused almost exclusively on choral and

song composition, writing twenty-five songs and three major choral works. However, in several

ways, he seems to have changed his approach to mélodies. After his great success with the poetry

of Éluard, though, it is surprising that only three of his next twenty-five songs were to poems by

that poet. Instead, he returned to his other favorite poet, Apollinaire, and explored the poetry of a

new poet, Louise de Vilmorin. While most of his recent songs had been conceived for a man’s

voice, he now desired to write songs that were more “typically feminine.”45 Finally, after the great

achievement of a truly unified song cycle, this period is notable for his relative disinterest in

grouped songs or cycles: from 1937 to 1948, there are only six published groups of three or more

songs, compared with twenty-four individual or paired songs.

43 Berry, “Francis Poulenc,” 83. 44 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 266–67. 45 Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 129.

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Poulenc said he found it “very difficult to find gloriously feminine poetry,”46 and he was

very pleased to find it in the poetry of Louise de Vilmorin. Henri Hell, Poulenc’s first biographer,

describes her poetry thusly:

Charm where veiled eroticism plays a part. Transparent, easy, readily precious and capricious like embroidery: beneath the lightness of its style this audacious poetry is not without seriousness. Its elegance barely disguises a melancholy which is never renounced. And the shadow of death seems at times to caress her. This game of words that would be called nonchalant and facile knows the essential truths: Desire, pleasure, melancholy and love. The whole adorned with romantic grace.47

These qualities evoked from Poulenc a more “direct and emotional expression” compared to the

musical and textual complexity of his settings of Éluard and Apollinaire.48

Poulenc seems to have first encountered the poetry of Louise de Vilmorin at the home of his

friend, Marie-Blanche de Polignac. After reading the poem “Aux Officiers de la Garde Blanche,”

Poulenc wrote to Vilmorin and requested that she write additional poems for him to set to music;

she responded with the poems, “Le garçon de Liège” and “Eau-de-vie! Au delà!” The result was

Trois poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin (FP 91, 1937). The set is uneven, but the poetry, playful and

serious in turn, is enhanced by the variety and contrast of the music, from the unison piano

sixteenths of the first (reminiscent of “Le présent,” by another female poet, Marie Laurencin), to the

fleeting lightness of the second, and the “almost medieval austerity”49 of the repeated sixteenths and

bare octaves of the third (Example 64).

46 “C’est si difficile de rencontrer des vers glorieusement féminins!” Poulenc, Journal, 23. 47 Henri Hell, quoted in Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 131. 48 Keith Clifton, “The Vilmorin Songs of Francis Poulenc,” Journal of Singing 55, no. 3 (Jan.–Feb. 1999): 11. 49 Clifton, “Vilmorin,” 9.

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Example 64: Trois poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin, “Aux officiers de la garde blanche,” mm1–4

The next song, “Le portrait” (FP 92, 1938), was published as a single song, but is rather

peculiar for two reasons. The text, written by Colette, is a prose poem, and is the only one of its

kind that Poulenc set to music. Also, its musical style and tempo indication, “très violent et

emporté,” are both typical of an Éluard transitional song, although it was published individually.

The clue to this apparent mystery is found in Poulenc’s Journal, where he explains that this song

was conceived as part of a larger group of five songs for recitals with Bernac, consisting of: “Le

jardin d’Anna” and “Allons plus vite” (Deux poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire, FP 94, 1938), “Le

portrait,” and “Tu vois le feu du soir” and “Je nommerai ton front” (Miroirs brûlants, FP 98,

1938).50 The duo premiered this set on February 16, 1939, in this order.51 The transitional

character of “Le portrait,” appropriately prepares for the beautiful tenderness of “Tu vois le feu du

soir,” discussed below.

The first two songs of this recital grouping mark Poulenc’s return to the poetry of

Apollinaire, last set in the Quatre poèmes of 1931. Poulenc found the musical settings of parts of

each almost immediately: “the lyrical conclusion and the few Spanish measures” and “the measure

‘sur le boulevard de Grenelle.’”52 As was often his habit, Poulenc found he had to put these poems

aside after his initial attempts so that he might return to them with a fresh perspective. The light

and ironic poetry of “Dans le jardin d’Anna” is highly sectional, and this is matched by the music as

50 Poulenc, Journal, 24. 51 Concert program listing in ibid., 70. 52 “la conclusion lyrique et les quelques mesures espagnoles,” ibid., 24–25.

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well. Both Poulenc and Bernac admonish the performers that an “inexorable tempo” must be

observed so that unity may be achieved despite the “enumeration of images.”53 The multitude of

disparate phrases comprise a virtual encyclopedia of textures and styles used throughout his

mélodies, including the light, leaping staccato opening, the meandering legato phrasing in mm7–10,

the octave sixteenths in mm29–33, the dry, declaimed style in mm36–40, and the lyrical conclusion

beginning at m62. Daniel cites several of these styles as evidence in support of Poulenc’s statement

that this song was to have been a part of the Quatre poèmes of 1931.

The care that Poulenc took with the poetry of “Allons plus vite” demonstrates his love for

the Paris that is so well evoked by Apollinaire. As Poulenc wrote, “I have so often loitered at night

in Paris that I think I know better than any other musician the rhythm of a felt slipper sliding along

the pavement on a May evening.”54 The music is most clearly a response to the poetry in its clarity

(eighth-note motion in the “très calme” tempo) and emotional content. The poetry and music

alternate between lyrical expansiveness (marked “ému et doucement poétique”) and the rather harsh

reality (marked “sec et un peu narquois”). The music in both of these songs seems more closely

related to his second period settings of Apollinaire than to his more recent Éluard style.

The final two songs of this intended recital grouping are to poems of Éluard, his Miroirs

brûlants. The first of these is perhaps the most beautiful of all his songs, “Tu vois le feu du soir.”

“The refinement of the piano writing and the simplicity of the vocal line”55 are evidence of the

economy of means that Matisse inspired in Poulenc. Like many other poems of Éluard, it contains a

litany of poetic images; Poulenc came to believe that this type of poem required an unadorned,

53 Ibid., 24; Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 64. 54 Poulenc, Diary, 43. 55 “le raffinement de l’écriture pianistique et la simplicité de la ligne vocale,” Poulenc, Journal, 27.

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undisturbed flow of eighth-notes for continuity.56 He avoided monotony by allowing the harmonies

to respond freely to the surrealist images evoked by the poem, resulting in an incredible richness of

harmony and frequent modulations of key, far richer than any of his piano works. In both its steady

pace and its richness of harmony it takes as its model the last song of Tel jour, telle nuit, “Nous

avons fait la nuit.”57

This song’s fluidity of key is strong evidence of another habit of Poulenc’s: when setting a

poem, musical settings of isolated poetic lines often came to him over a period of time, which he

dutifully notated in the key he thought of them. When it came time to link the phrases up, he “never

transposed the key in order to make [his] task easier at the expense of the poem.”58 Consequently,

“it follows that [his] modulations sometimes pass through a mouse-hole.”59 The abrupt enharmonic

modulation arriving at the magical phrase “Tu vois un bel enfant” (Example 65) is certainly an

example of this procedure. While this specific compositional technique belongs only to the

mélodies, fluid tonality and abrupt modulations are common in Poulenc’s style, as we shall see in

the Intermezzo in Ab.

Example 65: Miroirs brûlants, “Tu vois le feu du soir,” mm33–36

56 Ibid. 57 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 266. 58 “…je ne transpose jamais, pour rendre ma tâche plus aisée, le ton dans lequel j’ai trouvé la musique d’un

vers, au hasard du poème,” Poulenc, Journal, 51. 59 “Il s’en suit que mes modulations passent parfois par le trou d’une souris,” ibid.

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Poulenc spoke of a “pianistic melody [in the accompaniments] that only a true legato style

can reveal,”60 and nowhere is this more in evidence than in “Tu vois le feu du soir.” While vocal

doubling is still frequent in the right-hand of the piano, the melodies often diverge from each other.

The piano melody, for example, is most often a stable line moving in quarter-notes (indicated with

tenuto marks) while the vocal line often decorates the piano line in eighth-notes (seen above in

Example 65). Other times the piano line takes up the true melody, leaving the vocal line free to a

more declamatory style (seen in Example 66).

Two other songs of 1938 must be mentioned here. While both are slow songs, the

differences of harmonic language between the two are notable in that they reflect two different

personalities of his music: the purely Parisian, sometimes nostalgic, side; and the devout, religious

side. “La Grenouillère,” to a poem by Apollinaire, is filled with rich extended-tertian chords that

evoke the sunny warmth of Renoir’s “Le déjeuner des canotiers.” Poulenc frequently transposed

geographic details in Apollinaire poems to those of his own experience; the nostalgic quality of the

music is thus made personal, in that for Poulenc, it “evokes the banks of the Marne so dear to my

60 Poulenc, quoted in Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 245.

Example 66: Miroirs brûlants, “Tu vois le feu du soir,” mm26–28

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childhood. It is the bumping together of the boats that motivates the rhythm from beginning to end

of this tenderly affecting song.”61 The richness and yearning of the harmonies (marked “très las et

mélancolique”) suggests the same indolence that he would later find in another Apollinaire setting,

“Hôtel,” from Banalités.

Despite a similar tempo, the style and harmonic language of “Priez pour paix” (FP 95),

Poulenc’s only religious text among his mélodies, is very different. He suggested that it was highly

influenced by his first religious choral work, Litanies à la vierge noir (FP 82, 1936), and this is

confirmed by the oscillating harmonies (Example 67), careful voice leading in the accompaniment,

and the sparseness and purity of its chordal accompaniment. The world of Paris is nowhere to be

found in this song, for he called it “a prayer to be spoken in a country church.”62 Poulenc

61 Poulenc, Diary, 51. 62 Ibid., 49.

Example 67: “Priez pour paix,” mm5–10

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acknowledged these differences in musical language (“All my religious music turns its back on my

Parisian or suburban aesthetic.”63), and the ease with which he switched between the two is another

sign of his musical maturity.

The first evidence in the piano works of this third-period maturity is found in the eighth

Nocturne, written in December of 1938. It is fitting that after his successful experiments with

cyclicality in the songs, that he would conclude this set of piano works with a final Nocturne, “pour

servir de coda au cycle,” that bears the influence of both his Éluard and his choral writing. While

Daniel finds here “the same graceful, lyrical style as the first piece,” the last piece is in fact

considerably more refined and reserved than the more youthful first work, composed eight years

earlier. The influence of his choral style is seen by the less functional bass line and the stricter

voice-leading mirrored in the two hands. Poulenc indicates that the repeated chords should be

treated in a similar way to those in his Éluard settings: “Mettre beaucoup de pédales (le chant

doucement en dehors, les batteries très discrètes).” The harmonies, while sometimes chromatic,

maintain a purity and clarity that is part of his serious style (Example 68). The layering effect that

he perfected in his Éluard mélodies (discussed above) can be seen in mm17–24, along with the more

functional, sustained bass. Just as the last song of Tel jour, telle nuit recalled the first song, the final

measures of the eighth Nocturne employ the same chordal ending as the first. This modest, yet

63 “Toute ma musique religieuse tourne le dos à mon esthétique parisienne ou banlieusarde,” Poulenc, Journal, 27.

Example 68: Nocturne #8, mm9–12

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serious work for piano begins to show the influence of his third period maturity and could not have

been written before his Éluard and choral works.

Two songs from 1939 show that he could apply his more serious style equally to works of

Éluard and Apollinaire. In the Éluard setting, “Ce doux petit visage” (FP 99), after an opening few

measures of sonorities that are essentially non-functional and disconnected from any bass line,

Poulenc’s layering effect is used with an abundance of minor-minor-seventh chords. He points out

in his Journal a very specific left-hand fingering that he claimed he used often because it “firmly

balances the bass harmony” through the changing of the pedal (Example 69).64 This detail of piano

writing provides further insight into the use of the pedal in Poulenc’s music. In the second song,

“Bleuet” (FP 102), Apollinaire’s poem reflects the tragic loss of innocence of a young soldier in

World War I. However, the lyricism, harmonic language, and layering effect from Poulenc’s

Éluard settings effectively transpose the scenario to the present realities that young men of France

faced in 1939. The lyrical melody of the final words, “O douceur d’autrefois, lenteur

immémoriale!” effectively summarizes the mood of the entire song, and in the brief postlude, a

whiff of the “Marseillaise” is heard in the upper reaches of the piano. This work, as well as later

64 “équilibre solidement la basse de l’harmonie,” ibid., 29.

Example 69: “Ce doux petit visage,” mm10–14

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Apollinaire settings such as “Montparnasse,” effectively marries the sustained lyricism of Éluard’s

“Tu vois le feu du soir” with the “melancholy associated with the Apollinaire songs.”65

Two years after his first settings of Vilmorin, Poulenc set six of her poems in Fiançailles

pour rire (FP 101, 1939). This work is not a true cycle, but instead a carefully ordered set of

individual songs, where the mood of each piece is established and songs ordered for maximum

contrast and to enhance the poetry. Bernac notes that “these charming and elegant poems are not

comparable in richness and substance to the admirable poems of Éluard,” and that the musical

language of the set reflects this difference.66

In the almost frivolous first song, “La Dame André,” the poem questions whether André’s

new lady “has a heart for the tomorrows” or is just a passing fancy. Every poetic strophe ends with

a question, and this is mirrored in the four measures of piano coda that end on an inconclusive A-

thirteen chord. The style of the second, “Dans l’herbe,” is the most serious of the set and closest to

his Éluard style. Its slow tempo and chromatically shifting harmonies are particularly reminiscent

of his choral writing. The third song, “Il vole,” is marked “presto implacable,” “in the style of an

étude for piano,” and is another example of a breathless patter song, virtuosic for both singer and

pianist. It serves as a trampoline song into the following slow song, “Mon cadavre est doux comme

un gant,” whose text is surrealistically beautiful despite the morbid sentiments (“My corpse is as

limp as a glove”) of a person “who is already detached from all human contingencies.”67 The final

two songs are likewise paired for maximum contrast. In the fifth, “Violon,” languorous violin

double-stops and glissando effects are created in the right hand above a slow waltz-like bass,

65 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 237. 66 Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 137. 67 Ibid., 142.

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evoking the image of a gypsy violinist late at night in a Hungarian restaurant (Example 70).68

Poulenc wrote that the pizzicato A minor ending of the fifth song (chord marked “arraché,” or

“ripped”) was necessary so that the Db major of “Fleurs” could create the “impression of a harmony

that comes from afar.”69

As mentioned above, Poulenc’s output of works for piano solo dropped precipitously after

1936. He seemed to have considerable difficulty in moving beyond the facile works of his second

period: “I often sought, particularly in the accompaniments of the mélodies, to take into account the

lesson [of Matisse]. … But alas, why didn’t I follow that lesson in my piano works?”70 After the

68 Ibid., 143. 69 “impression de ton qui vient de loin,” Poulenc, Journal, 32. 70 “J’ai souvent cherché, spécialement dans des accompagnements de mélodies, à tenir compte de cette leçon.

… Que n’ai-je, hélas! suivi la leçon de Matisse pour mes pièces de piano!” Poulenc, Entretiens, 172.

Example 70: Fiançailles pour rire, “Violon,” mm12–14

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short concluding Nocturne that hinted at this, two larger works for piano finally showed the

influence of his serious song style: Mélancolie (FP 105, 1940) and the Intermezzo in Ab (FP 118,

1943). While written three years apart, they may be conveniently considered here together because

they are similar in texture, harmonic language, and formal construction. In these “graceful, lyrical,

charming, and effective” works, “bravura and brilliance have all but disappeared from Poulenc’s

keyboard style.”71 Further, his use of techniques from his second period, including “frequent use of

seventh chords, the inventive means of arriving at cadences, and the variety and fluidity of

modulation,”72 are much better synthesized into an organic whole. However, the near-constant use

of sixteenth-note motion used effectively in these pieces is less often found among similarly slow

and lyrical mélodies, for which he more typically preferred eighth-note rhythms. Despite the more

idiomatic pianistic textures and the presence of more charmingly tuneful melodies here than in his

recent mélodies, the overall mood of these works is closer to his style for the love lyrics of Éluard or

the nostalgic Parisian verses of Apollinaire.

Just as “Bleuet” was an expression of sadness over the events of the war, Mélancolie was

likewise inspired by his recent demobilization and the occupation of Paris by the Germans that led

him to seek refuge in Brive-la-Gaillarde, to the north of Paris.73 Schmidt further claims that

Poulenc, long insecure over his mostly self-taught compositional skills, felt particularly depressed at

this point because the second war served as a reminder that the first world war had deprived him of

his musical education.74 While Poulenc was never much of a nationalist, the quasi-programmatic

title was clearly a reflection of the miserable state of his country, tinged with nostalgia for her

71 Kent Werner, quoted in Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 188. 72 Ibid., 188–89. 73 Schmidt, Entrancing, 268. 74 Ibid., 261.

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earlier glory days, as well as a personal expression of anguish for his own situation in “exile” from

both his beloved city and country home. The Intermezzo in Ab, written three years later, bears no

indication of a programmatic response to his personal or country’s condition, but it is similar to

Mélancolie in its overall lyric mood.

The greater austerity and simplification of the Matisse drawings are only sometimes in

evidence in these piano pieces. For example, the section in A minor of the Intermezzo (Example

71), marked “very sweet and melancholic,” bears a strong resemblance to “Tu vois le feu du soir,”

while the transitory passage beginning at m27 is a juxtaposition of several different pianistic figures

more reminiscent of his virtuosic works. It seems likely, therefore, that Poulenc composed these

works at least partially at the piano keyboard, but also that he drew significantly from his more

serious song style.

Example 71: Intermezzo in Ab, mm41–43

Just as in “Tu vois le feu du soir,” the formal construction of these works is less sectional

and more naturally fluid: “all aspects of form are used for his melodic gifts; even the transitions are

becoming areas of great beauty where the material seems to grow naturally out of the preceding

ideas.”75 While Mélancolie consists roughly of a ternary form, he is clearly not concerned with

maintaining traditional key relationships for such a form. In fact, the main theme, which first

occurs in Ab beginning in the first measure, recurs a half-step higher beginning in m15, in G

75 Nelson, “Piano Music,” 133.

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beginning at m79, and finally in the home key of Db beginning at m87. These non-traditional key

relationships result in a certain looseness and variety within the form, while the recurrence of the

main theme provides a sense of unity. Poulenc called Mélancolie, “un grand morceau de piano.”76

Indeed, “Tu vois le feu du soir” (his longest individual song), Mélancolie (his longest single-

movement piano work), and the Ab Intermezzo are all much longer than is otherwise typical of

single movements for Poulenc. Therefore, for the first time it seems that he has developed a

compositional technique that is able to more naturally and seamlessly evolve larger forms. Poulenc

later said that the Intermezzo in Ab was one of his favorite piano pieces, a significant fact in light of

his highly critical attitude toward his body of piano works.

Poulenc wrote a set of five songs to texts by Apollinaire in October and November of 1940

as a kind of celebration of his return to Noizay after his exile to the north of Paris. Banalités (FP

107) is clearly not a cycle, but once again shows Poulenc’s careful attention to the ordering of

movements within a larger work. There is a great variety within the set, which was again written

for Bernac: “each of these songs exploits a particular aspect of the singer’s voice and a particular

aspect of Apollinaire’s poetry.”77 Ironically, Poulenc had long before chosen the two most difficult

poems of the set, “Fagnes de Wallonie” and “Sanglots,” and only more recently selected the other

poems, which he called “delicious lines of doggerel.”78

The first song, “Chanson d’Orkenise,” uses the recurring opening gesture in the piano as a

unifying device for the song, just as he did for “L’Anguille” in 1931 (Example 72). It establishes a

light-hearted tone for this brief encounter between the city’s guards and two men: a beggar who left

his heart in the city, and a cart driver who is coming to the city to be married. The opening section,

76 Schmidt, Entrancing, 268 77 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 269. 78 Poulenc, Diary, 67.

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with its rustic use of modality and predominance of open fourth intervals, is reminiscent of the

harmonic world of Ravel’s Cinq mélodies populaires grecques. However, at the guards’

admonition to the beggar that “the road is grey” and to the cart-driver that “love is grey,” the music

changes to sympathetic lyricism reminiscent of “Tu vois le feu du soir.”

The next song, “Hôtel,” evokes perfectly the lazy indolence of an afternoon hotel room, with

its rich, non-functional harmonies that seem to “float aimlessly in space.”79 The luxuriant

harmonies (Example 73) and softly colored tones are similar to those of “La Grenouillère;” the

tempos of the two songs are indicated “très calme et paresseux” and “très las et mélancolique,”

respectively. Neither song’s accompaniment contains any note value shorter than a quarter note,

79 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 270.

Example 72: Banalités, “Chanson d’Orkenise,” mm1–4

Example 73: Banalités, “Hôtel,” mm1–4

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but the tempo of “Hôtel” is intentionally slower than any other such piece to convey a sense of

complete laziness. The richness of harmony is further enhanced by the layered chordal sonorities

that encompass more than five octaves of the piano. This sensuous gem contrasts well with the

breathless, relentless energy of the following song.

While “Fagnes de Wallonie” is not properly a true transitional song, the constant eighth-note

motion and overall nondescript melody (despite a few nice melodic phrases) helps the song serve

the difficult, but necessary function of separating “Hôtel” from the light-hearted valse-musette that

follows it, “Voyage à Paris.” Poulenc wrote, “To anyone who knows me it will seem quite natural

that I should open my mouth like a carp to snap up the deliciously stupid lines of ‘Voyage à

Paris.”80 For Poulenc, the song expressed his “unequivocal joy at having returned to the city he so

treasured.”81 It also served nicely as an encore at Bernac-Poulenc recitals as a good-natured gibe at

the audiences in provincial towns.

Of the final song, Poulenc wrote: “All that I have written about ‘Tu vois le Feu du soir’ is

valid for ‘Sanglots.’”82 The harmonic language is fully that of Poulenc’s serious style, and the

expressive leaps in the vocal line at “Est mort d’amour” (mm60–63) and “Et rien sera libre”

(mm68–69) communicate strong emotion. What are unusual, however, are the indications “Animer

un peu mais très progressivement” and “Animer encore un peu” which replace the usual

admonitions to maintain a strict tempo. This may have been necessitated by the difficult poem that

is filled with parenthetical comments.

With its great variety of moods, careful ordering, and delicious gems (“Hôtel” and “Voyage

à Paris”), Banalités is justifiably one of his most popular sets.

80 Poulenc, Diary, 67. 81 Schmidt, Entrancing, 269. 82 “Tout ce que j’ai écrit sur ‘Tu vois le Feu du soir’ valable pour ‘Sanglots,” Poulenc, Journal, 37.

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Slowdown in Composition

After the burst of song activity between the writing of Tel jour, telle nuit and Banalités,

Poulenc’s production in all genres dropped off considerably. This was likely because concerts were

a more reliable source of income than royalties,83 for during the German occupation of France,

publication of music all but ceased, while concerts continued nearly unabated. Thus, the entire next

decade saw only as many songs written as in the previous three years.

The songs of this time are not stylistically much different from those discussed above; he

basically continued on the same path already struck; this can be seen in the many examples of songs

that are similar in mood, texture, or harmony to earlier songs. Two other indications that his

compositional activity was at a lull are that there are a number of songs of lesser quality among

some truly great songs, and that he took the time to complete a couple of songs that he had

contemplated for several years.

From 1940 until 1951, he wrote no piano works other than the Intermezzo in Ab (discussed

above) and two unremarkable Improvisations. The eleventh Improvisation is a brief harmonic

study, understated and with only a nondescript melody. The twelfth is a brilliant waltz, subtitled,

“Hommage à Schubert.” The B section of the ternary form, similar to his second period works, is

more meandering. Neither bears much import for our present discussion.

The Chansons villageoises (FP 117, 1942) on poems by Maurice Fombeure were originally

written for orchestra, and bear strong resemblance to parts of his early Chanson gaillardes. Its

frequent text repetition, regularity of meter, and sometimes folk-like quality were perhaps inspired

by Poulenc’s stay in a village north of Paris during the previous two years.

83 Schmidt, Entrancing, 280.

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The next two sets of songs, Métamorphoses (FP 121, 1943) and Deux poèmes de Louis

Aragon (FP 122, 1943), are another example of songs that were written to be performed as part of a

larger group in recital. The reason for this is that he felt that Vilmorin’s poetry in Métamorphoses

was “too elliptical to form a group by themselves;” and that “Paganini” in particular, which ends the

set, was actually quite mediocre, but suitable as a transitional song.84 Indeed, Poulenc records that

after much experimentation with the ordering, he and Bernac premiered them—with the addition of

“Tu vois le feu du soir”—as a group of six songs in this sequence:

Tu vois le feu du soir

Reine des mouettes – C’est ainsi que tu es – Paganini (Métamorphoses)

C – Fêtes galantes (Deux poèmes)85

It is clear that Poulenc felt no qualms about mixing poets for his recital groupings (here Éluard,

Vilmorin, and Aragon), despite the fact that all of his published sets of songs are grouped by poet.

His recital groupings were arranged according to tempo and mood so as to best display them as a


The piano texture of the first song of the Vilmorin set, “Reine des mouettes,” contains an

effective balance of lyricism and rhythmic impulse. The tempo indication, “très vite et haletant,” is

supported by the syncopated accompaniment and flurry of notes in the voice, while the melody is

doubled in the piano with longer note values that assist to sustain and stabilize the voice (Example

74). Thus the piano texture both assists in creating the desired breathless quality, but also helps

prevents the songs from becoming frantic. The piano continues its melodic importance in “C’est

ainsi que tu es,” which resembles “Carte postale” (1931) for its sinuous and continuous melody

84 “trop elliptiques pour former un groupe à eux seuls,” ibid., 41. 85 Poulenc, Journal, 41.

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joined by the voice. In the postlude, Poulenc requests the pianist to “scrupulously respect” his

given fingering and pedal indications, which he says are “essential for the legato” (Example 75).86

This is another example of Poulenc’s insistence on effective use of the pedal for both sustained

legato and clarity, with the four independent lines in the piano texture.

Example 75: Métamorphoses, “C’est ainsi que tu es,” mm15–16

“C” and “Fêtes galantes,” were published clandestinely by Louis Aragon, poet of the French

Resistance. They are both reflections of the German invasion and occupation, yet their moods, and

Poulenc’s musical settings, are extremely different. The first, a nostalgic recollection of the flight

of the French population across the Bridge de Cé before the advancing German soldiers, opens with

86 “respecter scrupuleusement,” and “indispensable pour le legato,” Poulenc, in a footnote to “C’est ainsi que tu es.”

Example 74: Métamorphoses, “Reine des mouettes,” mm1–2

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a pictorial representation of the bridge in the single left-hand line (Example 76). The title derives

from the fact that every line of the poem ends with the sound of the syllable “cé.”

Example 76: Deux Poèmes de Louis Aragon, “C,” mm1–4

The piano part, nostalgic in the key of Ab minor, “is very difficult because of the subtlety of

pedals and the repeated eighth notes that must be blurred.”87 Poulenc’s former teacher, Koechlin,

wrote that he appreciated “the intense and noble emotion of Les Ponts de Cé, in which breathes the

very soul of our wounded Fatherland.”88

“Fêtes galantes” is a true patter song, with its vivid and farcical poetic images and frantic

musical setting that reflect the difficult, crazy, and sometimes absurd days of the occupation. As

Bernac writes, “Is it not typically French ‘to be ready to laugh at everything for fear of being

obliged to weep’?”89 The buoyant, surface gaiety of Poulenc’s musical figures for these images is

couched in a popular style, which Poulenc indicates, “incroyablement vite, dans le style des

chansons-scies de café-concert.” Not far below the surface, however, is Aragon’s “poignant

description of occupied Paris.”90 In a rare departure from his usual practice, Poulenc chose to end

this recital grouping with a fast patter song, instead of the more typical slow, lyrical songs that end

87 “est très difficile à cause du jeu des pédales et des batteries de croches à estomper,” Poulenc, Journal, 42. 88 Letter to Poulenc, April 27, 1945; Correspondence (Buckland), 154. 89 Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 189. 90 Schmidt, Entrancing, 292.

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most of his published cycles. Poulenc must have felt this song the best way to comment on the

darkest days of the occupation.

Poulenc’s interest in the poetry of Éluard, never long dormant in his third period, was

manifest again in two important choral works and two individual songs. The more significant

achievements are two cantatas for unaccompanied voices: Figure humaine (FP 120, 1943) and Un

soir de neige (FP 126, 1944). During the summer of 1943, while Poulenc was staying in Beaulieu-

sur-Dordogne, he decided to compose “a clandestine work to be prepared and published in secret, to

be performed on the day of liberation, so long awaited.”91 Poulenc drew on his song-writing

experience, particularly that of Tel jour, telle nuit:

Figure humaine also consists of short poems, with the difference that they were intended to form a sequence, and are capped by an epilogic poem of some length. Poulenc, with his experience as a writer of song-cycles, finds no problem in making the cantata’s short sections cumulative, and sustains momentum through the long consummatory poem of some length.92

This final poem in litany form, appropriately entitled, “Liberté,” was distributed secretly during the

war, and is a further example of Poulenc’s enchantment with Éluard’s poems of this form. The

unaccompanied double-choral writing is extremely difficult, but this choral cycle stands as the

culmination of his wartime works, his “pièce de résistance.”93

The two Éluard songs, “Main dominée par le coeur” (FP 135, 1946) and “… mais mourir”

(FP 137, 1947), are among the better songs of the period, for the effective piano figurations contain

countermelodies that are supportive of the vocal line. The former is a light, fleeting song, “très

allant,” with a charming and effective piano figuration. The sixteenth notes create motion but

91 “une œuvre secrète qu’on pourrait éditer, préparer clandestinement pour la donner le jour, tant attendu, de la libération,” Poulenc, Entretiens, 104.

92 Mellers, Francis Poulenc, 84. 93 Schmidt, Entrancing, 289.

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hidden within them is a true “chant du piano et son accompagnement propre,”94 providing a linear

counterpoint to the voice (Example 77). The flexible and fluid modulations were necessary to

connect phrases he had already conceived. Poulenc notes its similarity to an earlier Éluard song:

“Honestly, I must note that the first measures are derived from one of my first mélodies of Éluard,

‘Plume d’eau claire.’”95

“…mais mourir” was dedicated to the memory of Éluard’s wife, Nush. It is a “touching,

tender song in the flowing compound-meter style associated with ‘Au-delà,’”96 with its gently

repeated chords in the right hand. The flowing countermelodies, nearly always present in the piano,

94 Poulenc, Journal, 49. 95 “Honnêtement, je dois noter que les premières mesures sont issues directement d’une de mes premières

mélodies d’Éluard, ‘Plume d’eau claire,’” ibid., 51–52. 96 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 273.

Example 77: “Main dominée par le cœur,” mm1–4

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are used particularly effectively in the short postlude, passing from the right hand into the left

(Example 78).

Example 78: “… mais mourir,” mm20–24

Deux mélodies de Guillaume Apollinaire (FP 127, 1941-45) followed the completion of his

comic opera, Les Mamelles de Tirésias (FP 125, 1939-44), based on the 1917 play by the same

poet.97 There is little in common with the opera in the tender, lyrical, song, “Montparnasse,” which

Poulenc thought was “probably one of my best mélodies.”98 It is the archetypal example of his

tendency to set individual phrases before attempting to stitch them all together into a complete song.

In this case, Poulenc tells us that the whole process occurred over four years: he happened on the

magnificent musical phrase for “Un poète lyrique d’Allemagne” (Example 79) in 1941, the setting

97 Poulenc’s advice to his humorous works is again in evidence: “Therefore it is essential to sing Les Mamelles from beginning to end as if it were by Verdi. It will perhaps not be easy to make this understood by interpreters who generally stick to the outward appearance of things,” Poulenc, Journal, 79.

98 “probablement une de mes meilleures mélodies,” ibid., 42.

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for “Donnez-moi, pour toujours, une chambre à la semaine” in 1943, the entire second half of the

song later in 1943, and the first two lines in 1944. He did not attempt to piece all these fragments

together until 1945.99 The affection felt by the poet for this district of Paris (and by the composer

for his beloved city) resonates through the tender musical setting, with its uncluttered textures,

poignant harmonies and delicious modulations.

The second song, “Hyde Park,” along with several songs that followed, including “Le pont”

and “Un poème” (FP 131, also by Apollinaire) and Trois chansons de Garcia-Lorca (FP 136,

1947), are less distinctive and successful. “Le pont” is another song that Poulenc wrote phrase by

phrase over a couple of years. Most peculiar of all his later songs, “Un poème” seems to have been

an experiment in near-atonality, “with nontertian trichords, many sevenths and tritones, and a

jagged melodic line,” appropriately dedicated to Dallapiccola.100 Poulenc lamented the Garcia-

Lorca settings as having “little importance among my vocal works,” despite his passion for the


99 Ibid., 42–43. 100 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 273. 101 “peu de poids dans mon œuvre vocale,” Poulenc, Journal, 53.

Example 79: “Montparnasse,” mm31–34

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A Final Apollinaire Cycle

The final cycle from his third period was much more successful than the single songs

discussed above. A final major work to the poetry of Apollinaire, Calligrammes (FP 140, 1948) is

both the summation and culmination of all of his settings of the poet. It includes aspects of all his

earlier styles, here integrated into a mature whole. More than just a set of songs, this is a true cycle

because of an overriding tonal architecture, carefully planned order and specifically indicated

pacing between songs, and a placid piano postlude to the last song, which concludes and prolongs

the final sentiment in the same way as in Tel jour. Unique among the cycles is the tonal structure,

which Poulenc outlined in a letter to Bernac midway through its composition:

In Calligrammes I have truly found what I was looking for.… Even more carefully constructed than Tel jour, this cycle has a true internal structure.… Since you are in charge of the programs, here are the titles:


seven mélodies on poems by Apollinaire

I L’Espionne (F# minor) II Mutation (Eb major) III Vers le sud (E major) IV Il pleut (B major) V La grâce exilée (E major) VI Aussi bien que les cigales (Eb major) VII Voyage (F[#] minor)

As you will notice, the keys are very precisely balanced, with B major (IV) serving as the turning point.102

For Poulenc, whose attention to key rarely exceeded the mood inherent in it or key relationship

from one song to the next, such a careful large-scale tonal organization for a cycle is rare, indeed

unique among the mélodies.

102 “J’ai vraiment trouvé dans les Calligrammes ce qu’il me fallait.… Encore plus construit que Tel jour ce cycle a une vraie armature interne… Comme c’est vous qui vous occupez des programmes en voici les titres;” “Comme vous pouvez constater les tons sont équilibrés très exactement, si majeur (IV) servant de charnière,” Letter to Pierre Bernac, July 18, 1948; Correspondance (Chimènes), 647.

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The cycle takes its name from Apollinaire’s collection, entitled “Calligrammes: Poèmes de

la Paix et de la Guerre (1913-1916).”103 This collection is particularly interesting because a number

of the poems in it are calligrammes (that is, ideograms): a poem or arrangement of words on the

page pictorially representing the subject. For example, the letters of “Il pleut” are written vertically

in five lines down the page, intended to represent the falling rain. Of the seven poems used in this

cycle, three are printed as ideograms: “Voyage,” “Aussi bien que les cigales,” and “Il pleut.” This

must have had some import for Poulenc as he composed their settings, because he always

emphasized that he attached great importance to the layout of the poem on the page.104 Amusingly,

Bernac had the opposite opinion: “It must be confessed that this is a puerility that adds nothing to

the value of the poems but merely makes them more difficult to read.”105 Poulenc was always

sympathetic to Apollinaire’s Parisian poetry, but it seemed to hold especially nostalgic meaning for

him as he approached his fiftieth birthday: “All of these poems from 1913 to 1915 have brought

back a flood of memories from my Nogentais past and from the time of the 1914 war. This is why

they are dedicated to my childhood friends.”106

Stylistically, the cycle contains little that is innovative or new, but rather represents a

maturity and synthesis of all his earlier approaches to his Apollinaire settings. The gently

syncopated rhythm of “L’Espionne” is the same as that used in “Montparnasse” and some of his

Éluard settings, and his favorite, layered texture appears in the same song at mm13–16. However,

103 Guillaume Apollinaire, Œuvres Poétiques d’Apollinaire, ed. Marcel Adéma and Michel Décaudin ([Paris]: Gallimard, 1965), 163.

104 Poulenc, Entretiens, 69–70. 105 Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 83. 106 “Tous ces poèmes de 1913 à 15 ont fait surgir un jeu d’images de mon passé nogentais et du temps de la

guerre de 14. D’où des dédicaces aux amis d’enfance,” letter to Pierre Bernac, July 18, 1948; Correspondance (Chimènes), 647.

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the harmonic language is different, “more sensual here than lyric.”107 He was particularly proud of

the prosody of “Mais la vois-tu cette mémoire / Les yeux bandés prête à mourir” (Example 80),

which was “regular but broken… one of my most exact prosodies.”108 To support and compensate

for the halting, sequential vocal phrase, the harmonies travel the circle of fifths by minor-seventh

and half-diminished chords: Bb, Eb, G# (Ab), C#, F#, B, E.

Example 80: Calligrammes, “L’Espionne,” mm16–20

The second song, “Mutation,” employs a device not seen since his second period: the

repetition of antecedent/consequent phrases transposed up a minor third (Example 81). However,

the sequence is not an exact repetition as it usually was in his earlier works, but merely serves as a

subtle reminder of the technique. This faster song, with its “éclatant” writing, stands in contrast to

the first and third songs it separates. “Vers le sud,” in a flowing compound meter, employs

effective major-minor ambiguity to suggest longing for happier days.109 He even allows himself a

bit of text painting by sounding the call of the nightingale at the mention of the word “rossignol”

(m13). Such specific musical imagery was last seen in his mélodies in the Cinq poèmes de Max

Jacob (1931).

107 “plus sensuel ici que lyrique,” Poulenc, Journal, 55. 108 “régulier mais haché… une de mes plus exacte prosodies,” ibid. 109 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 275.

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Example 81: Calligrammes, “Mutation,” mm9–16

The text painting continues in the fourth song, about which Poulenc explains,

From the technical point of view, it is in the area of refinement of the piano writing that I was exploring, attempting to achieve in ‘Il pleut’ a kind of musical calligramme.”110

Thus, the piano texture depicts musically what Apollinaire attempted to depict in words and

graphically on the page through the layout of the words (Example 82).

Example 82: Calligrammes, “Il pleut,” mm1–4

110 “Du point de vue technique, c’est dans le domaine du raffinement de l’écriture pianistique que j’ai poussé l’aventure, essayant dans ‘Il pleut’ d’obtenir une manière de calligramme musical,” Poulenc, Journal, 54.

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The fifth song, “La grâce exilée,” is another lyrical song in compound meter, this time

bearing the influence of the café-concert song, another influence from his earlier styles. “Aussi bien

que les cigales” is a full-blooded song “halfway between a chanson (gaillarde or villageoise) and a

true mélodie.”111 Its piano writing is among the fullest of any song, ending in a passage of full

chords marked fff (Example 83). In a note following the song, Poulenc requested that the

performers wait for a long time before beginning the next, and final, song.

Example 83: Calligrammes, “Aussi bien que les cigales,” mm51–59

Poulenc wrote that “Voyage” was:

Certainly one of the two or three mélodies that I hold most dear. It is one of my most emotional songs, the most like real-life, and, with my present technical experience, the best managed. Very superior to “Sanglots,” which has certain features that will always bother me. By the intervention of unexpected and very sensitive modulations, “Voyage” goes from emotion to silence in passing through melancholy and love.… It must be accompanied with lots of pedal, as I have constantly repeated, to blur the repeated chords,

111 “mi-chemin entre la chanson (gaillarde ou villageoise) et la mélodie propre,” ibid., 55.

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and to make the piano sing as intensely and as sweetly as the voice.… For me, the end is like the silence of a July night, when from the terrace of my childhood home in Nogent, I could hear the trains in the distance. 112

An eighth-note rhythm persists throughout, but the piano writing accommodates various additional

countermelodies, exquisite changes of harmonies, and rich textures, including brief imitation

between the hands (mm17–19)113 and his favorite layered texture (mm29–32). The harmonies are

rich and melodies lyrical. The cycle concludes with a ppp piano postlude of seven measures

(Example 84) employing only bare octaves in counterpoint. The tonally ambiguous, chromatic lines

are intended to be “very blurred and distant in a haze of pedals,” the changing of which are

112 “Certainement une des deux ou trois mélodies auxquelles je tiens le plus. C’est une de mes mélodies les plus émues, les plus vécues et, du fait de mon expérience technique actuelle, les mieux dirigées. Très supérieur à ‘Sanglots’ dont certaines incidentes me pèseront toujours, par le truchement des modulations très imprévues et très sensibles, ‘Voyage’ va de l’émotion au silence en passant par la mélancolie et l’amour.… Il faut l’accompagner avec beaucoup de pédale; estomper, comme je l’ai sans cesse répété, les batteries, et chanter aussi intensément, aussi doucement au piano qu’à la voix.… La fin, c’est pour moi le silence d’une nuit de juillet lorsque, de la terrasse de ma maison d’enfance de Nogent, j’écoutais, au loin, les trains,” Poulenc, Journal, 55.

113 The melody used imitatively here was used eleven years later for the opening choral motive in his Gloria.

Example 84: Calligrammes, “Voyage,” mm33–39

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meticulously indicated in the score. In this manner, Poulenc returns to the key of the opening song,

bringing the cycle full circle.

This work represents the culmination of his efforts with the poems of Apollinaire. After this

cycle, Poulenc was to write only two more, small songs to his poetry. As he wrote in his Journal:

It represents for me the culmination of a wide range of experiments in translating Apollinaire into music. The more I leaf through his volumes, the more I feel I can no longer graze in that pasture.… I have the impression that I have exhausted all that is suitable for me.114

114 “Il représente pour moi l’aboutissement de tout un ordre de recherches quant à la transposition musicale d’Apollinaire. Plus je feuillette les volumes d’Apollinaire, plus je sens que n’y trouve plus ma pâture…. J’ai l’impression que j’ai épuisé tout ce qui m’y convenait,” ibid., 54.

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In 1950, Poulenc wrote, “I have written so many mélodies, up to now, that I have lost my

taste for them and I will doubtless write fewer and fewer.”1 Indeed, in his final period from 1950

until his last mélodies in 1960, Poulenc wrote only three song cycles (La fraîcheur et le feu, FP 147,

1950; Le travail du peintre, FP 161, 1956; and La courte paille, FP 178, 1960) and a half-dozen

other individual songs. Nor did he evidently retain much interest in writing for solo piano, writing

only one major piano work, the Thème varié (FP 151, 1951), his last three Improvisations, and a

third Novelette.

His final stylistic period is not marked by any great technical achievement, but rather by a

complete synthesis of all his earlier techniques and styles. The style of the mélodies does not differ

much from the previous period, but is a continued distillation of the poetry into the most economical

musical means: as Poulenc wrote about the Éluard cycle La Fraîcheur et le feu, “The piano is

economical in the extreme. There is nothing superfluous. I thought once again of Matisse.”2 The

cycles demonstrate a tendency toward greater organization, and there now appears a unity of

pianistic style between the mélodies and much of the piano writing in the solo works. In particular,

the musical mood and piano texture of the thirteenth Improvisation closely mirrors the sparser style

of his song accompaniments.

The first work of Poulenc’s final period, La Fraîcheur et le feu (FP 147, 1950), has not

enjoyed the same popularity as many of his other cycles, but has the distinction of being his most

1 “J’ai tant écrit de mélodies, jusqu’à ce jour, que le goût m’en est passé et que j’en écrirai sans doute de moins en moins,” Poulenc, Journal, 56.

2 “Le piano également est décanté à l’extrême. Ici, aucun superflu. Pensé une fois de plus à Matisse,” Poulenc, Journal, 56.

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unified and tightly organized cycle. Poulenc wrote that he was interested in the technical challenge

of crafting a cycle out of “one single poem, set to music in separate sections, exactly as the poem

was printed;”3 the poem in this case was one long, sectional poem by Éluard, entitled “Vue donne

vie.” He described the techniques that unify the cycle:

A rhythmic unity (two tempos: one fast, one slow) is the basis for its construction. Similar rhythmic figures confirm the impression of an overall unity. Since the poem progresses admirably like a crescendo, it was easy for me to take the litanies of love in the penultimate song (“Homme au sourire tendre”) as the culminating point.… These mélodies are terribly difficult to perform well.… The timing of the pauses between songs must not be left to chance. The metronome markings are unalterable.4

All the songs are short and their tempos and moods are carefully contrasted and ordered to mirror

the crescendo that Poulenc found inherent in the poem. Far from leaving the pauses between the

songs “to chance,” Poulenc specifically communicated his intentions through such score markings

as “court silence,” “très long silence,” and “attaquer de suite.” Daniel also observes that there is an

overall tonal architecture (Fm, F, A, D, A/C, F#, Fm).5 The return to the opening key at the end of

the cycle and the repetition of the first song’s introduction in the final song’s piano postlude help to

ensure the cycle’s unity.

The accompaniment of the first song, “Rayon des yeux,” is a good example of Poulenc’s

desire to create a maximum effect with a minimum of means. It is written in a fast tempo (“Allegro

molto – emporté”) consisting primarily of a single line of sixteenth notes, but the first sixteenth of

each beat is also beamed as a quarter note with a tenuto. This figure creates both rhythmic activity

and melodic interest using a bare minimum of notes (Example 85). The piano melody,

3 “un seul poème mis en musique, par tronçons séparés, exactement comme le poème est imprimé,” ibid. 4 “Une unité rythmique (deux tempi: un rapide, un lent) est à la base de la construction. Une identité de figures

rythmiques confirme l’impression d’unité d’ensemble. Le poème progressant admirablement, dosé comme crescendo, il m’a été facile de prendre, comme point culminant, ces litanies d’amour qu’est l’avant-dernière mélodie (‘Homme au sourire tendre’).… Ces mélodies sont terriblement difficiles à bien exécuter.… Les temps de pauses, entre les mélodies, ne sont pas laissés au hasard. Les mouvements de métronome sont implacables,” ibid.

5 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 275.

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unsurprisingly, often doubles the vocal line; however, the vocal doubling in this song is not nearly

as strict as in previous songs. Phrases are set off in contrast from each other through the use of

terraced dynamics.

The second and fourth songs, “Le matin les branches attisent” and “Dans les ténèbres du

jardin,” are both short, trampoline songs with identical metronome indications (132 beats per

minute). The great variety of figuration and frequently changing dynamics—ranging from pp to f—

create instability that contrasts well with the slower, third song (marked “très calme”). The

structure of the second poem, with its contrast between “le matin” and “le soir” is reflected in the

gradual slowing of the tempo in the second half of the song and the modal ambiguity in the coda

(this device was used as early as “Plume d’eau claire” in the Cinq poèmes d’Éluard; compare

Example 86 and Example 87). Similar alternation between major and minor thirds also expresses

the poetic contrast between “homme” and “femme” in the coda of the fifth song.

Example 86: La Fraîcheur et le feu, “Le matin les branches attisent…,” mm12–16

Example 85: La Fraîcheur et le feu, “Rayon des yeux…,” mm9–10

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Example 87: Cinq poèmes d’Éluard, “Plume d’eau claire,” mm7–9

Poulenc acknowledged that the entire third song (particularly the first three measures) was

based on a cadential pattern from Stravinsky’s Sérénade in A. The borrowing of a limited amount

of harmonic material results in a song with predominantly static harmonies, except for a passage

(mm19–24) that proceeds around a circle of fifths: C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, C# (Db). The piano writing is

again very sparse, consisting mostly of single lines of eighth notes in each hand (Example 88).

Example 88: La Fraîcheur et le feu, “Tout disparu…,” mm5–7

At the end of the slow, stately fifth song ending in C major, Poulenc indicates the

performers should wait for a long silence before beginning the following song, “Homme au sourire

tendre,” which begins in F# major.6 The long pause and the tritone relationship between the keys

help to prepare for the intimate, quasi-religious style of the song that stands as the musical climax of

6 This is similar to the instruction he gave between “Violon” (A minor) and “Fleurs” (Db major) in Fiançailles pour rire that was intended to create the impression of a sound that comes from far away.

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the cycle. The rich harmonies (seventh chords) and oscillation of harmonies were inspired by the

litany form of the poem (alternating poetic lines: “Homme au… Femme aux… Homme aux…,

etc.;” see Example 89). He wrote, “A certain litanist aspect of Éluard (‘Liberté’ is the most

admirable example) blends with my own religious and mystical feeling. There is also a mystical

purity in Éluard’s poetry.”7 It is notable that this poem serves as the climax of the cycle just as

“Liberté,” also in litany form, did in Figure Humaine.

Example 89: La Fraîcheur et le feu, “Homme au sourire tendre…,” mm1–6

The final song, “La grande rivière qui va,” employs the same sixteenth-note figures as in the

first song and repeats the cycle’s first measures in the final postlude (techniques similar to those

used in Tel jour). This was not Poulenc’s original intention however; Bernac describes how the

piano coda evolved:

The coda for piano of the last song of La Fraîcheur… in Poulenc’s original version ended rather lamely. It was [Marie-Blanche de Polignac] who, when we performed the cycle for her, suggested to Poulenc that he should repeat the first bars of the cycle, thus giving a logical conclusion and a unity to the whole.8

This is a difficult cycle overall, but it represents Poulenc’s most tightly organized cycle according to

the principles he developed throughout his career: careful attention to the progression and contrast

of tempos and moods, striving to achieve the maximum effect with an economy of musical means,

7 “Un certain côté litanies chez Éluard (‘Liberté’ en est le plus admirable exemple) rejoint chez moi mon sens religieux et mystique. Il y a d’ailleurs une pureté mystique chez Éluard,” Poulenc, Journal, 56.

8 Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 130.

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meticulous indications of tempo and pacing between the songs, the use of a poem in litany form as a

musical climax, and the recurrence of musical material in the last song to create a truly cyclical


The following year, Poulenc completed his last major piano piece, Thème varié (FP 151,

1951), which he called a “serious work but I hope not boring.”9 It consists of an original theme

followed by eleven character variations, each of which preserves the “general contours of the

melody, phrasing, and harmonic structure.”10 This classical conception of a theme and variation set

is similar to Fauré’s Thème et variations (1895), which also emphasizes melody through its eleven

variations.11 Unlike the Fauré work, which largely remains in C# minor throughout, Poulenc’s

variations progress through a sequence of keys—Ab, E, C, A, Db, F, A, F#, Eb, Ab, and Ab—that

seems designed to highlight the different moods of each variation. The key relations between

movements generally favor the interval of a third; thus, despite the contrast, there is often a

common tone shared between successive keys. This represents an expansion of Poulenc’s fondness

for using this technique in successive musical phrases that was discussed above.

There do not seem to be any new musical styles represented in the variations; rather, each

bears strong similarity to earlier styles of writing. Additionally, Poulenc labeled each variation with

an adjective describing its mood: “Joyeuse,” “Noble,” “Pastorale,” “Sarcastique,” “Mélancolique,”

“Ironique,” “Elégiaque,” “Volubile,” “Fantasque,” “Sybilline [sic],” and “Finale.” The second,

“Noble,” uses double-dotted patterns similar to “Hymne” from Trois pièces and the “stately

neoclassic atmosphere” of the Concert champêtre (Example 90).12 The third, “Pastorale,” in C

9 Letter to Henri Sauget, August 15, [1951]; Correspondence (Buckland), 191. 10 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 190–91. 11 Sloan, “Study of the Piano Works,” 77. 12 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 177.

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major, exactly reflects his sunny use of the key in earlier piano works, particularly the first

Novelette (Example 91). The fifth, Mélancolique, recalls the Mélancolie in key, richness of

harmonies, and arpeggiated style, although here it is much slower than in the earlier piece. The

sixth, “Ironique,” has the same lightness and scampering style as many works from his second

period. Daniel identifies the seventh, “Elégiaque,” as similar to his religious music for its “slow,

tender, slightly dissonant style.”13 The slow, dissonant tenth variation, marked “Sybilline [sic],” is

similar to his earlier éclatant style.

Example 91: Thème varié, Var. III, mm1–4

Daniel writes that “the finale is a microcosm of the problems inherent in the piece, for it

combines, rather incongruously, obvious pomposity and passages that are, once again, ‘too

pianistic,’ with a simple, clever passage in the middle and a coda that presents the theme in

disguised retrograde.”14 The work remains, overall, quite uneven in quality, but is most notable

13 Ibid., 191. 14 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 191–92.

Example 90: Thème varié, Var. II, mm1–3

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because Poulenc seemed to create a virtual catalog of all his various styles by subjecting a single

theme to each in succession. The descriptors therefore provide a veritable Rosetta Stone for

Poulenc’s most typical musical styles. It is surprising that the connections between his earlier styles

and the descriptive adjectives given to these variations have not been more fully explored by


As Poulenc predicted, his output of songs did indeed slow down in the last decade of his life.

After the major Éluard cycle in 1950, Poulenc did not return to writing mélodies until 1954; this

four year lapse was by far the longest he had ever gone without writing songs since 1919–1924.

During this time he began the opera Dialogues des Carmélites (FP 159), which was to occupy his

attention for three full years. He did take the time in 1954 to write three songs: Parisiana (FP 157),

which consists of a pair of settings of Max Jacob, and “Rosemonde,” a single song to a text by

Apollinaire. The Jacob songs are well contrasted: the first is a slow, tender song and the second a

fast patter song imbued with a popular flavor.

The first, “Jouer du bugle,” was to have been included in Le bal masqué, except that Poulenc

felt that the surrealist poetic sentiments would have duplicated “La Dame aveugle.”15 The prosody

of the first three stanzas is very straightforward and syllabic, nearly every phrase beginning squarely

at the beginning of the measure; this directness accords perfectly with the coarseness of the

language and sordid poetic images. The accompaniment of the first section is strongly harmonically

directed, and the quarter-note bass notes are marked with staccatos, but indicated “doucement

ponctué mais avec beaucoup de pédale.” This distinguishes the piano texture from that used for

Apollinaire or Éluard, as if Poulenc wanted the piano to establish some degree of ironic detachment,

belying the indication given to the singer: “sans ironie, très poétique” (Example 92). In the

15 Poulenc, Journal, 51.

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published version of the poem, following the first three stanzas, Jacob wrote the word “Signature,”

and then a self-reflexive final stanza, “as at the end of a ballad.”16 Instead of literally setting the

word “signature” to music, in a three-measure interlude, Poulenc introduces a new melody that

continues to the end of the song. This helps establish a more lyrical mood for the final section;

Bernac suggests that it “incites the interpreters to sudden poetic nostalgia.”17

The second Jacob song, “Vous n’écrivez plus?” is a true patter song in a tuneful style little

changed from that of the early Chansons gaillardes. The Apollinaire style of “Rosemonde” is

audible from the very first measure’s minor-seventh harmony through every modulation and lyrical

16 Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 160. 17 Ibid.

Example 92: Parisiana, “Jouer du bugle,” mm1–4

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turn of phrase. The musical styles used in these three songs reaffirm Poulenc’s distinct approach to

the poetry of Jacob and Apollinaire.

Poulenc’s final Éluard set dates from 1956. Le travail du peintre (FP 161) is a set of seven

songs based on poetry from an anthology entitled “Voir: poèmes[,] peintures[,] desseins,”18 which

interspersed poetry about various contemporary artists among prints of their paintings. Éluard’s

poetry was always remarkably visual, but in this set, the visual elements are necessarily of utmost

importance. Given that Poulenc was also avowedly “hopelessly visual,”19 it is not surprising that he

was enticed to set this poetry to music; in addition, it gave him an opportunity to pay tribute to

many of his favorite painters and reflect on their influence on his work, including Picasso, Chagall,

Braque, Gris, Klee, Miró, and Villon.

Two of Poulenc’s favorite artists did not appear in the anthology, however. Poulenc asked

Éluard to write a Matisse poem, but the poet evidently did not share the composer’s enthusiasm for

the painter. Poulenc was forced to change his plan of ending the cycle with the “joy and sunshine”

of Matisse to ending it “lyrically and gravely” with Villon instead.20 The other painter that Poulenc

often said he felt an affinity for was Raoul Dufy, the artist whose woodcuts appeared in

Apollinaire’s collection of poetry, Le Bestiaire ou le Cortège d’Orphée. His brightly colored

paintings, such as “Canotiers aux bords de la Marne,” evoked happy childhood memories for

Poulenc, and he equated these paintings with his Nogent style.21 It is very likely that Poulenc did

18 Schmidt, Catalogue, 450. 19 Poulenc, “Mes maîtres,” 526. 20 “Dans mon esprit, ‘Matisse’ devait clore le cycle dans la joie et le soleil. Aujourd’hui, ‘Villon,’ le termine

lyriquement et sombrement,” Poulenc, Journal, 58. 21 Poulenc wrote, “While walking with a German music critic in the streets of Berlin this morning, I was

wondering how to explain to him the evocation in my music of Parisian suburbia, when suddenly I caught sight in a bookshop window of a big reproduction of a celebrated picture by Dufy: ‘Boatmen on the Banks of the Marne.’ ‘Look,’ I said, ‘that is my Nogent music.’ I have always thought, moreover, that Dufy and I had more than a little in common;’” Poulenc, Diary, 109.

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not ask Éluard for a Dufy poem because he felt that Éluard would have been completely

inappropriate for this style; without a doubt, Poulenc would have preferred Apollinaire for this task.

Poulenc’s initial interest in the cycle began in 1952. He planned to dedicate it to Bernac and

premiere it “in a concert for the twentieth anniversary of our association,”22 but work on Dialogues

prevented its completion in time for the event. Bernac was anxious to see the finished work, so he

approached the American soprano, Alice Esty, for a commission in hopes of hastening its

completion. In accepting the commission, Poulenc wrote to Esty, “You know that I haven’t written

songs for a long time. I have simply written too many. There now must be something exceptional

to give me an appetite for them.”23 Finally, on August 26, 1956, Poulenc wrote to Esty: “I have

good news: your songs are finished and I am very happy with them.”24

In this set we find a great variety of moods and expressions inspired by the progression of

images in the texts. It begins with “Picasso,” set in C major with strength and intensity; he said it

recalls the opening of Tel jour, telle nuit, but the difference being that many years later this key “no

longer signifies peaceful happiness.”25 The double-dotted introduction and opening “éclatant”

vocal line reaffirm the style described above in many earlier works. The sturdy first song cedes to

the headlong scampering of “Chagall,” a “sort of runaway scherzo” inspired by the strange

progression of disparate images (see Example 93).26 It functions as a trampoline song into the next,

22 Poulenc: “j’aimerais en donner la première audition dans un concert pour le vingtième anniversaire de notre association,” quoted in Schmidt, Catalogue, 452.

23 Poulenc: “Vous savez que, depuis longtemps, je n’ai pas écrit de mélodies. J’en ai trop composé et il me faut maintenant quelque chose d’exceptionnel pour me mettre en appétit,” in a letter to Alice Esty, June 2, [1955]; Correspondance (Chimènes), 819.

24 Poulenc: “Voici une bonne nouvelle: vos mélodies sont finies et j’en suis très content,” in a letter to Alice Esty, August 26, 1956; ibid., 850.

25 Poulenc, Journal, 58. 26 “une manière de scherzo à la dérive,” ibid., 59.

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about which Poulenc wrote that “‘Braque’ is the most subtle and elaborate of the set. It is perhaps

too mannered, but that is how I feel about Braque.”27

Example 93: Le travail du peintre, “Marc Chagall,” mm1–8

Poulenc requested a long silence before the voice alone begins the quietly lyrical “Juan

Gris.” It uses the most economical writing of the set, with sparse lines in the piano and vocal

phrases of limited range (see Example 95, below, for a comparison with the thirteenth

Improvisation, also in A minor). Its quiet melancholy required a trampoline song to follow; “Paul

Klee,” is the only dramatic song of the set.

The final song, “Villon,” was one of Poulenc’s favorites because of the litanist quality of the

poem (the repetition of “en dépit”). He wrote that the prosody of the litany “L’aube l’horizon l’eau

/ L’oiseau l’homme l’amour” “provides a human relaxation to this strict and violent poem.”28 This

is achieved by a C pedal that supports the chords that chromatically descend into a C dominant-

27 “‘Braque’ est la mélodie la plus subtile, la plus fouillée du recueil. Il y a peut-être trop de goût, mais c’est ainsi que je sens Braque,” ibid.

28 “La prosodie de ‘l’aube, l’horizon, l’eau, l’oiseau, l’homme, l’amour’ donne une détente humaine à ce poème si strict et violent,” ibid.

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seventh harmony. The set ends with strong contrast of dynamics (Example 94); Bernac says that

“the violence and intensity of the poem’s opening now gives way to pity and to hope in


Example 94: Le travail du peintre, “Jacques Villon,” mm35–41

Of Le travail du peintre, Poulenc wrote “all that I have already said about the interpretation

of my mélodies is valid here. It is more than ever a duo where the material, vocal and pianistic, is

closely integrated. There is no question of an accompaniment.”30 These comments are reflected in

the vocal writing, which is generally less tuneful than in his earlier works. Daniel observes that this

set is “strongly influenced by the music of Dialogues des Carmélites.… There are now many more

29 Bernac, Francis Poulenc, 124. 30 “Tout ce que j’ai déjà dit pour l’interprétation de mes mélodies est valable ici. C’est plus que jamais un duo

où les matières, vocale et pianistique, sont étroitement malaxées. Il n’est pas question d’un accompagnement,” Poulenc, Journal, 59.

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repeated notes, scalar fragments, and oscillations between two notes.”31 This set shows a true

maturity and synthesis of style across all genres; it is clear that Poulenc has mastered the musical

style for Éluard that he first sought in 1935.

Poulenc wrote about Le travail, “I know well that people don’t like mélodies any more, and

that, alas, we no longer have [Marya] Freund, [Claire] Croiza, or Gille [?], but never mind.”32 This

may partially explain his reluctance to write more songs, perhaps feeling there was nothing more to

be done with the genre and that popular or critical opinion was moving away from mélodies

entirely. Nevertheless, he did write several separate songs between 1956 and 1960, including “La

souris” and “La puce” (Apollinaire), “Nuage” (Laurence de Beylié), “Dernier poème” (Robert

Desnos), and “Une chanson de porcelaine” (Éluard). There is nothing new or particularly

remarkable about any of these songs.

If in Poulenc’s final period we find his song style little changed, we do find the most

coherent synthesis of his Éluard style in the seamless texture of a few piano works, such as the

thirteenth and fifteenth Improvisations (FP 170, 1958, and FP 176, 1959) and the third Novelette

(FP 173, 1959). These piano works are finally written with the same assurance and economical

piano writing that he previously was only able to consistently find in the vocal works.

The thirteenth Improvisation employs a simple melodic contour, bare chordal texture, and a

simple but seamless structure. It closely resembles “Juan Gris” from Le travail du peintre in mood,

key, style and musical material (see Example 95 and Example 96). Both works employ sparse

arpeggiated figures accompanying interwoven melodic lines. Even specific musical details are

strikingly similar: the rising minor third motive at the beginning, the surprise use of a G# dominant-

31 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 277. 32 Poulenc: “Je sais bien qu’on n’aime plus les mélodies et qu’hélas il n’y a plus de Freund, de Croiza, de Gille,

mais tant pis,” quoted in Schmidt, Catalogue, 453.

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seventh chord to modulate from A minor to C# minor, the more chordal passages in F minor, and

the diminuendo over the dominant-thirteenth chord that draws us into the coda. It is notable that

what some see as Poulenc’s “archetypal mature piano work” borrows the most from song.33

The third Novelette is based on a theme by Manuel de Falla from El Amor Brujo, quoted in

the first four measures of the piece (Example 97). The modest, flowing quality is lyrical but

unpretentious. The entire work of seventy-seven measures is imbued with the same melancholic

harmonies as the Ab Intermezzo and Mélancolie from his third period, but a further indication of the

33 Daniel, Francis Poulenc, 183.

Example 95: Le travail du peintre, “Juan Gris,” mm1–6

Example 96: Improvisation #13, mm1–4

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composer’s maturity is that he did not feel the need to incorporate a contrasting middle section. It

ends in a serene coda with chromatic, oscillating harmonies, ending on an E major chord with a

dominant-thirteenth extension (Example 98). These traits, borrowed from his religious choral

music and second period piano works, respectively, do not seem at all out of place, but instead are

fully synthesized into his mature style.

Example 98: Novelette #3, mm68–77

The final, fifteenth Improvisation is an homage to Edith Piaf, written in the style of a

nostalgic popular song in a flowing 9/8 compound meter. The melody employs frequent sequences,

such as the passage in mm6–10 with a bass line that travels around the circle of fifths: C, F, Bb, Eb,

Example 97: Novelette #3, mm1–4

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Ab, D, G, and C. The frequent tempo changes (there are twenty tempo indications in its sixty-four

measures) are probably intended to replicate the valse rubato of the famous chanteuse.

Poulenc’s final cycle was La courte paille (FP 178, 1960), to texts by Maurice Carême, were

written for Denise Duval, “or more exactly, for Denise Duval to sing to her little, six-year-old

boy.”34 They may be properly considered a cycle due to the careful alternation of slow and fast

tempos and the similarity between the first and last songs. He used the melody from the fifteenth

Improvisation in the third song, “La reine du cœur.” Poulenc noted: “These sketches, by turn

melancholy and mischievous, are unpretentious. They must be sung tenderly. That is the surest

way of touching a child’s heart.”35

Even if Poulenc had lived beyond 1963, it is doubtful that he would have written more

songs. Shortly before writing his final song cycle Poulenc wrote in his Journal: “I turn the pages of

this Journal with some melancholy. The time for mélodies is over, at least for me. I believe I have

drawn all that I could from Éluard, Apollinaire, Max Jacob, etc.”36

Final conclusions

We have noted the numerous influences that Francis Poulenc drew upon in writing for the

piano, including the simplicity of Satie and Les Six, popular music from the circus, music hall, and

café-concert, nostalgic qualities from his childhood, the melancholic associations and sometimes

sordid qualities of his beloved Paris, the lesson of simplicity from Matisse, and the seriousness of

34 “Ou, plus exactement, pour que Denise Duval les chante à son petit garçon, âgé de six ans,” Poulenc, Journal, 62.

35 “Ces croquis, tour à tour mélancoliques ou malicieux, sont sans prétention. Il faut les chanter avec tendresse. C’est la plus sûre façon de toucher le cœur des enfants,” ibid.

36 “Je feuillette ce Journal avec quelque mélancolie. Le temps n’est plus aux mélodies (du moins pour moi). J’ai tiré je crois tout ce que je pouvais d’Éluard, Apollinaire, Max Jacob, etc.,” ibid., 61.

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his religious choral music and Éluard settings. Poulenc drew widely from these influences as he

acquired new styles and techniques throughout his career. While these techniques were not always

immediately incorporated gracefully into the piano writing, particularly the solo piano works,

Poulenc never completely abandoned his earlier aesthetics in pursuit of new ones. Even his most

serious religious works co-existed peacefully beside works influenced by popular music or written

with intentional banality or indecency. This ability to retain and integrate earlier compositional

techniques throughout his career is a significant reason why there exists a recognizable “Poulenc


Poulenc explained that he liked to set to music poetry that evoked an image; he consequently

found it easy to craft piano accompaniments for his mélodies to reflect the mood and the careful

prosody of the text. He found writing in abstract forms without programmatic associations to be

more difficult, something done more easily while seated at the piano. This meant that he frequently

drew on improvised, pianistic figurations for many solo piano works, particularly those of his

second period. This led to his overall frustration with his body of piano works, occasionally

causing him to casually dismiss them all out of hand.

By the time of Poulenc’s final maturity, however, the musical techniques and styles that he

had found through the song accompaniments and his religious choral music were so well engrained

that he could easily draw on them in his solo piano writing, even in such non-programmatic works

as the thirteenth Improvisation. The simplicity and austere lyricism of the best works from his final

period represent a true synthesis and culmination of all of his earlier styles.

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