About this Recording
8.572978 - POULENC, F.: Choral Music - Mass in G Major / 7 Chansons / Motets (Elora Festival Singers, Edison)
English  French 

Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
Choral Music


Francis Poulenc first came to the attention of Parisian musical circles when he was just eighteen years old as a member of ‘Les Six’—a name coined by the critic Henri Collet in 1917, referring to a group of six French composers: Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud, Tailleferre and Poulenc. Although some of the members of this group collaborated on several musical projects (most notably Cocteau’s ballet Les mariés de la tour Eiffel), only one work—L’Album des Six—comprises contributions from all six composers, lending credence to Milhaud’s assertion that the grouping was somewhat haphazard: “[Collet] chose six names absolutely arbitrarily… simply because we knew each other and we were pals and appeared on the same musical programmes, no matter if our temperaments and personalities weren’t at all the same! Auric and Poulenc followed ideas of Cocteau, Honegger followed German Romanticism, and myself, Mediterranean lyricism!”¹

These Cocteauesque aesthetics Poulenc adhered to included a strong repression of nineteenth-century European models (especially Wagner) in favour of a more nationalistic flavour, as well as a penchant for the everyday, the absurd and the frivolous, with the styles of jazz bands and circus music assimilated quite naturally into his compositional palette. By 1921 ‘Les Six’ had essentially disbanded, with Poulenc maintaining the sense of musical fun associated with the group to a greater extent than the other members. Yet he was now free to hone his own, distinctive musical voice—a luxury aided in no small part by the wealthy family he came from, allowing him to write whatever he wanted, without having to rely on his compositions as a source of income.

1917 saw not only the formation of ‘Les Six’, but also the death of Poulenc’s father, resulting in the composer’s abandonment of the Roman Catholic faith in which he had been brought up, exchanging religious faith for the hedonistic lifestyle of modern Paris. Ironically, it was another death, in 1936, which precipitated his return to the Church, marking a key turning point in Poulenc’s life and subsequently in his music. The chronological presentation of the works on this disc (which date from 1936 onwards) is beneficial in understanding his personal development at this time.

This second significant death was not that of a family member or even a close friend but a fellow composer, Pierre-Octave Ferroud (1900–1936), who was killed in a car crash in Hungary. Just a few days after learning of Ferroud’s death, Poulenc went to stay at Rocamadour, a place of pilgrimage, and was inspired by the pilgrims he saw visiting the shrine of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour. It was perhaps the combination of his father’s and Ferroud’s deaths that brought about this crisis point in Poulenc’s spiritual life, for in a conversation with the critic Claude Rostand in 1954, he explains that he had often heard his father speak of Rocamadour. While Ferroud’s accident caused him to ponder over the fragility of human life, the location led him back to the faith of his childhood.

The result was his Litanies à la Vierge Noire for women’s voices and organ (1936), the first of many choral works he would go on to compose, having ignored the genre for more than a decade. (Not since his popular ballet Les Biches of 1923 had Poulenc composed a work involving choir). Unsurprisingly, many of these choral works are religious in nature, though the Sept Chansons, also written in 1936, take their surrealist texts from Apollinaire and Éluard. They were commissioned by André Latarjet, husband of Suzanne Latarjet, a pianist and the dedicatee of Poulenc’s first work, Processional pour la crémation d’un mandarin. The Latarjets held a musical salon at their home in Lyon, and André asked Poulenc to write a work to be sung by his choir, Chanteurs de Lyon.

Each of the seven songs contains a reference to a part of the human body, respectively: arms; face; breasts; eyes; face again; hair and hands; and finally shoulder. In this way it foreshadows his cantata Figure Humaine (1943), another a cappella work that makes references to beautiful faces, hands stretched out, watery eyes, gilded breasts, etc. Whereas the latter was composed with the struggles of World War II in mind², the Sept Chansons are no doubt a reflection on the still-fresh news of Ferroud—who was decapitated in his accident—not least in the concluding lines of A peine défigurée: ‘Puissance de l’amour / Dont l’amabilité surgit / Comme un monstre sans corps / Tête désappointée’ (Power of the love / Whose lovableness looms up / Like a monster with no body / Dispossessed head).

Poulenc composed his Mass in G the following year, completing it in August 1937, and dedicating it to the memory of his father, more than twenty years deceased. The work is a missa brevis (the Credo is omitted), and is noted for its striking opening, which bears a clear resemblance to the first bars of Luire from the Sept Chansons: while the latter starts with octave As in the sopranos and basses, a G tonic is similarly established at the start of the Kyrie. This tonic stability is almost immediately undermined, however, by rising a semitone (again in the sopranos and basses), as the key moves to F minor. Such an extreme, unexpected chromatic shift is characteristic of much of Poulenc’s choral output: this period may have brought about a radical U-turn in terms of his faith and his desire to write choral works, but that is not to say he completely expunged the playfulness of his ‘Les Six’ days from his compositional style. This unashamedly daring treatment of tonality is evident throughout the Mass, perhaps most explicitly in the ‘Hosanna’ section that concludes both the Sanctus and Benedictus movements, which sounds bizarrely remote from its preceding material until a sense of resolution is finally reached at the last chord.

Just as the Sept Chansons look ahead to Figure Humaine, the distinct, dotted rhythm heard at the start of the Mass’s Gloria prefigures Poulenc’s larger scale Gloria (1959), using an identical rhythm for the text Gloria in excelsis Deo, while the Domine Deus passage in the middle affords a sublime moment of reflection in this otherwise highly animated movement. The end of the Agnus Dei sees a return to the opening material of the Kyrie, albeit in a much less declamatory manner, drawing to an appropriately peaceful conclusion for the final statement of ‘Dona nobis pacem’. This symmetrical gesture attempts to reclaim some sense of order, after the wildly colourful material between the opening and closing bars of the mass: even when he was trying to write ‘serious’ religious music, Poulenc couldn’t completely suppress his innate joie de vivre, leading Rostand to famously (and aptly) describe the composer as ‘half-monk, half-rascal’.

In addition to Poulenc’s typically audacious chromaticism throughout the mass, the lack of organ accompaniment greatly exacerbates the difficulty of the work, while other technical challenges include frequently changing time signatures and some extremely high-pitched passages for the sopranos, such as the exposed ‘Christe eleison’ section of the Kyrie, the opening of the Benedictus, and the top B on ‘Hosanna’ at the conclusion of the Sanctus and Benedictus. It is truly virtuosic choral writing, and as such, the work can rarely be performed in a liturgical context, as originally intended.

More than a decade separates the Quatre motets pour le temps de pénitence (1938–39) from the Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël (1952), yet both share common characteristics with each other, as well as the Mass in G, most notably in their homophonic textures and unexpected dissonances. The earlier collection sets texts from the offices for Holy Week, and includes some powerfully dramatic word-painting, such as in the third motet, Tenebrae factae sunt: Jesus’ bowed head is reflected by a descending chromatic line in the tenor at the text ‘et incinato capite’, while the desperate exclamations of ‘Deus meus’, repeated immediately in a much more reflective tone, show Poulenc’s empathy with this passage in particular. Although these two sets of Quatre motets are often grouped together, it is understandable that the penitential motets were written shortly after the composer’s return to faith, and the care he takes with the text demonstrates a deep, personal connection, indicative of his own penitence.

Of the Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël the first is perhaps the best known, performed, as it often is, in isolation. This heartfelt setting of one of the most famous Christmas-themed liturgical texts, O magnum mysterium, eschews any sense of frivolity associated with ‘Les Six’, meditating upon the mystery of Christ’s birth with genuine awe and reverence. The monk overpowers the rascal here, and this respectful approach permeates the other motets also, though the range of emotion, in true Poulenc style, remains vast: from the exquisite stasis at the opening of Videntes stellam, as the Magi behold the star, to the festive jollity of Hodie Christus natus est.

Dominic Wells


¹ Ivry, Benjamin. 1996. Francis Poulenc. Phaidon Press Limited.

² Poulenc himself had been called up into the forces in 1918 and was not demobilised until 1921, but retreated to his country residence at Noizay during World War II, and subsequently felt ashamed, given that this area was largely untouched by the conflict.

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