Compact Discoveries
a series of one-hour radio programs produced, written, hosted, and edited by Fred Flaxman
©2002 by Fred Flaxman

Program 18
"In Praise of Poulenc"

MUSIC: Poulenc: Piano Concerto: Allegretto [Erato ECD 88140, track 4] [Down and under...]

FLAXMAN: Welcome to Compact Discoveries. I'm Fred Flaxman. The next hour will be "In Praise of Poulenc," and we'll sample some of this French composer's signature bittersweet melodies and musical humor.

MUSIC: [fades out]

FLAXMAN: First let's deal with a question which hasn't exactly been up there in the public's mind lately, but which may be a bit more important to lovers of classical music: "Was Francis Poulenc a great composer?"

The answer, of course, depends on your definition of "great." To me, a great composer is one who creates a significant body of music which I enjoy tremendously and whose style is original. So a composer I consider "great," you might find mediocre or worse. Nevertheless, to me, Francis Poulenc (who lived from 1899 until 1963) was a great composer. Well, maybe not a truly great composer, but a composer who wrote some great music. Well, maybe not great music, but certainly very enjoyable music.

Mind you, I'm not saying he was one of the world's greatest composers. His "significant body" of music wasn't as extensive as Brahms, Beethoven, Bach or Mozart. But Poulenc wrote more than just one or two pieces which deserve to be in everyone's CD collection, unlike Pachelbel, Humperdinck, Adam, Alfvén and Offenbach, for example. And Poulenc's compositions are thoroughly original. That is to say you can't confuse him with anyone else, his style is so distinctive. His harmonies are unique. His long, drawn-out, but catchy melodies are entirely his own. Even his orchestration stands out for his special and frequent use of the winds.

Poulenc is, in many ways, the opposite of Mahler. Poulenc is light and French. Mahler is heavy and Germanic. Poulenc is full of the joy of life. Mahler is full of its torments and sorrows. But they are both very original and, to some extent, they can both be accused of writing the same pieces over and over again: so much does one Mahler symphony resemble another; so much does one Poulenc composition have techniques, orchestration and even melodies that sound similar to those of his other pieces.

I'm going to play for you excerpts of several of my very favorite compositions today, but I am going to start off with a complete performance of his piano concerto. Its three movements last a total of less than 20 minutes. If I could only bring one Poulenc composition with me to the proverbial desert island, this is the one I would bring.

MUSIC: Poulenc: Piano Concerto [Erato ECD 88140, tracks 4, 5 and 6] [19:43]

FLAXMAN: The Concerto for Piano by Francis Poulenc. François-René Duchable was the pianist. James Conlon led the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra on an Erato compact disc.

You are listening to "In Praise of Poulenc" on Compact Discoveries. I'm your guide, Fred Flaxman.

The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns is not the only suite by a French composer with an animalistic theme. Francis Poulenc wrote a ballet in one act based on the fables of La Fontaine called Les Animaux modèles (Model Animals). This was the third and last of Poulenc's ballets and was written in France during World War II. It is the largest of his orchestral works, and includes three and four times the usual number of woodwinds and brass, lots of percussion, a celeste, two harps, a piano and strings. Poulenc's mastery of these large orchestral forces makes me wish he had written much more symphonic music than he did.

My favorite section of the eight movements of Les Animaux modèles is called "Le Lion amoureux," ("The Lion in Love").

MUSIC: Poulenc: "The Lion in Love" from Les Animaux modèles [Timpani 1C1041, track 4] [7:09]

FLAXMAN: "The Lion in Love" from The Model Animals ballet by Francis Poulenc. Jonathan Darlington led the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra in this performance which was recorded by Timpani, a French compact disc label.
This is Compact Discoveries. I'm your guide, Fred Flaxman.

[Optional one-minute break not included in the 58-minute total timing.]

"In Praise of Poulenc" is the subject of this Compact Discoveries program.

Poulenc's music was first published when he was 19. Replying to a biographic request from his London publisher at the time, this is what he wrote:

POULENC: "I was born in Paris on 7 January 1899 I studied piano under Viñes and composition almost solely through books because I was fearful of being influenced by a teacher. I read a lot of music and greatly pondered musical aesthetics My four favorite composers, my only masters, are Bach, Mozart, Satie and Stravinsky. I don't like Beethoven at all I loathe Wagner In general, I am very eclectic, but while acknowledging that influence is a necessary thing, I hate those artists who dwell in the wake of the masters Now, a crucial point. I am not a Cubist musician, even less a Futurist and, of course, not an Impressionist. I am a musician without a label."

FLAXMAN: A four-movement Sinfonietta by Poulenc fills out the CD we were listening to before with The Model Animals. The influence of Stravinsky's neoclassical style is evident in the very first movement.

MUSIC: Poulenc: Sinfonietta: First Movement [Timpani 1C1041, track 9] [7:49]

FLAXMAN: Jonathan Darlington conducted the Philharmonic Orchestra of Luxembourg in the first movement of the Sinfonietta by Francis Poulenc. It contained a couple of those bittersweet melodies that attract me so much to Poulenc's music.

Music critic Claude Rostand once said, "There is in Poulenc a bit of monk and a bit of hooligan." I like both sides of his musical personality, though I am certainly emphasizing the "hooligan" in this program. Poulenc's Gloria, which dates from 1959, is my favorite of his "monk" works. Let's listen to its opening movement now as performed by the Cambridge Singers and the City of London Sinfonia conducted by John Rutter.

MUSIC: Poulenc: "Gloria" from Gloria [Collegium COLCD 108, track 1] [2:55]

FLAXMAN: The first movement from Gloria by Francis Poulenc. The Cambridge Singers and the City of London Sinfonia were conducted by John Rutter on the British label, Collegium Records.
Poulenc, I mentioned before, didn't compose many pieces for orchestra. He did, on the other hand, write lots of chamber music. And, unlike many other composers of chamber music, he emphasized wind rather than string instruments. One of his most beautiful bittersweet melodies begins his Sonata for Oboe and Piano.

MUSIC: Poulenc: Sonata for Oboe and Piano: First Movement [Naxos 8.553611, track 4] [5:05]

MUSIC: Poulenc: Sonata for Oboe and Piano: Second Movement [Naxos 8.553611, track 5] [4:00]

FLAXMAN: The first and second movements of the Sonata for Oboe and Piano by Francis Poulenc. Alexandre Tharaud was at the piano. Olivier Doise was the oboist on this Naxos compact disc recording.

Poulenc wrote several interesting pieces for piano, the most famous of which is certainly his Trois mouvements perpétuels - Three Perpetual Movements. We hear the third movement now with Pascal Rogé performing.

MUSIC: Poulenc: Trois mouvements perpétuels: No. 3 [London 417 438-2, track 18] [2:47]

FLAXMAN: The third of Three Perpetual Movements by Francis Poulenc. Pascal Rogé was the pianist in a London compact disc recording.

MUSIC: Poulenc: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Third Movement [Naxos 8.553612, track 7] [3:13] [under the following]

FLAXMAN: I mentioned before that Poulenc's chamber music featured wind instruments rather than strings most of the time. We'll bring our tribute to the French composer to a close with one more of these exceptionally well written chamber pieces for winds as we listen to the finale of the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. The performers are Ronald Van Spaendonck [ROW-nald von SPA-donk], clarinetist, and Alexandre Tharaud pianist.

This is Fred Flaxman thanking you for joining me for Compact Discoveries, which is a production of WXEL-FM, West Palm Beach, Florida.

MUSIC: finishes at 57:50

WFMT Announcer: This program was distributed by the WFMT Radio Network.

[program ends at 57:55]

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