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Poulenc: A Biography
By Roger Nichols
372pp, Hardback
Published 2020
ISBN: 9780300226508
Yale University Press

I was pleased to be given the opportunity to review Roger Nichols’ latest book on Francis Poulenc, having enjoyed his biography of Maurice Ravel, published almost ten years ago. Who better to tackle the subject than Nichols, a renowned authority on nineteenth- and twentieth-century French music.

Poulenc was born into money, the son of Émile, joint owner of Poulenc Frères, a firm later to become Rhône-Poulenc.  He was able to live a comfortable life, and the wealth enabled him, at the age of only twenty-eight, to become the proud owner of an impressive country pile. He was expected to follow in his father's footsteps, but had other ideas. As a teenager he lost both his parents. He'd started learning the piano at the age of five and, after a period of musical self-education, the pianist Ricardo Viñes became the orphan’s mentor. His idols were Debussy, Stravinsky, Mussorgsky and Chopin, and he became acquainted with several notable composers of the day, including Erik Satie, Darius Milhaud and Arthur Honegger. Through Viñes he met Manual de Falla, Georges Auric and the writer Jean Cocteau. As a result, his desire to compose blossomed, débuting with his Rapsodie nègre for flute, clarinet, string quartet, baritone and piano in 1917. Around this time he became a member of Les Six, a group of young composers which included Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud and Germaine Tailleferre.

He's become a popular composer, with music brimming over with melody, tonally pleasing and flavoured with piquant harmonies, leading some to regard him as a lightweight. Nichols notes that “…..for years the Gloria was (has been?) the second best-selling French classical work after Boléro” and goes on to say of the tunes that “surely not since Tchaikovsky’s ballets had they poured forth in such abundance, instantly delightful, persistently memorable”. Despite the prevailing fashions, Poulenc stuck to his guns – “I shall continue to write do mi sol do….”, with Arthur Honegger adding that he “remained himself with that rare courage that commands respect”. The vast bulk of the book is taken up with expansive discussion and analysis of the music in chronological sequence, however there are no notated musical examples. I found his scrutiny accessible and not too technically mired.

The oeuvre consists of chamber music, concertos, piano music and three operas. In 1936, following the death of his friend, the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, in a car accident, he visited the shrine of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour. This reawakened his Roman Catholic faith and triggered a series of sacred works. He also excelled in the art of the mélodie, and for his songs, which number about a hundred, he drew on texts by contemporary authors such as Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Éluard.

Whether the early loss of his parents kick-started his lifelong anxieties we’ll never know, but in the late 1920’s he suffered from his first bout of depression, fed by conflicting emotions regarding his homosexuality, religion and music. Nichols navigates us through a life blighted by periods of depression and crippling hypochondria that eventually took their toll, with liver problems and jaundice cropping up along the way. Even the composer Henri Sauguet discerningly remarked "it's difficult to heal Francis from the outside; his egocentricity makes him impervious to influences. It's within himself that the trouble lies. It's himself one has to persuade that there's nothing wrong".  All of this, to some extent, impacted on his creativity. To get some idea of the composer's mental and physical health in his final years, Nichols recounts the Belgian actor and friend Stéphane Audel's observations in October 1961, who found Poulenc "aged, slightly shrunken, seriously pot-bellied.....[....]He gives every impression of early-onset senility". He was to die of heart failure in Paris two years later in 1963.

“Away from the concert hall, we know little about Poulenc’s love life” states Nichols on page 151, and his approach to the subject is both tactful and sensitive. There were many contradictions, though. One was the unsuccessful proposal of marriage to his friend Raymonde Linossier, and later he fathered a daughter, Marie-Ange, with a woman known only as Frédérique. It was back in his mid-twenties that he discovered his real sexual orientation. There was a short-lived affair with the painter Richard Chanlaire, and a more lengthy liason with bisexual chauffeur Raymond Destouches. Around 1950 he met Lucien Roubert, a traveling salesman from Marseilles, and thus began a five-year relationship. Roubert suffered from lung disease and became seriously ill with pleurisy. He died only middle-aged in October 1955. During this affair Poulenc was working on the composition of his opera Dialogues des Carmélites. There followed a Claude who worked for Citroën, only briefly mentioned, and finally a young soldier by the name of Louis Gautier. Yet, along the way, he was constantly on the prowl for ‘rough trade’.

In the closing pages of the book, Nichols cites brief personal reminiscences of some who brushed shoulders with the composer throughout his life. These include Nadia Boulanger, Sir Kenneth Clark, Madeleine Milhaud and Gabriel Tacchino.

True to form, Nichols presents the life of Poulenc in a scholarly, clear and authoritative style. I found the detailed chronology, catalogue of works and exhaustive bibliography immensely valuable. There’s also a collection of attractive and evocative photographs providing a fascinating snapshot of the composer’s life. The notes are collected together at the end of the book rather than at the bottom of each page, which I would have found easier to negotiate.

This beautifully produced, meticulously researched book will certainly grace the shelves of music lovers, especially those with a keen interest in French music.

Stephen Greenbank

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