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Here Comes Treble: A Composer Extraordinaire

...Francis Poulenc was referred to by one critic as ‘part bad boy, part monk.’...

Writer and musician Isabel Bradley is enchanted by the music of the French composer, of whom it was said “his music is so individual, it’s difficult to imagine what anyone could have taught him.”

To read more of Isabel's enchanting columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/here_comes_treble/

Recently, as part of a programme of French flute music, I performed the Flute Sonata by Francis Poulenc. While doing research for my introduction, I came to know a most unusual man.

Poulenc was born in 1899. His mother was a Parisian, sophisticated, educated and independent, an amateur musician who made music an essential part of her family’s life. She was her son’s first music teacher. His father was a devout Roman Catholic from the Provinces, and very conservative. His mother died when Francis was fifteen, followed by his father three years later, towards the end of the First World War.

The vast differences in outlook between his parents created a distinct dichotomy in the composer’s personality. The young man was openly gay in a time when this was not accepted, yet he enjoyed relationships with women, and fathered a daughter. His sexual preferences created great personal conflict when he re-discovered Catholicism after the death of a good friend. Francis Poulenc was referred to by one critic as ‘part bad boy, part monk.’

Poulenc belonged to ‘Le Groupe des Six’, six composers whose styles and ideas were very varied. While they were friends who moved in the same social circles, their only similarity in composition was a determination to compose works as different from those of both Wagner and the Impressionists as possible.

Though obviously of the early twentieth century, Poulenc’s music is extremely individual and immediately identifiable, being almost completely self-taught. An unidentified source said “his music is so individual, it’s difficult to imagine what anyone could have taught him.”

After all these discoveries, I understood and enjoyed the moods which he created in his Flute Sonata, a work written about three years before his death in 1963. Both his sense of humour and his later devotion to Catholicism are evident in the music.

The first movement is whimsical, the opening motif reappearing repeatedly in different keys between contrasting, lyrical themes. It flows jauntily from the light-hearted to the serious and back, never allowing the audience to relax or become comfortable with one idea.

The second movement, the Cantilena, is a melody of great beauty, which flows and soars from the flute, accompanied by golden chords in the piano. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Poulenc composition without a few bars of strange discords and unexpectedly loud patterns, as if his ‘bad boy’ side is mocking the ‘monk’ within. In this movement, Poulenc’s skill in writing for voice is apparent in a similar flair for writing for wind instruments.

In the third movement, the dichotomy in his personality comes to the fore. The first time I heard this work, the soloist was Sir James Galway in the days when Sir James was plain Mr. Galway and just starting his solo career. He performed without the aid of sheet music, allowing darting eyes to scan the audience as he played. The Poulenc Sonata was one of the jewels in his programme, and he introduced this final movement by saying in his lilting Irish accent, “It’s as though a Frenchman is between his wife and his mistress; first he turns to one, then he to the other… backwards and forwards, never quite sure who he’s speaking to, or how much trouble he’s in!”

Poulenc’s famous flute sonata is as humorous, quirky and delightful as the composer himself. If you can listen to Sir James Galway playing this work, you are indeed privileged.

Until next time, ‘here comes Treble!’

By Isabel Bradley © Copyright Reserved


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