In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Francis Poulenc

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Collected Essays About Poulenc
  • Biographical Information and Touring
  • Poulenc and Les Six
  • Interviews with Poulenc and Others
  • Other Essays and Periodicals
  • Critical Editions of Poulenc’s Music and Facsimiles
  • Performance Video
  • Principal Publishers of Poulenc’s Music

Music Francis Poulenc
Carl Schmidt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0021


Francis Poulenc (b. 7 January 1899–d. 30 January 1963) is the most frequently performed, recorded, and studied member of the French group that, in 1920, critic Henri Collet dubbed Les Six (Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Germaine Tailleferre, and Poulenc). Born into a middle-class family living in Paris, Poulenc’s father was involved with a chemical company and his mother was an amateur pianist of considerable accomplishment. Poulenc’s career was primarily devoted to composition, but it also included important work as a pianist and accompanist. From the late 1920s, he wrote music predominantly at his Touraine estate Le grand coteau (The large hill) in Noizay, while enjoying the Parisian cultural scene and maintaining an apartment near the Luxembourg Gardens from the late 1940s. In the 1930s he formed a duo with the baritone Pierre Bernac that performed for a quarter century, and he accompanied and/or recorded with a number of other singers, including Rose Dercourt, Denise Duval, Suzanne Peignot, Gérard Souzay, Geneviève Touraine, and Lucienne Tragin, with the cellist Pierre Fournier and the flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, or with ad hoc chamber groups in Europe and North America. He frequently played as soloist in his Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra with Jacques Février, and less frequently he played his Aubade, Concert champêtre, or Piano Concerto. Virtually all of his music has been published and recorded. Known as one of the greatest composers of art songs of the 20th century, Poulenc also left an impressive legacy of a cappella or accompanied choral works, popular sonatas for wind instruments, and three operas, including Dialogues des Carmélites, which continues to be performed at leading theaters around the world. A prolific correspondent, he wrote more than fifty articles, prefaces, and books, made a number of audio recordings beginning in 1930, and is memorialized in several video recordings. In the last decade, Poulenc has been the object of renewed scholarly interest, and he is well on the way to fulfilling Roland Gelatt’s astute prediction, “I must still express my growing conviction that the name of Francis Poulenc will appear on concert programs a century hence” (Saturday Review, 29 January 1950).

General Overviews

Most general overviews of French 20th-century music concentrate on the decade following World War I, but they come at the subject from different perspectives. Sachs 1939 (based on the author having been a direct observer of the French musical scene in the 1920s) and Harding 1972 (written from the perspective of an astute critic of French music, theater, and literature) led the way, followed by Shead 1976 (which predominantly focuses on trends such as hedonism and neoclassicism found in ballets of the 1920s) and Nichols 2002 (the most thorough survey of the period, utilizing all the earlier overviews and more recent discoveries). Perloff 1991 discusses the influence of popular styles on composers, while Fulcher 2005 discusses the intellectual climate in which composers found themselves. Chimènes 1999, a study of Poulenc’s patrons based on the author’s vast knowledge of 20th-century French culture, is an important contribution, and Arbey 2012 considers Poulenc in the perspective of popular music. These studies put Poulenc in context. For the most recent notices concerning developments in Poulenc scholarship, one should consult Association des Amis de Francis Poulenc, a website with both French and English versions.

  • Arbey, Dominique. Francis Poulenc et la musique populaire. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2012.

    Examines the influence of popular music styles on the works of Poulenc, including music hall, folk music, and jazz, among others. Includes an introduction, sources, bibliography, index, and tables.

  • Association des Amis de Francis Poulenc.

    The website of Association des Amis de Francis Poulenc (The Friends of Poulenc Association) contains a biography, photographs, and references to catalogues, articles, books, discographies, videos, notices of performances, information about the association, and links to items relevant to Poulenc.

  • Chimènes, Myriam. “Poulenc and His Patrons: Social Convergences.” Translated by Sidney Buckland. In Francis Poulenc: Music, Art and Literature. Edited by Sidney Buckland and Myriam Chimènes, 210–251. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1999.

    Important discussion of the numerous patrons whose largesse led both to commissions and to the friendships on which Poulenc doted. Built on a firm scholarly foundation.

  • Dumesnil, René. La musique en France entre les deux guerres, 1919–1939. Geneva, Switzerland: Éditions du Milieu du Monde, 1946.

    Provides information about performers, composers, and performances, and considers the prevailing artistic climate during the interwar years. Material about Poulenc is dispersed throughout, and some details about his earliest works are given. The lengthy chronology of events between 1919 and 1940 is useful but not always accurate.

  • Fulcher, Jane. The Composer as Intellectual: Music and Ideology in France, 1914–1940. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Relates composers to political movements, institutions, and their religious interests, in a chronological context. Works such as Poulenc’s Litanies à la Vierge Noire are discussed, but the emphasis is on cultural history, not musical analysis. Particularly strong concerning French intellectual history as it relates to composers.

  • Harding, James. The Ox on the Roof: Scenes from Musical Life in Paris in the Twenties. London: Macdonald, 1972.

    A seminal study placing Poulenc in his Parisian cultural milieu as he developed across Les années folles (the Roaring Twenties, 1919–1929) and in the context of his contemporaries and their influence on his early works. All other studies on French music in the 1920s owe a debt to Harding’s pioneering work.

  • Kelly, Barbara L. “Music and Ultra-Modernism in France” A Fragile Consensus, 1913–1939. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2013.

    Covers Poulenc in the context of diverse movements represented by French composers active from World War I to the advent of World War II. The importance of Debussy and Ravel to Poulenc, Auric, Milhaud, and Jolivet is concisely discussed.

  • Lacombe, Hervé. “Du monde exotique au territoire intime: L’émergence de nouvelles altérités dans l’œuvre de Francis Poulenc.” In L’altérité dans le spectacle, le spectacle de l’altérité. Edited by Nathalie Coutelet and Isabelle Moindrot, 321–330. Rennes, France: PUR, 2015.

    Adds another aspect to the scholarship on Poulenc.

  • Nichols, Roger. The Harlequin Years: Music in Paris, 1917–1929. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

    Introduces the period, discusses how the arts were reevaluated after World War I, and examines how new influences were brought to bear on the work of establishment composers such as Gabriel Fauré and Albert Roussel. More a cultural history than one presenting biographical portraits or musical analysis, this book is based on twelve programs broadcast on BBC Radio 3 during 1986.

  • Perloff, Nancy. Art and the Everyday: Popular Entertainment and the Circle of Erik Satie. Oxford: Clarendon, 1991.

    Documents how Satie and his friends were instrumental in moving French music away from a Wagnerian influence and impressionism, and replacing them with the popular influence of the French cabaret and American ragtime and jazz. Emphasizes the Erik Satie/Jean Cocteau/Pablo Picasso collaboration on Parade, Poulenc’s Cocardes and Les biches, plus Les mariés de la Tour Eiffel.

  • Sachs, Maurice. Au temps du boeuf sur le toit. Paris: Nouvelle Revue Critique, 1939.

    Based on diary entries from 14 July 1919 to 30 October 1929, this book contains much anecdotal information about events and people during this decade. Fascinating portrait of the time by a notorious homosexual and thief whose life ended in a German prison.

  • Shead, Richard. Music in the 1920s. New York: St. Martin’s, 1976.

    Broad overview of the decade, examining French music as well as that of America and Germany. Topics include hedonism, neoclassicism, music hall and circus, and Negro art and jazz. Ballets and operas, including Les biches, are discussed, and the music of Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky, Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, and Kurt Weill is emphasized.

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