MANY WHO KNEW composer Francis Poulenc remarked on the contradictory combination of irreverence and piety in both his personality and his work. "Half bad boy, half monk," said critic Claude Rostand. Added Ned Rorem: "He wrote the greatest vocal music of our century, all of it technically impeccable, and truly vulgar."
Central Lutheran Church
His personal belief that music was meant to charm and be loved set Poulenc apart aesthetically from many of his contemporaries. It's also what has kept his work in the hearts of his advocates, one of whom is Eric Banks, director of the Esoterics, a 25-voice choir devoted to an out-of-the-way corner of the choral repertory: a cappella music of the 20th century.
Poulenc's centennial is upon us—the exact date is January 7—but the only observance I know of, locally or elsewhere, is the all-Poulenc concert the Esoterics have planned for this weekend. They're exploring the essential sacred/profane contradiction in his oeuvre, with religious works on the first half of the program and secular works on the second.
The centerpiece of the sacred selections is Poulenc's 1937 Mass, which is in five movements rather than the customary six—Poulenc tellingly chose not to set the Credo text. This makes his Mass less a statement of faith than a commentary on religion itself, less a church service than a descriptive song cycle exploring various aspects of Catholicism. Poulenc evokes the untrained but fervent voices of rural churchgoers and pilgrims in the harmonic clashes of the opening Kyrie, while the martial Gloria reflects a strain of nationalistic religious feeling prevalent in 1930s France. The composer described the tripping, chiming sounds of the Sanctus as "a carillon of voices," and claimed it was inspired by a fanciful 15th-century fresco depicting angels sticking out their tongues.
On the Esoterics' concert, this Mass will be framed by shorter sacred works: three Latin settings—Salve regina, Exultate Deo, and Ave verum corpus—and Poulenc's 1948 Four Small Prayers of St. Francis of Assisi.
POULENC FELT PARTICULARLY close to the poet Paul Eluard, drawing on his verse for both choral music and solo songs. Three choral cycles based mostly on Eluard texts make up the second half of the Esoterics' program. The melodic and harmonic style of Poulenc's Sept chansons (1936) will be familiar to anyone who knows the organ concerto he wrote at the same time. The four-poem cycle Un soir de neige (1944) was inspired by Schubert's bleak Die Winterreise; another wartime work was Figure humaine, settings of eight more Eluard poems. The first of these, with the line "Of all the springtimes of the world/This one is the ugliest," and the last, climaxing in a cry of "Liberté!", have been described as "Resistance" songs. The music, for 12-part choir, is relentlessly intricate and virtuosic; the final cry for freedom flamboyantly spreads the voices out over four octaves with a spectacular high E on top.
Between pieces, the Esoterics will offer reflections on Poulenc, biographical details, and excerpts from the composer's journals. Poulenc is the first of four composers they are honoring with 100th-birthday concerts this year, the others coming in April, June, and October. The featured composers make for a particularly varied group: Randall Thompson, beloved by church choirs for works like his mellifluous "Alleluia," and by his generations of composition students; Mexican composer Carlos Chavez, who wove the sounds and moods of indigenous music into his work; and Hungarian Lajos Bardos, a composer from the generation after Bartók and Kodaly who drew on their research in Eastern European folk song for his own religious works.