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Francis Poulenc
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Francis Poulenc

High-stakes struggle

Music | Albums show composer Francis Poulenc giving musical life to a battle with sin

Issue: "Day of reckoning," June 14, 2014

With most studies putting the percentage of homosexuals somewhere between 1 percent and 6 percent, the West’s current infatuation with same-sex attraction seems less like a case of the tail wagging the dog than the tail stub wagging the Manx cat.

Nevertheless, as the issue increasingly preoccupies Christians, two recent albums showcasing the music of Francis Poulenc, generally considered the greatest French composer of the 20th century, are worth pondering.

Poulenc died in 1963 at the age of 64, and his homosexuality has long been established. That he was also a Roman Catholic and struggled with what Roger Nichols describes as a “penchant for handsome young men of no great intellectual pretensions” is, if not less well known, certainly less celebrated nowadays.

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How hard Poulenc struggled remains unknown. He once claimed to be “as sincere” in his faith as he was in his “Parisian sexuality.” But he must have known that light hath no such fellowship with darkness. It’s telling that two of his greatest mature-period compositions are the opera Dialogues of the Carmelites (1953-1956) and Stabat Mater (1950), a 12-movement sequence for orchestra, chorus, and solo soprano based on the sorrows of Mary.

The date of Poulenc’s rededication to the faith of his father (his mother was an atheist) is usually given as 1936, the year that the sudden death of a friend plunged Poulenc into despair. Following closely on his Mass in G (1937), he composed the Concerto in G minor for organ, strings and timpani (1938), and it’s the centerpiece of Poulenc: Organ Concerto (MSR Classics) by the National Presbyterian Church organist William Neil.

“While all of Poulenc’s other concertos are relatively light-hearted works,” writes Richard Freed in the liner notes, “sometimes evoking the music hall, his Organ Concerto … is dramatic and almost unrelievedly more serious in character.”

Freed goes on to cite the attribution of the work’s seriousness to Poulenc’s “formal return to the Roman Catholic Church” (“a by no means casual gesture”), implying that one of the several ways the concerto can be heard is as an aural dramatization of the high-stakes, grace-enabled struggle against deeply rooted sin—a kind of regress-bedeviled pilgrim’s progress if you will. God doesn’t give us more than we can bear, the music seems to say, but He seldom gives us less either. By programming it immediately after Lili Boulanger’s musical prayer for the faithfully departed, “Pie Jesu,” Neil himself would seem to have had something along those lines in mind.

A different situating of Poulenc within a sacred or at least sacred-friendly milieu occurs within the striking new album by the Italian violin and piano-playing sisters known as Duo Gazzana: Poulenc, Walton, Dallapiccola, Schnittke, Silvestrov (ECM New Series).

The gorgeously idyllic Suite im alten Stil (1972) by Alfred Schnittke that opens the disc and that leads into Poulenc’s Sonate pour violon et piano (1942-1949) predates Schnittke’s own Trinitarian baptism by a decade. But the piece’s evocation of soul-restoring green pastures and becalming waters foreshadows it. And while the Poulenc that follows is more restless, suggesting both higher peaks and deeper valleys, it’s no less beautiful. Ultimately, like the album as a whole, it’s triumphant.

Coincidentally, in the years that Poulenc was composing Sonate pour violon et piano, C.S. Lewis was giving the BBC radio talks that would become Mere Christianity.

“The sins of the flesh are bad,” he said in one, “but they are the least bad of all sins.” He probably didn’t have Poulenc’s duress-defying musical achievements in mind when he said it. But he could have. 

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