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Poulenc: The Life in the Songs

11:26, 26th May 2020

Jon Tolansky speaks to Graham Johnson about his latest study of Poulenc’s life and works

The song accompanist Graham Johnson masterminded the Hyperion Records edition of the complete songs of Francis Poulenc, and now he has written a vital new book on the songs which are here placed ingeniously in the context of the composer’s life. Poulenc: The Life in the Songs is published by Liveright/Norton in June, and it not only serves as the definitive guide to Poulenc’s melodies, it also reveals in historical and psychological depth the profound emotional struggles that lay behind these inspired works and how frequently they allow us access to the composer’s artistic soul.

‘I have entitled my new book Poulenc: The Life in the Songs because I think how these poems-in-music occur within a biographical context is important. Biographical details and his choice of song texts are very much linked. There is always a reason why the composer has chosen certain texts, and themes, and why he plays with ideas at certain times. Busy writing other music with other criteria in mind, Poulenc was instinctively attracted to the work of his poet contemporaries – and no one could have been more deeply influenced by his Parisian  surroundings. At the age of 21 I fell in love with his music in no small part because of its haunting explorations of Paris and its boulevards, a nostalgic aspect of French life which we non-Parisians so wish we could have experienced for ourselves. I felt as if I had already missed out on so many spring-times of love in that beautiful city that Poulenc’s music seemed something of a time-travelling substitute for that heady atmosphere of romance. It took some time to realise that there was much more to the story than that.

‘Francis Poulenc was born in that remarkable city, in January 1899, at a time that could not have been more interesting in terms of the explosive developments in all the arts,’ Johnson continues. ‘Throughout his life Poulenc consciously put forward a public image of lightness and charm, captured in some of his most popularly performed music and backed up by anecdotes that were provided entirely by himself – he supervised the writing of his own biography when Henri Hell wrote it in 1958. The fact is that he was more complicated than any of us could possibly realise.’

Graham Johnson became aware in a personal way of the extent of those complications when he studied with Poulenc’s close friend and artistic colleague, the great baritone and pedagogue Pierre Bernac. 

‘It was my deep and enormous privilege to have known Pierre Bernac, to have studied with him, and to have accompanied him in a BBC recording of L’Histoire de Babar le petit éléphant. I was also unusually honoured to have been able to talk with him, albeit on his side very reservedly, about the inner life of Poulenc. Bernac and Poulenc were performing as a duo that would last for 25 years.  Many people have imagined a romantic liaison between the two, but this was and is a myth: they addressed each other as “vous” to the end of their days.  They had an enormous respect and affection for each other, and Bernac played the part of counsellor and conscience and performed countless offices of truly great friendship to Poulenc – as well as remaining undoubtedly the composer’s greatest song interpreter. He was horrified at the way the composer sometimes recklessly led his life in pursuit of amatory adventure: once he had settled his affections on a younger man, he would sometimes allow himself to become emotionally involved in an extremely self-destructive way.

‘It was a side that Poulenc took great care to hide from most people, a secrecy he also practised when a fleeting liaison with a woman led to the birth of a daughter, who is still alive and whose birth and existence he hid from some of his close friends, including the relative closest to him, his devoted niece, Brigitte Manceaux. He led a compartmentalised life: he often visited his daughter pretending to be her godfather, and only after his death did she find out the truth. Poulenc told some people certain things and allowed the public to know or assume others – he had a kind of genius in the constant control and spinning of information about him and his works.

‘It is well known that as a result of a mystical experience at the Shrine of the Black Virgin in Rocamadour he re-converted to Catholicism in 1936. It seems that a part of this religious faith was rooted in guilt, and shame, and at the end of his life he had a genuine fear of burning in hell, so tainted did he consider his mortal soul to be. One would scarcely believe this possible in the self-styled Maurice Chevalier-like figure that Poulenc wanted the world to think he was (the composer once said that he tried to model his life on this celebrated popular singer). Poulenc was indeed in many ways generous and charming and kind, but he was tormented by shame at a time when homosexuality was still regarded in France as socially (and religiously) unacceptable. As a young man he felt terror, for example, that his sister and brother-in-law would find out, and it took him some time, a member of the haute bourgeoisie, to establish a circle of aristocratic and influential friends who were able to accept him as he was, without them being aware of the more troublesome details of his emotional entanglements – for instance his desire to have lovers of a working class background, rather than from his own social milieu.

‘Looking closely at Poulenc’s songs and their texts as they progress through the decades of his work we see many reflections of his life and times. There is much more to him than the simple bubbling music reminiscent of the Vouvray wine that he used to dispense to his friends from the cellars at the chateau in Noizay where he lived and worked. It is only in encompassing the total picture of Poulenc, a very different Poulenc from many of the earlier biographies, that we are able better to understand and value his music.’

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