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Media Review

An Unusual and Extraordinary Biography of Francis Poulenc

December 8, 2020 - Easthampton, MA:

Coping with crisisGraham Johnson, Poulenc: The Life in The Songs, New York & London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Co. © 2020, ISBN 9781631495236, Pp. xvii + 554, $49.95; also available as an e-book.

After the preliminary materials, the dedication: "For Flott (Felicity Lott)*; the recital partner of a lifetime" (p. vii); the ToC (pp. ix-xii); the Preface (pp. xiii-xvi); and the "Map of Poulenc's France" (p. xvii) that locates all the places where he lived or spent lengthy visits with close friends, the text begins in earnest.

Instead of the traditional birth-to-death narrative divided into chapters, this biography of Francis Poulenc is assembled more like an annotated itemized diary (journal in French; Poulenc kept them, but destroyed some) or ledger, by decade, with the appropriate ancestral information opening the 1st, and the 6th short, because of his sudden death from a heart attack and ruptured aorta at barely age 64 (pp. 1-471). Each is, in turn, divided into two sections: the first, the "Outline of a Musical Life," and the second, the catalogue of the songs, first "Songs for a New Century," then "Songs of the [x decade #]-ies" in chronological order, with complete texts, including some that he did not allow to be published, and new, astute translations (almost always spot-on, albeit more so for speakers of British than American English, sometimes annotated with cultural and linguistic information) by Jeremy Sams, and the known details of their composition, premières, and subsequent major performances, or the fate of their scores if no longer extant. All his other works are entered into this catalogue in the proper place chronologically with only their basic information. Throughout, many direct quotes of Poulenc's words, spoken or written, are included, all in italics. (p. 3).

There are several informative "Biographical Interludes" in these pages that introduce some poets/writers: Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Éluard, Max Jacob, and Jean Cocteau; and four other independent 'asides': "The Sexual Milieu of Francis Poulenc," "The Crisis of 1954," "Francis Poulenc and Painting" [An extraordinarily important and perceptive 2.5 pp., 387-9!; They precede the discussion of Le Travail du Peintre, pp. 389-412, equally outstanding.], and "Poulenc and Britten: Cross-Channel Currents."

Other biographical portraits are given with the material on the songs associated with them, such as singing-actress Yvette Printemps, dedicatee and singer of its 1ère of À sa guitare (pp. 148-51), poet Louise de Vilmorin with Trois Poèmes de… (pp. 171-181), writer Colette with Le Portrait (pp. 181-84, medieval courtly poet Charles d'Orléans with Priez pour paix) (pp. 199-201), poets Raymond Radiguet with Paul et Virginie (pp. 306-08), Robert Desnos with Le disparu (pp. 309-11), singer Alice (Swanson) Esty [also a great patroness, akin to Winaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac, about whom I have written elsewhere in these pages], with Le Travail du Peintre, of which she was the commissioner and dedicatee, and performed the French and American 1ères (pp. 390-1), and Dernier Poème (pp. 416-19), poet Fédérico García Lorca with Trois Chansons de F. G[...] L[...] (pp. 314-18), singer Jane Bathori, with Une Chanson de Porcelaine, of which she was the dedicatee (pp. 419-21), and poet Maurice Carême with La Courte paille (pp. 442-56).

Also sprinkled throughout are cross-references to related texts on other pages, that keep you flipping the pages, and perhaps (likely, even) making the reader make the same connections that the composer was likely making in his own mind as he wrote the scores.

The remainder of the book (pp. 473-554) contains the 'reference' material; it, too, is plentiful, and carefully organized. It opens with two compilations of specific information: "Poulenc's People: Patrons, Friends, Colleagues, Dedicates, Publishers," which gives biographical information about them; and "The Masks and Myths of Francis Poulenc, and his Eventual Triumph," subdivided into subjects that include: "Twin, Counterweight, and Guardian Angel: Pierre Bernac" (I own 2 CDs [Adès, © 1960] of him, with the composer at the keyboard, of songs by Apollinaire, Éluard, Jacob, and other poets, many mentioned in this review); "Students are advised to study all the recordings of this duo, a performance legacy as important as the printed scores." [p.297]), and "The Apotheosis of Francis Poulenc," ending with an "Envoi" ('parting words,' a medieval poetry tradition).

These are followed by the "Acknowledgements" (pp. 497-98), "Notes" (pp. 499-522, "Bibliography" (pp. 523-24), "Credits" for the copious b&w illustrations and the poetry (pp. 525-27), and two Indexes: "Song Titles" (pp. 529-32), and "Names" (pp. 533-54).

This litany of the contents shows how thorough the research has been: Graham has dug out/up all the facts that are findable today; of course, others might be found later... Rarely have I seen such a succinct authoritative documentation of a life. Graham's own credentials and experience are equally authoritative for his assessments. He seems to have managed to crawl inside of his subject's brain, so intimate and long has his association with his music been. He quotes in several places throughout the book, especially in the later periods, comments from Poulenc's diaries about how he composed different songs, often over long periods of time, carefully assembling several works at the same time. Most composers do not work this way, or at least not to this degree.

Poulenc was most comfortable with and inspired by the works of the modern, avant-garde poets, his contemporaries primarily, in an intuitive way that pleased the public, and was very different from the composers of the Belle Époque, who were more connected to the late Romantic poets. It was, and still is, a different world. The same was true for the artists whom he knew. Many others of his contemporary composers were not nearly as good at this. Hence, he is likely the greatest of the 20th century ones in this domain, and was recognized as such in his time.

A few of his mélodies come close to the music-hall or popular song world that remained closer to the Belle Époque tradition; one of those has become his best known and the favorite of many who know few (if any) of his others: Les Chemins de l'Amour. It closes the Hyperion CD mentioned above, for example, and Johnson's discussion of it contains an interesting comment: "If taken too seriously, and slowly, it loses that sense of containment and proportion that is at the heart of French music, even music in the popular vein. The two verses in C-sharp major (as opposed to the refrains in D-flat major) are such an impeccable pastiche of quasi-conversational French popular style that we can almost hear Édith Piaf singing them."

This is as much a reference book as (perhaps even more than?) a biography, and is, therefore, not a quick read, but an eminently rewarding one. If you are not familiar with some of the authors, use the links here to learn about them. It is also, in many ways, a review of the history of the first 60 years of the 20th century from a perspective different from ours. No singer should program a Poulenc song without consulting this book about it, both for performance information and for program notes; the collaborative pianist should follow suit. Virtually all the details are there. It is an unparalleled source of information about the composer, especially for his songs.

*I own two CDs of her singing Poulenc with Johnson at the keyboard: Hyperion, © 1986 [booklet notes by Johnson], and Forlane, © 1994.