Take a recess with Poulenc

‘Welcome back.’

It’s always struck me as an odd greeting when live programmes on television, such as the evening news, open with this phrase after a thirty-second commercial break. ‘I didn’t go anywhere, actually, you’re the ones who decided to leave, not me,’ is the thought that often crosses my mind.

So I shall go with ‘Hello again,’ for I have been absent for a couple of months. Moving into a new house with no wi-fi for eight weeks has tested patience to near breaking point, but the thrill of finally having sound again has reinvigorated my urge to share music with you at a time when it is much needed. We seem to lurch from one shambles to another.

Amidst all this chaos, music is the one enduring constant. What else has the ability to take us out of ourselves, to allow us to inhabit another space away from whatever life throws at us, to silence world noise for a few moments, and hence to put everything else around us on hold? Drink and drugs may do it for some, but the full benefits we get  from music come from dedicated and attentive listening, not merely hearing, thereby ensuring our willing surrender to it and the need to return for more.

And the need is very great just now, especially for an element of calm. Which is why I have turned to the French composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), a name which will be new to many, and might not be that well known to those it isn’t. Despite his output being prodigious, Poulenc (pronounced Poolank) has struggled to earn the respect and coverage he deserves, possibly because much of his early work, notably his songs, is seen as light-hearted, even frivolous; a perception which his later religious, and more serious pieces, helped to reverse.

Coming from a prosperous family, Poulenc was not expected to follow a musical career, but his mother was a decent pianist and music was always in the house. Both parents died while Francis was a teenager, and it fell to his teacher, Ricardo Viñes, to encourage the young man to compose, in the first instance by introducing him to Georges Auric who became a life-long friend and mentor. During his musical development, Poulenc drew upon all sorts of composers for his inspiration, old and contemporary, but in the end there is definitely a style which you can pin down as his own: it is one which combines his love of simple melody – with a dash of brief quirkiness thrown in to the mix.

Simplistic it may be to say so, but it is, perhaps, a reflection of his anything-but-straightforward personal life. He proposed marriage to one lady, but the combination of her involvement with another man and her discovery that Poulenc was gay, was never likely to have her rushing into his arms. He did, nevertheless, father a girl elsewhere, who, in a precursor to the fictitious Wilson-Pike relationship in Dad’s Army, grew up never knowing him to be her father. But his sexual predilictions were predominantly elsewhere and there were affairs aplenty.

Back to that style of tune and quirkiness. Here is the 2nd movement of his Concerto for Two Pianos. The whole piece can be seen as a combination of mild ridicule of the standard approach to concerto-writing with a reverence to those names he respected – Ravel, Stravinsky; and in this extract, Mozart. It’s a lovely, simple Mozart tune, the Elvira Magdalene reference clear, with eerie Poulenc dissonances thrown in here and there, before returning to a gentle, if abrupt, conclusion. The man had a sense of humour, but that does not make his output lightweight: dig out his Organ Concerto with Strings and Timpani, it is rivetting.

There is no dialogue between one piano and the other here, you cannot really tell them apart. It is just a case of two are better than one. The sound and picture qualities are not the finest, but I have chosen it to show you the man himself at the keyboard, even if perhaps past his playing best.

So leave the chaos for five minutes and just let go.

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