Personalities | Francis Poulenc | Modern Era | Opera

1899–1963, French

Born into social privilege, Poulenc was introduced to the Parisian art scene by his piano teacher and mentor, Ricardo Viñes, and struck out in a new direction when becoming part of a non-conformist group known as Les Six. Hardly members of the avant-garde, these young composers instead liked to combine popular music styles with repetitive, strongly accented rhythms, polytonality and a quality of informality and spontaneity.

A gifted vocal writer and lyrical melodist, Poulenc composed his first operatic work during the Second World War. Les mamelles de Tirésias was based on a surrealist comedy by Apollinaire, which Poulenc had seen in 1917. But even though it premiered at the Opéra-Comique with legendary soprano Denise Duval in the title role, it received a lukewarm reception.

A decade later, Poulenc composed his only full-length opera. Based on a true story about nuns who were beheaded during the French Revolution, Dialogues des Carmélites (‘Dialogues of the Carmelites’ or ‘The Carmelites’, 1956) further demonstrated his masterful writing for voice and orchestra. It was his final opera, the one-act tragedy La voix humaine (‘The Human Voice’, 1959) that was his most personal. His portrayal of a young woman’s one-sided phone conversation with her disengaged ex-lover probably echoed the pain that Poulenc had experienced with his own complex relationships.

Sounds Familiar

Francis Poulenc and his Les Six colleagues were highly influenced by Parisian culture’s popular music. Some of the melodies in his opera Les mamelles de Tirésias are strongly influenced by French music hall and cabaret, most notably Thérèse’s ‘Envolez-vous, oiseaux de ma faiblesse…’ and the closing scene ‘Il faux s’aimer…’.

Introduction | Modern Era | Opera
Major Operas | Dialogues des Carmélites by Francis Poulenc | Modern Era
Personalities | Leontyne Price | Modern Era | Opera
Houses & Companies | Opéra-Comique | Early Romantic | Opera


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