Melody maker


To quote the first work Francis Poulenc wrote for publication, the Rapsodie Negre of 1917:

Honoloulou, poti lama!
honoloulou honoloulou
kati moko, mosi bolou
ratakou sira, polama!

The lines, by a "French librarian", Makoko Kangourou, are to be declaimed, hieratically and impressively, against a solemn, chordal accompaniment. When the 18-year-old composer showed the score to a distinguished Parisian professeur, hoping for his patronage, he was thrown "im-mediate-ment" on to the street. The work's dedicatee, Erik Satie, advised Poulenc to "laugh it off, old chap" and to find another teacher, which Poulenc did.

Poulenc was born 100 years ago, in 1899, on 7 January. He considered himself a Janus-figure. How would he reply if a "lady from Kamchatka" wrote and asked what he was like? He would send two portraits, one chic, another serious, plus his profane cantata Le Bal Masque and his Motets pour un Temps de Penitence: music distinctly unprofane and sombre. The Kamchatkan lady would thus get an exact picture of "the Poulenc-Janus".

But Poulenc's music was more multi-faced. It contained, wrote a contemporary Englishman, "the easy charm of the folk song, the gay allure of the military band, the sparkle of the 18th century, the 'amusing' sentimentality of the 19th, the spicy harmonies of our own time, the saccharine smile of the prostitute, the extended tongue of the gamin, mazurkas, ragtimes, ritornellos, rigadoons, Stravinsky, Scarlatti, Chabrier, Gounod - all paraded before us with bewildering rapidity . . ." Constant Lambert's list should perhaps have had envy at the bottom.

Lambert may have been right to identify the "scrap-book" Poulenc. He may have been right that Poulenc's music resembled a fashionable postwar drawing room - post-first world war - in which a "Picasso reproduction was not considered 'amusing' unless surrounded by a Gothic frame made out of walnut shells", and a Brancusi fish was not "amusing" unless "set off by a cage of stuffed tits and an effigy of Queen Victoria". But he was wrong to miss Poulenc's melody.

Melody is what can be heard, above all, in EMI's Francis Poulenc, Edition du Centenaire: 20 CDs of the main works, plus many that aren't main at all. From Les Biches, Poulenc's one-act ballet for Diaghilev in 1924 with no plot, no theme, but a sprinkling of hotted-up harmony instead and some of the loveliest classic tunes of the century, Poulenc was consistently one of the great melodists. His last important work, from 1962, was an oboe sonata dedicated to the memory of Prokofiev, in which the soloist laments the Russian's death in music of profound and beautiful sadness. Poulenc's last three sonatas - for flute, clarinet and oboe - are all delicately and deeply sad masterpieces.

Poulenc was perhaps not the 20th century's Schubert. He asked that his chansons and melodies should be sung "as seriously as if they were Schubert", without irony, even when they crabbily set an Apollinaire poem about the ecrevisse or, lumberingly, his poem of the Dromadaire: "Don Pedro de Alfaroubeira /travelled admiringly around the world./He did just what I should do/if I had had four camels." Poulenc's melodies, like Schubert's, are comfortable but unpredictable. There is Schubertian melancholy beneath the surface. But Poulenc lacked Schubert's adventurousness and consistency. And he was French.

Being French meant "not liking" Beethoven, "detesting" Wagner, and having Bach, Mozart, Satie, Stravinsky as favourites. In the Concerto for Two Pianos - Poulenc himself dashing away at one of them on EMI's disc - a verbatim Mozart moment dissolves into piquant post-romantic haze. In the Stabat Mater a stoical string introduction is modelled on a Bach Passion movement - even to the extent of reproducing how a Bach Passion sounded to Poulenc's ears in the days before period instrument performance: plush and cello-heavy. In his religious music, as elsewhere, Poulenc is a master of knowing the bounds of taste; but even he is not above accompanying the words of the dying Christ - "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" - with an uprushing starburst of Ben Hur harp.

The sacred and the profane are the Poulenc-Janus's two poles. Formed in the bourgeois salons of the Princesse de Polignac, the Singer sewing machine heiress, and the Comtesse de Noailles, he wrote the most direct and touching French religious music of this century: the hushed, whispering wonderment of O Magnum Mysterium parting and giving way, like Piero's pregnant Madonna, to a pure soprano narration of the mystery of the incarnation; the time- honoured bagpipe-inspired harmonies of the shepherds, a vestige of pastoral music past: such motifs are handled with inspired, natural ease.

But there is a rougher, darker side: not only in the religious works like the Motets pour un Temps de Penitence, worked over to be "as realistic and tragic as a Mantegna painting", but even, after the 1930s and 1940s and the death of friends and a religious reconversion, in the settings of Apollinaire, the poet who had seemed for Poulenc the quintessence of nonchalance, never to be taken seriously.

"Banalites" - "Banalities" - is an Apollinaire series from 1940. The setting of the final poem, addressing "mon pauvre coeur, mon coeur bris", is restrained and inward. The words conjure the reader: "cachons nos sanglots". Instinctively it is what Poulenc had always done; now, with the help of the poets Apollinaire and Eluard, and of the Roman church, he had learnt to do it in his art: to "hide his sobs".

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour