Jimmy Mac sent along a Tablet piece by Paul Bailey on the composer Francis Poulenc. Bailey mentions music critic Claude Rostand’s assessment of Poulenc as part monk, part guttersnipe (voyou). Is such an internal conflict a fruitful branch for a creative spirit? Or does creativity flourish in spite of inner turmoil?
My older brother recently sang Poulenc’s Four Motets for Christmas with his choral society. Didn’t like them at all. They played on the radio a few nights ago, and unfortunately, it was very late and I was already on the edge of sleep. It’s been years since I’ve heard them myself.
Music critic Paul Bailey:
During the winter of 1951-52, the monk was to the fore, or better still in the ascendant, as he composed the Quatre Motets pour un temps de Noël, which is among his most radiant offerings to the God with whom he sometimes struggled. The four motets make perfect Christmas music, far removed from the glutinous sweetness that mars certain carols. Of especial beauty is Videntes stellam (“seeing the star”), with its soaring harmonies reaching for the guiding star the Magi saw in the sky.
The words “videntes stellam”are repeated several times, ever more movingly until the heart-stopping final cadence. The deceptive simplicity of Poulenc’s genius as a composer of choral music is apparent on first hearing. Later hearings reveal the depth and subtlety of his melodic writing.
A deeply sensitive man, Poulenc was shaken by the deaths of those close to him. The composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud may have been more rival than friend, according to Bailey, but the man’s horrific death in August 1936 spurred Poulenc to turn his creative energy to religious music.
This led him to his first visit to the shrine of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour. Here, before the statue of the Madonna with a young child on her lap, Poulenc experienced a life-changing transformation. Thereafter, he produced a sizeable output of liturgical music or compositions based on religious themes, beginning with the Litanies à la vierge noire (1936) and including his opera Dialogues of the Carmelites (1956). In 1949, Poulenc experienced the death of another friend, the artist Christian Bérard, for whom he composed his Stabat Mater (1950). Other sacred works from this period include the Mass in G (1937), Gloria (1959), and Sept répons des ténèbres (1961–2).
When Bailey mentioned Poulenc’s faith and his struggles with it, my eyes perked up.
Poulenc was not a conventionally pious Catholic. He wasn’t always totally secure in his faith. Yet his need to believe is everywhere apparent in the great choral works of his maturity. The element of doubt gives them a dramatic edge, a welcome dissonance. It is too easy and convenient to mention him alongside such lightweights as Milhaud and Satie, with whom he is in friendly and lasting company, but it is also salutary to record that he was influenced by Monteverdi and Webern.
Monteverdi: now there is inspiration.
I will have to give the man a listen in the days ahead. I don’t think I have any of his works in my cd library.
Bailey on a recent cd release and the composer’s inner conflict:
A compact disc, released earlier this year on the Signum Classics label, offers proof of the depth of his religious feeling, his aspiration towards the much-wanted state of grace.
There are tiny treasures here: the Litanies à la Vierge Noire, dating from that fateful August of 1936; the very brief Salve Regina; the Quatre petites prières de St Francis d’Assise; and the haunting Un soir de neige. This is Poulenc the monk, the contemplative spirit who sought consolation in a musical language, like Webern’s, that functions on the verge of silence. The other Poulenc, the self-confessed guttersnipe, is present in the early works, with which he has been for far too long associated. It might not be the conventional lifestyle of a devout Catholic but it becomes clearer now, some 47 years after his passing, that the seeming contradictions of his character – the monk and the guttersnipe – were necessary companions. The guttersnipe had to escape from the monkish restrictions, and the monk felt ashamed of the depths of unrequited love and affection his desires drew him into. Out of this confusion of flesh and spirit comes the transcendental music for which he will be forever celebrated.
As I pondered Bailey’s essay, I considered how this divided nature is so much a part of our world. Christmas, a festival of light (and of the Light of the World) is placed in the darkest of Northern days. Christ the King comes, but is welcomed by rural riff-raff. No earthly choirs celebrated the nativity, but the spirit of angelic heaven could not be contained. Christ comes to feed the world, yet his first bed was in the feeding area of an animal.
I disagree that such contrasts are necessarily those of “confusion.” Perhaps Poulenc himself was tortured by the unresolved longings brushing up against devotion and belief. Without excusing either, can they not exist together in this world? Christendom has struggled, shed blood even on the theological point of truly God/truly human. And no doubt some believers continue to struggle to this day, even unaware of the consignment of Arius to heresy. Human beings lack the insight, and often even the language, to express sublime realities of God and God’s agency in the mortal world. What if we let it be, and just be satisfied amid the conflict of putting pen to paper and fingers to instruments, and let the depths of our own souls do the speaking?