In looking ahead to our choral performance in December, it’s tempting to delve into the colorful story of the composer Francis Poulenc, whose “Gloria” the chorus will be singing. The “Gloria” is a late work of Poulenc’s, written just a few years before his death in 1963. But Poulenc’s story begins much earlier, during the era of the First World War, when in his young years he took up with some of Paris’s most notorious avant-garde musicians. One Parisian musician in particular captured the interest of young Poulenc and others like him: Erik Satie.
If you have heard anything at all about Erik Satie, you probably know that he was an eccentric figure par excellence. He was born in 1866 and grew up during the great decades of Paris’s rise to the height of fashion, the years of the Eiffel tower (1889) and the height of glittering café society. At the same time there was an undercurrent of artists, intellectuals and musicians who played themselves off against the high society, poking fun at their airs and attitudes, and spawning a colorful counter-culture that enjoyed a certain fame in its own rite. Satie led the musical wing of this counter-culture with his mock-serious compositions, mostly quirky and humorous, and sometimes having a surprising beauty that is quite unlike the serious music of the day – the fashionable and extravagant music of the opera, ballet and concert halls.
The First World War had a surprising effect on the world of the arts in Paris. Suddenly the economy was torn apart, and support for the classic arts dropped off drastically. The counter-culture artists, always bordering on penniless, found themselves sought after as a source of cheap but interesting art and music. Satie, now in his fifties, became a center of attention. To his own amazement, young musicians clustered around him as a source of inspiration for the new era. It was an era of post-war retrenchment, an era in which old cultural values were questioned, and new ones were yet to be forged.
Poulenc was one of these young musicians. Born in 1899, he came of age during the years of the First World War. He was a good pianist, having been taught by his mother. He started writing music for fun, before having any serious training in composition. He dabbled with tunes from the underworld – tunes from the cabaret halls and night clubs, scarcely the material of high art. He cobbled them together in songs and piano pieces that had a quirky non-classical logic and a comical charm, not unlike the music of Erik Satie.
It was only natural that in 1920, two years after the end of the War, Poulenc would find himself in the company of similarly minded young composers, all banding together as admirers of Satie and followers of his style. In that year, 1920, the French newspapers singled out a group of six young musicians at the core of Satie’s circle. They were Poulenc, Milhaud, Honegger, Auric, Durey and Tailleferre – of whom the first three are still well known today. The papers dubbed them “Les Six Français” – the “six french composers” in contrast to the famous group of “five Russian composers” of the previous generation (which included such names as Rimsky-Korsakov and Musorgsky). This forged a true comradeship amongst the six, who published a collective book of piano pieces and collaborated on a controversial ballet called "The Eiffel Tower Wedding." After the early 1920s the six young composers embarked upon more individual paths, but the name of the "Six" stuck and the group never really ceased to exist. Over the course of time, Poulenc went on to become the most prolific and arguably the most successful of the six. We will follow his footsteps further.
~ William Cowdery, Chorus Conductor
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