Classical 101 By Request: Poulenc’s Rapsodie Negre

Pierre Bernac (left) my mentor's mentor, with Francis Poulenc(Photo: France/Soir)
Pierre Bernac (left) my mentor's mentor, with Francis Poulenc(Photo: France/Soir)

I studied with a man who studied with a man who was the muse and leading interpreter of the music of Francis Poulenc. So I feel a bit of a kinship with this most Parisian of all composers, who lived from 1899 to 1963.

What a paradox! Poulenc came from a wealthy family (Rhone-Poulenc pharmaceuticals).  He grew up in luxury but he liked the demi-monde, the world’s underbelly. Poulenc was openly gay when the world had not much use for this lifestyle outside of Paris. He had a wonderful je m’en fou attitude while being deeply religious. He was especially devoted to the Black  Madonna of Rocamadour, where his nephew was a monk. From this we have Poulenc’s lovely Stabat Mater, Gloria, and above all, the opera The Dialogues of the Carmelites.

A listener has asked to  hear Poulenc’s Rapsodie negre, scored for clarinet, flute, two violins, cello, viola, and vocal soloist. This is early Poulenc, from 1917–the beginning of the witty, energetic Poulenc whose music can be both fast-moving and transparent, or laconic and sexy. The eleven minute Rapsodie has a  middle movement for an offstage voice, who sings in an invented language: “Honoloulou”

This Poulenc is the sophisticated and cynical composer of Les biches and the Concert champetre. The other Poulenc, the sad, sensitive spiritualist of the Carmelites, awaits us.

If there is a piece that you would like to hear, please fill out the Classical 101 By Request form.