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Francis Poulenc was born Jan. 7, 1899 to a Parisian society mother and a father who was the head of a successful chemical firm known as Société Rhône-Poulenc. His mother, a gifted musician herself, began teaching her son to play the piano at the age of five. His musical education was transferred at fifteen to the hands of the Spanish pianist Ricardo Vines.
Poulenc began his career as composer directly following the First World War, a period of two decades when Paris enjoyed a cultural and artistic euphoria that allowed the avant-garde to flourish. He was a member of Les Six, a French group of composers headed by Jean Cocteau, which also included Darius Milhaud, Germain Tailleferre, Arthur Honegger, and Georges Auric, so named for their influence by avant-garde composer Eric Satie. Poulenc’s early career is marked by a hedonistic enthusiasm that he attributed to his maternal Parisian ancestry.
It was the rediscovery of his Catholic faith that brought a more spiritual tone to his work. Under this new spiritual framework he coaxed his musical language into a melding of the sombre and the sensual.
He had a great love for the human voice and a desire to stage texts that were compelling in their literary and poetic contexts, which led him to write only three operas over the span of his career, Les mamelles de Tirésias (1939), Dialogues des Carmélites (1953-56), and La voix humaine (1959).
A true Parisian, he was known to have said “Paris is the only place in the world where I can withstand deep sorrow, anguish or melancholy.” However, most of his compositions were written in the countryside. His life in Paris was a busy affair, full of social engagements, while life in the countryside was tranquil, the ideal place to compose.
Poulenc died suddenly in Paris on Jan. 30, 1963.
Georges Bernanos was a French author, born in 1888 and who died in 1948 at the age of 60 from cancer. He wrote the screenplay of Dialogues des Carmélites, adapting it from the novel by Gertrud von Le Fort’s The Last on the Scaffold. He completed the screenplay, later to be the libretto for Poulenc's opera, the day he took to his bed due to his illness, never to rise again, and died three months later. At the time of his death, he was a well-regarded French writer with 25 published titles to his name. Bernanos was a staunch Catholic, monarchist and a veteran of World War I.
Photo: A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Dialogues des Carmélites, 2013. Photo by Michael Cooper
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