Francis Poulenc was a disciple of Erik Satie’s and, for all his adult life, an ardent admirer of Ravel. In turn, both Satie and Ravel liked Poulenc’s natural and rustic musical carriage. As a young man Poulenc tried to study with Ravel, but he never got beyond the first encounter. His jaunty personality prevented him from looking like a studious pupil; he felt that all the fundamental exercises were useless to him, and in a way he was correct.
Poulenc was the son of a wealthy family who had made their fortune in pharmaceuticals—“Rhone-Poulenc.” He was taught piano by his mother, and early became a remarkable pianist. He could have been one of the finest concert pianists of his time; the quality of tone in Poulenc’s playing was equalled only by the great Jacque Fevrier.
It was a joy to hear the sound of Poulenc at the keyboard. It was very mellow and lush, something that is completely forgotten today, when pianists are all hammering the keys. Poulenc was a pianist in the French tradition that included Debussy and Ravel. Poulenc’s chief teacher, Ricardo Vines, was a Spanish pianist who knew Debussy very well. I once asked him how Debussy played the piano: he said Debussy caressed the keyboard. Ravel played in a similar way, always holding his hands flat—wrists even below the keyboard (which is why you’ll find so few octaves in his writing for the piano). That was also Poulenc’s technique. He caressed the keyboard, but in a very masculine, solid way. It was enchanting to hear him play.
Like many people who grow up with wealth, Poulenc was stingy. He hated to spend money. He didn’t like taking the metro or the bus, he took a taxi, but he always tried to get a friend to take it with him. At the destination he would open up his wallet and say, “Oh, I have only a 5000 franc note! The driver will never be able to change this—would you please pay? I’ll pay you back right away.” Of course he never did; that was the game. But he was warm and generous in other ways—during the war he was a member of the underground, and he hid a great many people who needed asylum. Politically his opinions were freedom-loving, and tolerant. It just killed him to spend a cent.
I would meet with Poulenc often at his apartment, in the Rue de Medicis, now Francis Poulenc Square. He had a wonderful penthouse apartment, overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens; it had parquet floors and fine furnishings. Poulenc was a grand bourgeois. You would never quite guess it to see him; he was not ostentatious, but always simply though elegantly dressed, carefree, with the manner of a true nineteenth century gentilhomme. He had not studied at the conservatoire but at the Sorbonne, where he received a literary education, and left versed in Racine, Corneille, Diderot, Chateaubriand and the like.
Poulenc had two very different sides to him. While creating some of the most solemn religious music of our time—his Gloria, Stabat Mater, and Dialogue of the Carmelites—he also wrote some of the most wonderfully absurd and risqué works as well, such as Les Mamelles de Tiresias. These two sides of Poulenc existed in harmony. There is a tradition in France (often perplexing to foreigners) of liberal-minded Catholics, particularly in the arts: Max Jacob, Andre Gide, Charles Peguy, Paul Claudel. They feel free to talk about or to do anything they want, provided they do no harm to anyone else. This explains, in my opinion, a great deal about French music. For the English or the Germans—who are often Protestant—music is a liberation. They have no other way to bare their souls. Catholics don’t need that sort of liberation, because they have confession. Music, then, for many of the French, is not a need but a luxury. French music has always described nature, or love—very different subjects from the English or the German.
I once asked Ravel his opinion of Poulenc’s music, and he replied, “What I like is his ability to invent popular tunes.” All of Poulenc’s melodies sound as if they are folk tunes, which they are not; they are entirely of Poulenc’s invention. Poulenc was delighted when I related this remark.
Poulenc’s music is very lively and amusing, running from one melody to the next. There is never any development—no “grand architecture” as with Ravel. The sections are always short, but brilliantly inventive.
While conducting Poulenc, I would often think of the man. He was witty and amusing, a cultivated raconteur. He knew Balzac by heart. If you asked him, “What did Madame Vauquer purchase when she went shopping at the Palais Royale, and who was she with?” Poulenc would reply immediately, “Oh, she bought a hat with ostrich feathers and she was with the Countess Ambermesnil.” He was acquainted with the poets of this time—Apollinaire, Eluard, Soupault, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy. Les Mamelles, in fact, had been subtitled by Apollinaire: drame surrealiste. This was the first time the adjective “surrealisme,” which means “to enforce the real,” entered the world of literature. French composers have always cultivated literary contacts. French operas are often written to libretti by excellent writers, and are frequently designed by wonderful painters.
The problem in conducting Poulenc’s Les Mamelles is to make the orchestra interesting in two ways: When the singers are not singing, the orchestra has to come up, in a very brilliant way, almost flashy. That’s also French—with panache. But as soon as the singers sing, the orchestra must recede. Apollinaire’s words in Les Mamelles are very interesting. The audience must hear what the singers are saying; everywhere there are puns and jokes. I told the orchestra, “You will be guilty of a crime if you obscure the voices.” But meanwhile, the audience has to guess, if not hear, that the orchestra is playing something delicate and important. To be discreet is not to disappear. This is perhaps the most difficult part of conducting: to keep the orchestra always interesting, whether it is in the foreground or the background.
This is largely due to the phenomenon of the café. Less so today because café life no longer appeals to youth. But until the Second World War we all went every afternoon and evening to the cafés and brasseries. There it was easy to meet painters and writers. I don’t know why, but I’ve always observed that painters enjoy good food and wine more than other kinds of creative people. Painters, in general, are realists. Perhaps it’s because they always deal with real materials in their work—paints, brushes, canvas—you can touch these. So it is an enrichment for a composer to meet up with painters; it gives them something other composers or musicians can’t give.
One of the characteristics of that time—and the one I am saddest to see disappear—was that contacts were very easily made. When I was only fourteen and still in shorts, I could meet all the great figures. And when you met them they treated you as an equal. Nobody seemed to think he was a “star”—neither Ravel nor Poulenc nor even Stravinsky.
At this time Paris was really a village. As a child I would sneak away from school and go into the city. Today Paris is like any other big town, full of noise and too many autos. But in those days it was really a village, where everybody knew everybody else, and the café was where you all met. Nobody ever stayed home, except to sleep; they lived and worked in the cafés. You never knew if someone lived in a palace, like Poulenc, or in a dingy little room, like Satie; you were really living in the café—the bistro. For just one cup of coffee you could stay all afternoon and all evening, talking. Nobody would ever bother you. Now they watch you every minute, and if you stay more than an hour they put you out, or they ask, “What are you going to drink?” It was a very different time.