Music History Monday: Francis Poulenc: a votre santé!

by Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.

“I find his music utterly delightful, a musical reminder that the first half of the twentieth century was not only about death, depravity, and cultural destruction.”

We celebrate the birth – on January 7, 1899, 120 years ago today—of the French composer and pianist Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc. Long considered a compositional lightweight—a composer for whom (heaven forbid!) traditional tonality, attractive melody and musical charm assumed pride of compositional place—Poulenc’s music was routinely rejected by the academy and by the modernists that dominated the musical scene in the years after the end of World War II in 1945.

Over the last 40 years, my personal opinion of Poulenc’s music has traversed a full 180 degrees. As a young, academy-trained composer working in the 1970s, I adopted my teachers’ various prejudices without question. Among other things, this meant that with the exception of the music of Claude Debussy and Pierre Boulez, pretty much all French music going back to the seventeenth century was considered beneath contempt, and none more so than that of the loose group of Gallic compositional confectioners known as “les six Français et M. Satie”—“The Six French [composers] and Mister Satie”: Georges Auric (1899–1983), Louis Durey (1888–1979), Arthur Honegger (1892–1955), Darius Milhaud (1892–1974), Poulenc (1899–1963), Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983), and the group’s spiritual mentor, Erik Satie (1866-1925).

This article originally appeared on Professor Greenberg’s Music Blog

We consider. One of the primary reasons we go away to college at 18 is to escape from our parents and, having done so, to begin the process of molding our own adult personalities. But escaping from the opinions and biases of our undergraduate (and graduate school) teachers is a whole different story. In a field like music, where one’s education is dominated by extremely intense, one-on-one relationships with our primary teachers, the opinions and biases of those teachers are often hard-wired into us: they become intrinsic elements of our own psyches, “givens” we carry around with us for the rest of our lives. Which is why—for example—the prejudice against French music continues to dominate American music departments, music departments founded by German-trained composers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, departments in which an anti-French prejudice has been handed down like a treasured heirloom from generation to generation. 

My “education” was no different, though thankfully, while it has taken me a while, I have become deeply enamored of most French music, with the notable exception of the music of the previously mentioned Monsieur Boulez. 

Which brings me back to the birthday boy, Frances Poulenc. In my advancing age, I find his music utterly delightful, a musical reminder that the first half of the twentieth century was not only about death, depravity, and cultural destruction. It’s not that his music is escapist or culturally irrelevant; it is clearly the work of a twentieth century artist. Rather, it is the work of a self-taught-cum-compositional virtuoso who chooses to dwell on the lighter, more brilliant side of human experience and expression, a composer unwilling to abandon such traditional Western musical constructs as thematic melody and tonal centricity.

Indulge me for a moment, because I just used a term that must first be defined and then applied to the music of the twentieth century. In doing so, I’m going to stick my foot into a big, steaming pile of fresh merde and consequently invite the ire (or worse) of many of my colleagues. So be it. Here in my sixty-fifth year I really don’t give a … hoot.

You see, the modernists who were my teachers, my early compositional heroes and my role models were indisputably wrong—delusional, in fact—when it came to the single most fundamental assumption of their new musical language. 

I will readily admit, for the practitioners of this “new” musical language it was a beautiful delusion—like the 72 virgins awaiting a martyr of Allah—a new musical language that appeared to open up new worlds of compositional possibilities and expressive content, possibilities and content that were entirely modern, entirely “of their time”.

This delusional assumption—as demonstrated in the music of Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Alban Berg (1885-1935), Anton Webern (1883-1945) and their thousands (tens-of-thousands?) of students and fellow compositional travellers across the span of the twentieth century – is as follows. 

These composers all believed, one, that what might best be called “process music” (meaning 12-tone and serial music) could be used to create musical structures analogous to those of tonality/pitch centricity and, two, music that did not abandon tonality/pitch centricity had no place in a modern age.

“Pitch centricity” refers to that property of music that causes us to perceive a single pitch (or tone) as being the central pitch—the “tonic pitch”—in a given section of music. Virtually every musical culture on this planet with which I am familiar is pitch centric. In the West, an extraordinary harmonic system evolved between (roughly) 1400 and 1900 based on pitch centricity called tonality. For all its complexity, tonality (or the tonal system) takes as its point of departure pitch centricity: that any given section of music will be feature a single pitch as being the gravitational center.

And there it is, the key word: “gravity”. Balinese Gamelan and North Indian Raga; Chinese Court Opera and the chants of Indigenous Americans; the plainchants of the Catholic Church and the alpine trumpet music of Bhutan; the music of the Berbers and Mozart: all of this music (and much, much more!) is pitch centric. It is all pitch centric not because it reflects some common cross-cultural phenomenon, but because it is a sonic metaphor for that single constant that shapes our existence, our reality, and our very evolution: GRAVITY. 

Those composers who wrote what is called process (or 12-tone or serial) music (starting with Arnold Schoenberg in 1923) believed—typically with the conviction of Biblical zealot—that a series of 12 different pitches (and the intervals or “distances” between adjacent pitches) could replace tonal structures and be perceived as an analog for pitch centricity.

Good god, did they get that wrong! It’s like saying I’m going to replace gravity with peanut butter sandwiches. Now don’t get me wrong; I love peanut butter sandwiches. But replacing gravity with peanut butter sandwiches is just totally random. We perceive—we feel—gravity as the primal physical force in our existence. Gravity cannot be substituted for; there is no “analog” for gravity, peanut butter or otherwise. And neither, in the end, is there is a substitute or analog for pitch centricity.

Now, please, an important statement: this is not to say that Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and a not insignificant number of their progeny wrote “bad” or uninteresting music; anyone who has followed me for even a brief period of time should be aware of the awe I hold for the music of Arnold Schoenberg and Milton Babbitt, for example. 

However, we must be honest: this music was based on an article of faith that today, almost a fifth of the way through the twenty-first century, has proven itself to be the evolutionary dead end that it is, and the delusion it represents: the delusion that “process music” (12-tone and serial music) could somehow be manipulated to create musical structures perceivable as analogous to tonality.

Back, finally, to why I have come around to the music of Frances Poulenc. His engaging thematic surfaces, relatively angst-free expressive content, his humor and often-cheeky Gallic insouciance, and his adherence to tonal centricity together create a body of music that I actually enjoy listening to, for the sheer pleasure it provides.

My goodness; we don’t always have to suffer for our art. Listen to some Poulenc and smile!

Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances
Many of his lectures series, including How to Listen to and Understand Great Music are available to stream at The Great Courses Plus.

Image credits:

Francis Poulenc. London: J. & W. Chester. 1922. OCLC8401408
By Peter Rivera – Paris Opera, CC BY 2.0,
By Peter Rivera – Paris Opera, CC BY 2.0,