When the Tiffany Series at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church presents its concert entitled “A Passion for Poulenc” on May 6th, it will be highlighting the music of a French composer whose unique style – a juxtaposition of lyrical melodies, ironic, even subversive harmonies, and shifts from parody to tragedy – has been linked to his complex feelings about his homosexuality.
Francis Poulenc came of age in post-war Paris of the 1920s, the city of Picasso, Man Ray, Serge Diaghilev (“Les Ballets Russes”), and Igor Stravinsky, whose “The Rite of Spring” had recently created a near-riot. Jazz was new, and music from the circus and the music hall was in the air.
The concert program’s “Piano Sonata for Four Hands” was composed by the 19-year old Poulenc in 1918. Performed by Michael Britt, Brown Memorial’s Minister of Music, and E. Joseph Teter, the piece, which lasts only six minutes, displays what has been called the “jocular musical vitality” of Poulenc’s circle of young composer friends called “the Six.”
Championed by the gay artist Jean Cocteau, the music of the Six was a reaction to late German Romantics (Wagner) and the impressionists (Debussy). Instead, these young artists turned to modernist composers such as Erik Satie and to the popular music hall tunes they heard in Montparnasse. Poulenc was especially drawn to the music of Stravinsky, and during this time he also worked with Diaghilev, who commissioned his ballet “Les Biches” (1924), thus introducing Poulenc’s music to Europe on a grand scale.
In the late 1920s, Francis Poulenc fell in love with the painter Richard Chanlaire, an art dealer with galleries in Paris and near Nice. It was to Chanlaire that Poulenc dedicated his “Concert Champêtre,” inscribing the score: “You have changed my life, you are the sunshine of my 30 years, a reason for living and for working.” From this point on, with the exception of a short heterosexual relationship in which he fathered a daughter, Poulenc’s intimate relationships were with men.
Poulenc’s homosexuality, which he never fully came to terms with, together with his music were for a long time discussed by critics in the context of the “sacred / profane” binary. He was a believing Catholic and a gay man. Said Poulenc himself, “I am half-monk, half bounder,” and his friend Claude Rostand echoed the binary: “Half bad boy, half monk.”
Some modern LGBTQ scholars of his work take a different approach, however. They see the stylistic “contradictions” one finds in Poulenc’s music, especially his religious music, as what we would call elements of “camp”: juxtaposition, artifice, humor, and theatricality, and they note how much this gay composer revels in this subversive aesthetic.
Poulenc’s dramatic musical contrasts are especially evident in the upcoming concert’s featured work. “Gloria” will be performed by the Brown Memorial Chancel Choir with Natanya Washer as soprano soloist and Michael Britt conducting. Renowned Princeton Chapel organist Eric Plutz will serve as guest accompanist.
“Gloria” is a reflective, sumptuous work, filled with gorgeous melodies and, unexpectedly, “perfectly calculated stabs of dissonance.” While it has at times an almost gothic feel, it is filled with mischievous touches, like the echo of a circus organ. “When I wrote this piece,” Poulenc recalled, “I had in mind those frescoes by Gozzoli where the angels stick out their tongues.” The rhythms of “Gloria” propel its unusual harmonies and create a brilliant and ultimately very moving work.
Two more pieces round out this concert. Organist Eric Plutz will play Maurice Duruflé’s “Prelude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain,” a tribute to his young friend and fellow organist and composer Jehan Alain, killed in World War II.
“Lead Kindly Light,” an anthem composed by Haley Olson, the church’s composer in residence, and based on the text by John Henry Newman, will be premiered by the Chancel Choir with Michael Britt as organist.
“A Passion for Poulenc” will be presented on Sunday, May 6th at 7:30 pm at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church (1320 Park Avenue, in the Bolton Hill section of Baltimore). Tickets are $20 (free for students) at BrownDownTown.org and at the door. Parking in the school lot off the 100-block of Mosher and shuttle service will be available. For info call 410-523-1542.