Poulenc was a member of Les Six, a loose-knit group of young French and Swiss composers (it also included Milhaud, Auric, Durey, Honegger and Tailleferre) who had links with Erik Satie, Jean Hugo and Jean Cocteau. He embraced the Dada movement’s techniques, creating melodies more appropriate for Parisian music halls than the concert hall.
He was identified with this group before he undertook his first formal musical training, with Charles Koechlin in 1921.
Poulenc’s music is fundamentally tonal; although he made use of harmonic innovations such as pandiatonicism, chromiatically altered chords, and even 12-tone rows (in a few of his last works), Poulenc never questioned the vailidity of traditional tonic-dominant harmony. Lyrical melody pervades his music and underlies his important contributions to vocal music, particularly French art song.
Poulenc’s career as a composer can be divided into several periods. The first, which lasted through the 1920′s, was the time when he was most closely associated with Les Six. Poulenc’s most immediate influeces during this period were Chabrier, Debussy, Satie, and Stravinsky, and he generally followed the irreverent, flippant aesthetic stance of Les Six with works such as Les Biches (1923), Concert Champêtre (1928), and Concerto for two pianos and orchestra (1932). Poulenc’s religious reawakening in 1936 resulted in the creation of his first sacred pieces, Litanies à la Vierge Noire de Rocamadour (1936) and the Mass in G (1937); this trend toward “new dimensions and greater depth” in the composer’s style was solidified by the song cycle Tel jour, telle nuit (1937) and Concerto in G minor for organ, strings, and timpani (1938). The remainder of Poulenc’s career consisted of a “gradual deepening and distillation” of his basic style, and featured an increased concentration on sacred music and music for the stage, including Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1947), Stabat Mater (1950), Dialogues des Carmelites (1957), Gloria (1959), and Sept répons des ténèbres (1962). Among Poulenc’s last major works is a series of sonatas for wind instruments and piano. He was particularly fond of woodwinds, and planned a set of sonatas for all of them, yet only lived to complete four: sonatas for flute, oboe, clarinet, and the Elégie for horn. Poulenc died of heart failure in Paris in 1963 and is buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Poulenc had only one piano student, Gabriel Tacchino, who has performed and recorded all his piano music, lending it a unique insight.
Poulenc was a featured pianist in recordings, including some of his own songs (with Pierre Bernac, recorded in 1947; and Rose Dercourt) and the Concerto for Two Pianos (recorded in May 1957). He supervised the 1961 world premiere recording of his Gloria, which was conducted by Georges Prêtre. His recordings were released by RCA Victor and EMI. Poulenc’s Perpetual Motion No. 1 (1918) is used in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948).