The latest opus of Graham Johnson: Francis Poulenc: The Life in the Songs

He who would valiant be
‘Gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy
Follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim

Who so beset him round
With dismal stories,
Do but themselves confound
His strength the more is.
No foes shall stay his might,
Though he with giants fight:
He will make good his right
To be a pilgrim.

Schoolboys and girls used to lustily sing these words at morning assemblies. When I think back, anything less than lustily would mean chastisement from headmaster Mr D’s strap. This was many decades before parliament passed the Children’s Act (was this yet another accomplishment of Lady Hale at the Supreme Court?) which gave young persons under eighteen – the age when you could vote – specific human rights.

According to Songs of Praise (OUP 1931, music editors: Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw, words editor: Percy Dearmer) these words were by J Bunyan (1684) and others.  Neither Mr D nor any other teacher in the so-called school would have been able to tell you who J Bunyan (1684) and others were. Dickens wasn’t making it up when he fictionalised such schools a century earlier. J Bunyan (1684) and others had certainly been mythologised. But in stone. Stone was something which Mr D and his bullying ‘team’ understood only too well: they were determined to break it.

Did I say all? Not quite. Hymn-singing was accompanied on the piano by Mrs Neil, the only person in the school who could properly be called a teacher. She was the reason why I was determined to follow a career in music. Moreover, Mrs N was respected by Mr D, which was how I escaped a thrashing. Musicians recognised by Mrs N were excluded from daily ‘punishments’.

A large part of the school population came from extreme poverty and had neither adequate food nor clothing. Mr D correctly calculated that he could vent his sadism on these kids without any fear of retribution. A perfect brute’s playground in fact. (He would be later forced into early retirement with obligatory attendance at a psychiatric hospital for disturbed people.)

Francis Poulenc

Francis Poulenc escaped all the inconveniences of being gay, not least because his father was the emperor of an important, universal, pharmaceutical company. It seems to me that Francis was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Graham Johnson would question this. The family pharmaceuticals’ fortune rose and fell. But that is surely in the nature of all big business. And it rose more than it fell. It is still active today.

Intriguingly, Graham describes how Francis would alternate between being miserly to being extravagantly generous. Both qualities combined in his much-appreciated humour and geniality.  I would reason that all these characteristics come through in the music. Especially in those pieces which are instantly recognisably by Poulenc. (I remember here the sonata for four hands at one piano. Those ff dissonances which the pianists stab the audience with in those opening chords could not be by anyone else. At a pinch they might have come from Lord Berners or Satie. But while those two composers are humourist, surrealists, Poulenc is more convincingly matter of fact. Altogether, more in your face. Whenever I played in that sonata, it was invariably encored. You could argue that this is more farce or burlesque than humour.)

Moreover Poulenc had notable business sense. Graham introduces us to his publishers who Poulenc played off against one another: best bidder gets to publish the piece! This was not simply parsimonious. Graham’s evidence suggests that Poulenc found it fun.

Whatever project Graham Johnson takes on board you may sure that it will be carried out with remarkable attention to the minutiae which makes up the soul of his project. There is not a leading lieder singer alive of any nationality, who did not take part in his Hyperion Complete Schubert Lieder, where not only was he a remarkably nuanced accompanist, but also provided notes for every one of more than 600 lieder. That in turn was expanded into even more detailed research for the three-volume encyclopaedic Franz Schubert: the Complete Songs (Yale University Press) which no self-respecting music library can afford to be without.

Charm is an attribute which is easy to understand but difficult to define. Gioachino Rossini was probably the supreme master: sly, fond of self-mockery and full of unexpected twists and turns. Even decades after familiarity with Rossini’s charm it still comes across as fresh as the day he thought of it.  Offenbach comes a close second for cheeky charm together with Arthur Sullivan who shared the art with W S Gilbert, his super witty librettist.

In the Preface to Poulenc: The Life in the Songs Graham Johnson puts charm applauders like me in their place: To amuse and delight was not his only aim. What it cost Poulenc to create his life’s work has always been underestimated, as has the almost Proustian manner in which he drew on his visual memories and pricked up his avid, pickpocketing ears to create a synthesis of his own past and present – a brand of nostalgia so much his own that ‘’nostalgia’ seems inadequate, not creative and forward-looking enough, just as that word is thoroughly unequal to defining Proust’s searches for lost time.

I especially warm to his avid, pickpocketing ears. That somehow illustrates the intensity of the creative process as well as the alert, sly mischief in the search.

Francis Poulenc’s geniality shines forth through every page of this biography through song, through his friends, his music and his life. Of his three operas, the one which I personally found the most moving was Dialogues des Carmélites (Dialogues of the Carmelites) which premiered at La Scala in 1957 with Virginia Zeani (Romanian, whose career was largely in Italy), Leyla Gencer, Rita Gorr, Gigliola Franzoni and Nino Sanzogno conducting. It was staged at Covent Garden in English in 1958 with Elsie Morrison, and perhaps most notably with Joan Sutherland as the Second Prioress.

This was before Covent Garden had become the Royal Opera House. But the great and the good were all present for the 1958 premiere. Including the Sitwells, en famille, with Dame Edith dripping in Plantagenet jewels and garb which no stage costumer could hope to compete with!  A year later she made the famous television interview with John Freeman (still available on BBC iPlayer). It was said that she asked a Covent Garden photographer, Do your best with the photos; the last lot were used as publicity for sea-sickness pills. 

The one-act monologue La voix humaine (The Human Voice) opened at the Paris Opéra-Comique (libretto by Jean Cocteau) with Denise Duval in 1959, who went on to repeat her triumph at the Carnegie Hall, New York and in Edinburgh with a Glyndebourne production.  Zeani also sang the role in many Italian theatres.

There are various values in this book. Not least as a thorough reference work for all Poulenc’s songs. Especially before, during or after listening to them. Influences and circumstances of each song are brought to life. Graham warns the reader of the complexity of French poetry which can sometimes be so inward looking that a partnership with music becomes a huge challenge. Debussy, and to a lesser extent, Fauré, discovered styles which kept the poems afloat; musically asking questions of poetic words rather than grounding them.

Graham also raises the very interesting question as to whether Poulenc had a composer’s technique. He tells us that here was a composer who would be working on musical ideas over a long period of time: on the same piece over several months, along with a dozen other fragments. This prompts the old adage that a composer is not someone who can write a good tune, but someone who knows what to do with a tune when he has written it. But Poulenc had a kind of musical agnosticism when it came to what-to-do-with-it. It would be drying out waiting for the ‘right’ sounds to prompt it or carry it forward.

Resuscitation of musical fragments seems to me to be an admirable basis for a composer’s technique. I am reminded of Hans Werner Henze recalling how shocked he was that his friend, William Walton, had no technique. All those tunes which sound as though they wrote themselves, cost him umpteen rewrites and binnings said Hans. (In his youth Henze was also living in relative poverty in Forio d’Ischia, alongside others in a gay community such as Luchino Visconti, Harold Acton and Wystan Hugh (W.H.) Auden. When Walton’s wife and widow began buying all the land round their own land and constructing holiday villas, Henze dismissed Susana as Landlady Walton. I thought this was almost too clever for a non-native speaker of English. Hans later admitted it was an Auden nomination.)

Henze’s ‘lessons’ for Walton were of no avail. William later told me he had no idea what Hans was talking about. He continued to talk down his compositions. But Susana discovered there were unpublished Façade numbers and William asked me if I knew Cathy Berberian and would she be prepared to be a reciter in Façade at the Como Festival for William’s eightieth birthday celebrations. Cathy agreed if I would agree to be the other reciter. I did, and we later toured the piece all over Italy and for Swiss TV with costumes and choreography. We both agreed that William’s judgement not to include the additional numbers was the right one, and so dropped them from subsequent performances. Façade was also the last of his music William heard live in the castle courtyard on the island of Ischia, just months before he died, with Jan Latham Koenig’s Ensemble and Marghanita Laski as the other reciter.

William Walton had much in common with Francis Poulenc. Both played down their own music and both were parsimonious as well as generous and genial. Pity they never met.

Jack Buckley

Poulenc: The Life in the Songs by Graham Johnson (554pp, Liveright Publishing Corporation 2020)

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