Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc (1899 – 1963) had an upbringing that could hardly have been more fortunate, given his eventual career. He was born in Paris to a wealthy family of pharmaceutical manufacturers. The arts were an important part of the Poulenc household, and the young boy’s interest in them was encouraged, especially by his mother, herself a pianist of some talent. At the age of five, Poulenc began piano lessons with her. She steered him to the music of Mozart, Chopin, Scarlatti, and Couperin and later fostered his explorations of composers such a Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky. She also firmly resisted all attempts to force her son into the rigid, scholastic education of the day. From her brother, Poulenc’s Uncle Papoum, young Francis developed a lifelong delight in Parisian theater and café life in all its forms.
At sixteen, Poulenc began studying with Ricardo Viñes, a pianist who often performed the works of his friends Ravel and Debussy and who was a staunch supporter of avant-garde music. It was through Viñes that Poulenc met Erik Satie, who would be a great influence on him. While still a teenager, Poulenc met Auric, Honegger, and Milhaud, and to them he dedicated his first published composition, Rapsodie négre. Written in 1917 and revised in 1933 Rapsodie négre made it clear, once and for all, that Poulenc and the French musical establishment of the time were unsuited to each other. The director of the Paris Conservatory told the eighteen-year-old composer, “Your music stinks, it is nothing but a load of balls. Are you trying to make a fool of me? Ah, I see you have joined the gang of Stravinsky, Satie and company. Well then, I’ll say goodbye.”
Though Poulenc briefly studied with Ravel, Charles Koechlin was the one who gave the young man the grounding he needed in order for his profound musical individuality to blossom confidently. Today, the individuality of his music has made Poulenc the dominant member of Les Six, a composer whose stature seems to grow with time. While he was alive, however, Poulenc’s works were often treated dismissively, leading the composer to remark to a friend that though he was “not intoxicated with the idea of being a Grand Musician, it nonetheless exasperates me to be thought of by so many people as nothing more than a ‘petit maître érotique’.” His colleague Igor Stravinsky thought otherwise: “You are truly good, and that is what I find again and again and again in your music.”
The wit, ebullience, and Gallic charm that mistakenly led people to undervalue Poulenc’s music — as well as the superb craftsmanship which Stravinsky and other composers so admired — are fully present in Poulenc’s Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano. Written in Cannes in 1926 and dedicated to Manuel de Falla, the Trio reflects the composer’s own considerable abilities as a pianist (he often performed in concert and toured several times with the baritone Pierre Bernac and later with soprano Denise Duval) and his love of wind instruments.
The Trio is in three movements. The first (marked Presto) begins with a sixteen-measure introduction, slow — one might almost say portentous — and completely opposite to the playful quality of the rest of this movement, which one writer has called “rococo crossed with Offenbachian opéra bouffe.” The more lyric second movement (Andante) demonstrates fully the composer’s astonishing melodic gifts, coupled with his ability to use subtle harmonic shifts to alter the emotional color of the music. The last movement (Rondo) is a rollicking modern version of the baroque French gigue, modified by Poulenc’s own sensibilities. The entire work is delightful, potent, and sec.
This article appeared originally in the program book of the San Francisco Symphony and is used here with permission.