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Francis Poulenc: Gloria

A 20th century French composer’s return to Catholicism and his newfound musical mastery

Photo by Ricardo Almagro from Pexels

Francis Poulenc was born in 1899 to two very different individuals. His father was a stout Roman Catholic while his mother was a wealthy Parisian with a fondness for the arts.

Poulenc was drawn toward his mother more than his father. She taught him piano and exposed him to the music of Debussy, Shubert, and Stravinsky.

Critic Claude Rostand once described the young Poulenc as “Half monk, half thug.”

By the 1920s, according to Wise Music Classical, Poulenc joined “the Paris-based group of composers Les Six who led the neo-classical movement, rejecting the overstated emotion of Romanticism,” which they also state had an “ironic nature.”

Poulenc made chamber music, similar to the other French composers of the time. This French music was the unmelodic, modernist music that spawned from the years after the Great War.

It wasn’t until WW2 loomed over Paris, that Poulenc started to incorporate deeper themes into his music. One event changed his life forever. details the tragedy that led to his conversion:

“The young composer and critic Pierre-Octave Ferroud was one of Poulenc’s closest friends. He was just a few months younger than Poulenc and a composer of some important chamber and orchestral music. But in 1936, Ferroud was crossing a street in Hungary when he was run down by a car and died instantly, aged just 36. Poulenc never recovered from the loss. His immediate response was to visit the famous shrine of Our Lady at Rocamadour in southern France. There, standing before the iconic figure of the Madonna with a young child on her lap, Poulenc experienced a life-changing transformation. He rediscovered and recommitted to the Catholicism that he’d initially learned from his father in the family home.”

Poulenc began to make music with conviction. He solidified himself as one of the premier Catholic composers of the 20th century before his death in 1963.

We are just now starting to uncover the wealth of his music!

My favorite work from Poulenc is his take on the Gloria.

Encapsulating the Gloria from Mass, a soprano, an orchestra, and a chorus, it is an excellent work of classical music! Fun fact: the second movement, Laudamus te, was inspired by watching Benedictine monks playing soccer.

Give it a listen for yourself!

More of Poulenc:

This is the final scene of an opera many call one of the best of the century: Dialogues of the Carmelites (it is about martyrs of the French Revolution)

Francis Poulenc


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