Francis Poulenc: Salve Regina

Francis Poulenc’s motet, Salve Regina, is strikingly different from the rest of the music on our December concerts. The other composers clearly intend to do large things, and to make large impacts; Poulenc, like Schubert, best expresses himself through finely-wrought miniatures, in which each note carries a world of meaning. I have been interested to read that Poulenc studied Schubert’s Winterreise at an early age; I encounter similar challenges, and beauties, in singing the songs of the two composers— the music is more harmonically generated, than contrapuntal, and the melodies almost invariably dictate harmonic movement, with remarkable economy of materials.  And in this vocal music genre– both composers elucidate language with wonderful, unforced ease.

Poulenc has been described as “half monk, half delinquent” (”le moine et le voyou”), and much is written about manifestations of these aspects of his personality, in his musical composition. An important part of his story is his pilgrimage to the Black Virgin of Rocamadour in 1936, subsequent to the death of a close friend, which is said to have led to a rediscovery of the Roman Catholic faith in which he was raised. I think it would be a mistake to consider his life and personality, however, without giving major weight to the fact that he lived through two world wars. Certainly, his solo song output during the war years was extraordinarily influenced by what he and his nation, and his nation’s poets, were living through– the cycle Calligrammes, songs like C, settings of the poetry of Robert Desnos, reflect profound pain, suffering and loss. Poulenc did not live in any sort of bubble; he was aware of, and influenced by, the tragedies and sorrows of his world. I have to think that the growing assertiveness of the “monkish” side of his character, and the importance of religious music in his later compositional output, are, in addition to personal change,  manifestations of the seriousness that settled on the entire European and western world, consequent to the horrors of World War II.

Whatever the reasons– Poulenc turned toward sacred choral composition after 1936, and wrote some very good music—both small, exquisite works like Salve Regina, and larger, more ambitious pieces, like Mass in G, Gloria, and the opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites. They impress through their delicacy of feeling, their darkness and suggestion of nameless tragedy, as well as through their sensual beauty. One searches far and wide to find music of this period that comes even close to Poulenc’s, in sheer beauty of expression. I suspect the reason one doesn’t hear more of it, is, that it is just terribly difficult to pull off.

So—our Poulenc motet will last less than five minutes– but those will be a loaded five minutes.