The English conductor gives his take on whether the French composer was rascal, monk, or both.

How did you first come across Poulenc, and what was your immediate reaction to his sound world?

As a clarinettist at school I used to play his Sonata – hard! A mate of mine played the bassoon and we loved playing his duet for clarinet and bassoon. Also, I used to try and sing his songs. When I was a student I was fascinated by his opera, Dialogue of the Carmelites but I also loved his orchestral pieces which of course were full of Parisian wit. But I didn’t really come across his sacred works until I was about 20. Singing those motets for the first time was scary – they are so hard.

Where do you think Poulenc’s religious works sit within his genius?

Right at the top. And I think Poulenc felt the same.

Harry Christophers, The Sixteen, Poulenc

The critic Claude Rostande famously described Poulenc as “moitié moine, moitié voyou” (half-monk, half-rascal). Are the sacred works all monk, or does the rascal ever creep in?

They are so personal and you wonder sometimes “what is he thinking?” I sort of interpret the “rascal” element as simply going against form. So whereas in Salve Regina Renaissance composers would have slowed the tempo and have all parts singing the special words “Et Jesum”, Poulenc has two parts in unison followed by the other two in unison, the former loud, the latter soft and they are the most exposed and difficult moments in the piece. The “rascal” is making us work! 

Poulenc himself declared he wasn’t an innovator (like Stravinsky), but listening to these works they could surely only be Poulenc. What makes them musically so individual?

Poulenc is unmistakably Poulenc, be it his homophonic harmonic brain, his distribution of voices, his total immersion in the language. He loved poetry and especially Paul Éluard but he took a long time to find the musical key into his poems. He was a composer who agonised over everything always underestimating his own genius.

How complex an aspect of Poulenc’s life was his Catholicism? And do you feel it impacted on his music?

Born and bred a Catholic, he lapsed pretty quickly preferring to live a witty hedonistic life in 1920s Paris fraternising with the art crowd of Satie, Cocteau and co. WWII had a profound effect on him but the death of his friend and colleague, Pierre-Octave Ferroud in a horrendous car crash was devastating for him. As a result, he renewed his faith and there is no doubt it had a profound effect on his sacred music.

The choice of texts seems important to the composer. Do you sense a personal connection with any particular works here?

Very much so – all the works on this disc display his personal connection. Every sentence has a different inflection, a personal stamp – he’s telling us “this is what these words mean to me” – no-one else. With the Lenten motets he felt he had reached the pinnacle of his sacred writing. Then his secular cantata Un soir de neige – both he and the poet, Éluard were greatly affected by the occupation and the savagery of conflict. Having explored the expression of love in music through Éluard’s poetry, he now discovered it could offer a similar outlet for his feelings on the tragedies of war.

You recorded some of this repertoire 30 years ago for Virgin. How has your approach changed over time?

I was passionate about Poulenc then and I still am. Those were iconic recordings – very special days spent up at the Maltings in Snape. The choir was good then but it’s even better now (sorry 1989 gang!). Today I think I give the motets more space, I certainly enjoy (or maybe understand) the sonorities more and I suspect I take more risks. 

Are there any pieces you wish you had been able to include on this disc?

His greatest choral work is the 12-voice cantata Figure Humaine but I recorded it back on those 1989 Virgin recordings. We performed it a couple of years ago at the Edinburgh festival – two of the singers were the same from 1989 but it was fascinating working on it with a basically new group. We worked hard on the language and delivered a memorable performance. The choir keep on saying to me “when can we do it again?” My singers love singing his music – isn’t that probably the best accolade for a composer!

For people touched by Poulenc’s sacred sound world, what would you recommend for further listening?

Put the harmonic language of the motets and his personal interpretation of the Passion texts with a full symphony orchestra where Poulenc can show off his palette of amazing orchestral colours and subtle distribution of parts you have Sept Répons de Ténèbres (1963), the last work Poulenc ever composed (do you know, at his death he didn’t leave a single work unfinished – meticulous to the end!). I recorded it with The Sixteen and the amazing BBC Philharmonic (COR16013).


Harry Christophers’ Poulenc disc is Limelight‘s Recording of the Month in May. 

Read our review

Subscribe to Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine