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Richard Buell will be contributing a column from time to time on music in Boston. His first for BMInt features excerpts from Francis Poulenc, “‘Echo and Source’: Selected Correspondence 1915-1963,” translated and edited by Sidney Buckland; research consultant: Patrick Saul (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1991)

“What a dismal town” — Francis Poulenc, the  Gloria, and Boston

201. Francis Poulenc to Brigitte Manceaux
Boston, Tuesday evening, 3 January 1950

Ma bichette,

Well, that’s it … this morning we played through the Concerto [for piano] for the first time. The orchestration is excellent and Charloton [Charles Munch] is  delighted, delighted. So am I. Of course I played like a pig — my attention being mainly on my orchestration — but I will rectify that in the morning. Naturally, the first movement changes the most (and for the better): the second subject is ravishing and the two orchestral tutti, soli – hopeless when played on two pianos — are on the contrary quite perfect. The Andante is as I expected, the Finale very amusing. The whole bang lot is stunning. The orchestra was delighted. Thirty Frenchmen among them. Munch has conducted the Concerto for organ twice this autumn — it has had an incredible success here. It has been recorded and I am going to hear the test copies any day now.

I am leading an austere life in this very puritanical town. Fortunately the museum is fantastic, as much for painting as for Egypt, Asia, Greece, etc.

Charloton is a treasure, and as French as Maurice Chevalier when one sees him in this environment. He lives in a charming country house, half an hour from the town. Naturally Ginette [Neveu’s] death was a most dreadful blow to him.

I rehearse every morning. Light, easy piano, very pleasant hall. By the grace of God. I eagerly await your news. Give mine to everybody around you. Pierre [Bernac] has just phoned from New York, delighted with his trip and entirely rejuvenated by his success.

On that note I leave you to go and rehearse.

A thousand tender kisses.



298. Francis Poulenc to Charles Munch
Hotel Bristol Palace, Genoa, Italy, 23 May 1959

Dear and alas invisible friend, I am writing to you from Genoa where, after Naples and Catania, my Carmelites is being performed. I am supposed to be writing a new opera for La Scala but as the choice of a libretto has not yet been settled (perhaps La Machine infernale of Cocteau) I have a certain amount of time at my disposal to begin a symphonic work. The Koussevitzky Foundation having twice asked me for a work, I have suggested writing a Gloria for mixed choir, soprano solo and orchestra, 20 to 25 minutes in duration. You may perhaps be able to sway the balance in my favour if there is any hesitation. You know that the pure symphonic form is not my forte whereas with the human voice — no allusion to my latest work — I am usually successful .

I still had hopes that you might conduct my Stabat in Boston, but alas … you have no doubt entirely forgotten me. Believe me, the extraordinary success of Les Carmelites has not made me less sensitive to certain omissions. However, I still admire you and am as fond of you as ever.

Thank you in advance for what you may be able to do for me and believe, cher ami, in my loyal affection.

Francis Poulenc


323. Francis Poulenc to Pierre Bernac
Sheraton Plaza Hotel, Boston, Massachusetts, Tuesday [January 1961]

Mon petit Pierre,

My first long letter is for you. Phone it through to Brigitte afterwards and she will do the same for you with the next letter. The concert here promises to be very good. An excellent ‘Monique’ [Evelyne Crochet], young, pleasant, catches on quickly and loves my Concerto [for two pianos]. As for the  Gloria, if I had not come here, what peculiar music would have been heard! Dear, adorable, exquisite Charlie had understood precisely  nothing.

Arriving for the first rehearsal of the choir, I heard something so unlike me that my legs almost failed me on the staircase. Excellent choir but [Alfred Nash] Patterson is not the intuitive [Robert] Shaw and all those worthy Protestants were singing sharp and shrill (especially the women) as they do in London, with that ‘Oh my good Lord! quality. All Munch’s tempi were wrong — all too fast, naturally. A well-intentioned lady was singing the part of [Adele] Addison (who had not yet arrived), with a voice like a goat and all out of tune. A pale, wan pianist tinkled the keys, and not always the right ones!! I tell you, I wanted to run a mile. My poor child was really presenting itself badly. What a burden music is!!!

I didn’t say a word before the interval but then I explained everything. Mr Patterson, hearing me demonstrate, said: ‘Oh! so they have to sing like Maurice Chevalier.’ ‘Exactly!’ When we started again, I played the piano, the soloist sang no more, Munch calmed down, and the thing was perfect. Ouf!!!

Basically, Charlie only understands Arthur [Honegger] and Roussel. How very Strasbourgeois he is, the dear treasure! I had lunch at his place. It was divine. Everybody is adorable here, but what a dismal town — I am dying of boredom despite the radio and the TV in my room. Quick, New York!

Here is this winter’s barometer of virtuosos: Richter — delirium; Samson — triumph with orchestra, recital less good; Monique — went unnoticed; continued success of Entremont, who will become Casadesus (don’t tell ‘his’ Countess!!!). The Met, wild with excitement in anticipation of the joint debuts of Price and Corelli in  Trovatore. I shall be there. Tebaldi — Della Casa: usual success. Enormous success of la Simionato in L’Incoronazione di Poppea.

I must go to my rehearsal with orchestra. Wonder what that will bring!

Very much affection to you and the Queen of Hearts.


P.S. I was not made for going on tour on my own.


325. Francis Poulenc to Pierre Bernac
Boston, Thursday morning [January 1961]

Mon petit Pierre,

The rehearsal yesterday was extraordinary. Munch suddenly inspired; as for Addison, she drives you wild, she is sheer heaven, with that warm Negro purity.

Everyone was full of enthusiasm. Clearly, you know me better than I know myself. The Gloria is without doubt the best thing I have done. The orchestration is marvellous (the ending, among other things, is astonishing). There is not a single note to be changed in the choral writing and at least the women do not shriek their heads off on the upper As and Bs. I must confess that I have surprised myself.

It has given me a confidence that I badly needed. How right I was not to rush Les Repons. I am sure it will benefit from this. Everybody is delighted here. And I have at last shaken off the torpor of the time-change.

Rose [Dercourt-Plaut] is arriving this evening, wild with delight about this honeymoon!!!!! We are going to hear Marlene Dietrich! I am enjoying it all very much. The Consul, a great-nephew of Vincent d’Indy, is handsome and charming. His wife as well. But what a hard country! Arthur [Honegger] is hardly ever played here any more, except by Munch. It is frightening. For the moment I am still going strong, thanks to the choral works, concertos and wind compositions. Long may it last.

Phone Brigitte [Manceaux] right now, and Genevieve [Sienkiewicz].

I embrace you,


I miss you. To quote  La Voix [humaine]: ‘I am not used to traveling alone any more.’


326. Francis Poulenc to Pierre Bernac
Boston, Monday [1961]

Eh bien mon enfant, it was a triumph to beat all triumphs!

You heard that because of the snow, Friday’s concert was put off until yesterday — Sunday. Saturday’s concert went ahead. Very good, very beautiful, successful, but Munch was less inspired than at the final rehearsal. Yesterday, on the other hand (all the critics were there), sublime performance. Charlie in a trance but controlled, the choir unbelievable, Addison beyond belief, so ovation after ovation. They tell me the press is excellent this morning. Marlene Dietrich was there, embraces, photos, etc.

I am delighted, as audiences here — quite dreadful — give you marks! I can already feel a favourable feeling from Bernstein. I am busy arranging something for you in Boston for this summer. The Consul, Charles de Pampelonne, is exquisite (grand-nephew of d’Indy). I will tell you about him when I get back. Yes, we would have been at your funeral had you accepted Boston. Munch has had just enough.

My week here promises to be entertaining with Leontyne Price, Laurence Olivier in Becket, visits to Horowitz, Titou, Rubinstein, etc.

I find this country interesting but frightening. You have to be really on top of things not to suffer the whims of the public and the press: even stranger than at home.

Thank you for writing at such length. I can assure you that you are not forgotten here. If you see Lesur tell him about the success of the Gloria. I had a letter from an ecstatic Carteri. So let’s take advantage of the fair weather!

I embrace you,

Fr. Poulenc

Ring Brigitte.


20 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. In the early 60’s the success of the Poulenc “Gloria” with Munch and the BSO inspired a number of amateur and semi-professional performances of that work in the Boston area. I remember hearing one such at Sanders Theater. Richard, do you know if the piece has legs? Is it still getting sung and played?

    Comment by Joel Cohen — March 22, 2010 at 9:07 pm

  2. I’m not sure I want to know! Robin Holloway — “On Music: Essays and Diversions 1963-2003” (UK: Continuum, 2003) — puts his finger on something important:

    “There’s a particular sickly-religious subdepartment of French Catholicism — the ‘Sacre Coeur style’ — which can sully even the best composers, believers or no, when they turn in its direction: Franck, the Debussy of ‘Le martyre’, Messiaen. And in its name, anything goes.”

    “My own love for Poulenc,” he writes earlier, “is almost wholly confined to smaller pieces, piano and chamber music and above all songs. Small only in the sense of scale and forces; but the complete appropriateness of talent to medium and material, the perfect marriage of style and idea (to coin a phrase), give this body of work a high place in the music of mid-century. Within it he is virtually infallible.

    “The sureness of touch extends to some larger pieces, especially those involving the stage. ‘Les biches’ and ‘Les mamelles de Teresias’ are, in their different ways, triumphs of outrageous stylisation.”

    ‘Les biches’! Does anyone else remember the old Decca/London ffrr LP with Roger Desormiere and the Paris Conservatory Orchestra? Ensembles nowadays simply don’t/can’t/won’t come up with such in-the-style, ripely individualistic sonorities. And to our loss. They’re like a vanished dialect.

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 23, 2010 at 1:18 am

  3. Well, Richard, I think you might want to know :-) The Poulenc “Gloria,” as I recall it from umpty-eight years ago, is, at least in places, a bad-boy nose-thumb at what you cite as the “Sacré Coeur” style and what the French call the “Saint Sulpice” style. The “Laudamus Te,” if my memory is accurate, is written in an almost-music-hall idiom. Maybe that is what Poulenc meant by the Maurice Chevalier allusion. Of course, bad boys return to the Mother Church at the end, but meanwhile they have fun.

    I can see him in imagination, rolling his eyes at the worthy, provincial Boston choirmaster. Hmm, I think I’d like to hear the piece again.

    Nadia Boulanger to me, ca. 1966, re Poulenc: “Des fois, en écoutant sa musique, j’ai envie de lui dire, ‘mon cher François, aujourd’hui vous êtes allé un peu trop loin.'”

    Comment by Joel Cohen — March 23, 2010 at 11:49 am

  4. I remember the premiere of Poulenc’s _Gloria_ in 1960 or 1961 with the BSO; I disliked the piece then, and have disliked it every time I’ve heard it since. It strikes me as vulgar, although if it’s parodistic, deliberately aping a “Sacré Coeur” style, I can accept that. Maybe the Duruflé Requiem (1947) is supposed to be an exemplar of that style, but I think it’s a lovely piece; Fauré’s Requiem, which Randall Thompson called “La cocotte de la Madeleine,” is a noble and pure testament but somehow I don’t think Poulenc was reaching back that far. (None of these pieces is imaginably as vulgar as Bernstein’s _Mass_, which is also the craziest example of the Mass genre, much weirder than Satie’s _Messe des pauvres_ which despite weirdness is a beautiful work.)

    I’m delighted with what Poulenc writes about his own Concerto for two pianos and orchestra, which I think is a great masterpiece — I have performed it myself. What is especially fun is to try to figure out how many styles, or how many specific works, are quoted-parodied-burlesqued in the course of that work. Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto is almost hinted at in the first movement; gamelan styles at the beginning and end of that same movement; Mozart’s K. 466 and 467 Piano Concertos, barely concealed, in the second movement; _La mer_ brazenly burlesqued in the third movement.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — March 23, 2010 at 12:30 pm

  5. Now that you have brought up Nadia Boulanger and her sometimes (in)famous comments, I once heard a story about a master class interview she was holding with a perspective pianist. The young woman fainted dead away after she played, and Boulanger, purportedly called out “Prochain!”

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton, executive editor — March 23, 2010 at 12:37 pm

  6. Re N.B., I have quite a few recollections of her _bons mots_. Have just recently started to write them down as they resurface in my memory :-)

    Requiems. Satie, Fauré, and Poulenc were all French Catholics, so even when they engage in leg-pulling and various _audaces_ they remain within the fold. Lennie, on the other hand….I quote, from memory, Randall Thompson regarding L.B.:

    “Naughty boy. NAUGHTY boy.”

    Comment by Joel Cohen — March 23, 2010 at 1:33 pm

  7. In reference to Comment #5 above:

    What is a “perspective” pianist?

    And how does one call out something “purportedly”?

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 23, 2010 at 9:48 pm

  8. OOPS. Richard is Right, of course.

    So – In join him in self-correcting myself in fast-typed blogs. I need a couple more to catch up with him, tho.’ Keep looking.

    Yeah, yeah. “PROspective. But I LOVE purportedly and will change its usage before I croak.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton, executive editor — March 24, 2010 at 10:06 am

  9. Here’s the first. “I” join him, not “In” join him.
    Beat you to it, Bonhomme Richard.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton, executive editor — March 24, 2010 at 10:10 am

  10. “What is especially fun is to try to figure out how many styles, or how many specific works, are quoted-parodied-burlesqued in the course of that work. Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto is almost hinted at in the first movement; gamelan styles at the beginning and end of that same movement; Mozart’s K. 466 and 467 Piano Concertos, barely concealed, in the second movement; _La mer_ brazenly burlesqued in the third movement.”

    Who is going to write the book on the topic “Irony, Burlesque and Parody as Cornerstones of 20th Century Modernism: Music and Visual Arts”? Not only do the musical languages of mid-level masters like Poulenc and Kurt Weill depend on parody and imitation: some of the very greatest creative spirits build at least parts of their personae on mockery and ironic citation: Stravinsky, Picasso, who else? You might even say that intellectualized sendups are a central, constituent element of 20th c. hipness…..

    Comment by Joel Cohen — March 24, 2010 at 11:43 am

  11. What fun to have old friend Richard Buell back in full sail here! The Poulenc material is fabulous. Where are those who think (and write) like F.P. today? More, please, Richard!

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — March 24, 2010 at 12:31 pm

  12. A related topic — coded allusions, e.g., Bizet’s “Habanera” in the first movement of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. Whereby hangs a tale. There’s this woman, you see …

    How long has this common knowledge? Its veracity seems pretty well nailed down.

    I myself first heard of it from Stephen Johnson on BBC Radio 3. He just happened to be speaking from Shostakovich’s apartment.

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 24, 2010 at 12:55 pm

  13. And speaking of Stravinsky …

    Below: the art of the brief, graceful, but jarringly candid review.

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 24, 2010 at 8:20 pm

  14. Lionel Salter, a musical hero —

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 24, 2010 at 9:11 pm

  15. Regarding later Stravinsky and the “jarringly candid” review:

    Of course, he got old and crotchety. Doesn’t nearly everybody? And clearly, he was no saint; maybe, even, not a very nice person. At least he kept his anti-Semitism largely to himself, rather than making it part of his public persona, a la Wagner.

    The essential point is the MUSICAL value of the later works by the author of the earth-shattering Le Sacre. How important or valuable are they? Nadia Boulanger was a ferocious defender of every note that came from Stravinsky’s ear and pen. I remember her going over every detail of a miniscule late piece — was it Requiem Canticles? — and pointing out astonishing felicities in every measure. “I maintain,” she would say, “that Stravinsky is one of the great unknown composers of the 20th century.”

    Comment by Joel Cohen — March 25, 2010 at 7:57 am

  16. The BSO then — see Poulenc letters above — and now:

    A glimpse backstage during James Levine’s first season —

    His eventual successor … no, one is not being morbid. Surely the search is on, if only in the pondering stage … could well be a Finn, or a Russian. There are so many.

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 25, 2010 at 4:43 pm


    Lest we forget. The story when new, well told here —

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 26, 2010 at 11:45 am

  18. The Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus performed the Gloria last year in Sanders Theatre, so it’s still being performed. I like the piece.

    Comment by Sam — March 26, 2010 at 5:19 pm

  19. In further answer to the opening post’s question, the BSO is performing Poulenc’s Gloria at Tanglewood on August 27, along with Holst’s The Planets. I noted the date because it falls precisely on my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Hmmmm…

    Comment by Geoffrey Wieting — April 2, 2010 at 4:06 pm

  20. Apropos of Finnish conductors: Sakari Oramo conducts the Mahler 4th, beginning 15 minutes on in this Sveriges Radio P2 recording:

    Comment by Richard Buell — April 10, 2010 at 1:08 am

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