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Francis Poulenc and Les Six were just friends, not a creative collaboration

By John Terauds on May 4, 2013

Francis Poulenc and best friend.
Francis Poulenc and best friend.

January 30 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of French composer Francis Poulenc. This month, the Toronto Symphony has honoured him by programming the Concerto for Two Pianos (you can hear the final, thrilling performance tonight). The Canadian Opera Company offers us Dialogues des carmélites, starting Wednesday.

I was doing a bit of research for Dialogues, and ran across a short clip from a French documentary from 1949, the year Darius Milhaud published his autobiography, Notes sans musique.

Here I discovered that Les Six, the sextet of composers that ruled Paris in the 1920s (Milhaud, Poulenc, Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger and Germaine Tailleferre) were little more than drinking buddies.

“The name Les Six was made up by a journalist,” scoffs Jean Cocteau in this clip. He, Milhaud and Tailleferre also point out how different their writing styles were.

It’s funny how quickly myths expand into truth. As Milhaud says at the very beginning of the clip, “you have to do a little reality check once in a while.”

If you understand French, it’s worth watching. If not, you can skip forward to the 3-minute mark, where Poulenc plays a little bit of Satie. I also appreciated seeing Cocteau put the mood of the times into perspective. This clip is made available by the Office national de radiodiffusion télévision française:

For those of you who haven’t heard Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos, here are all three movements, with the composer himself at one keyboard and Jacques Février, the man for whom the other piano part was written, collaborating. Georges Prêtre conducts the French Radio and Television Orchestra:

France Musique is running a series of radio broadcasts featuring old interviews with the composer, readings of letters and reviews and lots of Poulenc’s music.

On the web page for today’s show (which starts at 6 p.m. GMT), France Musique has posted a video from Sept. 1945 of Poulenc playing something. They say its a piano reduction of his a cappella choral suite Figure humaine. I don’t think it is.

Does anyone know what it really is?

John Terauds

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