Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) is a composer about whom I know very little. I can’t even name a work of his off the top of my head! But maybe I should change that, after listening to today’s piece, Four Motets for Christmastime.
Poulenc isn’t alone as a subject of my general musical unfamiliarity; he comes from an era of French music about which I honestly don’t know a whole lot. From what I’m reading in quick research for this post, Poulenc was a member of a group of French composers called Les Six, and he generally wrote melodic music that was independent and yet also tinged with twentieth-century modernism. He was not a modernist in the way Stravinsky and Schoenberg were, but his music is unmistakably twentieth-century music. Apparently in his later years Poulenc’s spiritual bent reasserted itself, and he wrote a great deal of religious music.
In composing sets of motets (these are not the only such motets he wrote), Poulenc looked backward to a very old musical form indeed. The motet–a polyphonic work for mixed voices–arose in medieval times, so this work is a blend of the very old and the very new. The Four Motets for Christmastime reflect the world of stone cathedrals filled with the sonorities of liturgical voices, but they also reflect twentieth-century French music that has seen the urbane Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel.