Ahead of our first Poulenc Festival concert on Thursday 4 April, we’re taking a quick look at two of the main characters of the “Les Six” group of composers, whose work we’ll be performing over the next ten days. Les Six were a group of early 20th century compoaers who lived and worked in the Montparnasse area of Paris, and who looked to challenge the status quo of European classical music.
Name: Darius Milhaud
Age: Born 1892 and died in 1974, aged 82
Background: Born in France and spent time living abroad in Brazil during the First World War. When the Nazis occupied France in 1940, Milhaud, a prominent Jew, was forced to flee to the USA. He had developed severe rheumatoid arthritis, which often confined him to a wheel chair, which compounded the need to escape the Nazi regime.
Breakthrough moment: known as a member of “Les Six” – an informal group of six composers working in Montparnasse, whose music came to be seen as a rejection of prewar impressionism, and particularly the musical style of Richard Wagner and the impressionist music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.
Repetoire: Wrote music for nearly every genre imaginable. His major works span several ballets and operas, to more commercial film and theatre scores. He also composed twelve symphonies and eighteen string quartets.
Poulenc Festival performance: Our principal wind players will be performing his Duo Concertante and his Pastorale for oboe, clarinet and bassoon.
Name: Francis Poulenc
Age: Born in 1899 and died in 1963 at the age of 64
Background: The son of an amateur pianist and French business man, Poulenc showed an early aptitude for composition, gaining praise from the likes of Stravinsky from the age of 18, but was refused entry to the Paris Conservatoire on the grounds that his music wasn’t good enough. Despite this blow, Poulenc soon became an important figure in the cafe culture of 1920s Paris, where his music provided a backdrop to the lavish parties of Coco Chanel, F. Scott Fitzgerald and may other young, hip and fashionable icons. Alongside a successful career in ballet, orchestral and chamber composition, Poulenc also possessed a colourful private life which is often thought to be reflected in his vibrant and diverse compositional style.
Breakthrough moment: In 1936, Poulenc was profoundly affected by the death of his fellow composer and friend, Pierre-Octave Ferroud. As a result, he was led to visit a religious shrine where he experienced a life-changing transformation that awakened his dormant Catholic faith. After this point, Poulenc produced mostly liturgical compositions, such as his seminal Gloria, that many believe to be the greatest music of his career.
Poulenc Festival performance: we’ll be performing a diverse range of Poulenc’s compositions. From his earlier jazz and music hall inspired compositions of the 1902s, including Le Bal Masqué and Rapsodie Nègre, to his later liturgical compositions, including his Gloria and Organ Concerto.
Poulenc Festival Box Office: 020 7377 1362/spitalfieldsmusic.org.uk