Program Notes

Gloria – Poulenc


“In Poulenc”, said Claude Rostand, “there is something of the monk and something of the rascal.” That was an unsurprising conclusion, given that its subject was one of the “young Turks” of music in post-World War I France. The French critic Collet in 1920 laid the derisive appellation “Les Six” upon “Les Nouveaux Jeunes”– the ‘New Youth’– five men and one woman, who frequently concertized at the studio of the artist Lejeune, in Paris: Francis Poulenc, then 21; Darius Milhaud, 28; Arthur Honegger, 28; Georges Auric, 21; Louis Durey, 32; and Germaine Tailleferre, 28. All were were rebelling against Establishment traditions, particularly the music of Wagner, Debussy, and Franck; but all were also influenced by the dramatist Jean Cocteau (who later described himself as the “chronicler” for Les Six), and by Erik Satie. Some of the group, including Poulenc, were also influenced by Faure, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, but Poulenc never adopted the latter’s atonality. However, it was clearly a time for new ideas and applications, and, as Cocteau remarked, “After the music with the silkbrush, the music with the ax.”

Poulenc had the luxury of independent means, leading some critics to label him a dilettante. He had a mercurial temperament– which sometimes jumped from abject depression to enthusiastic frenzy overnight– but nonetheless found ‘monkishness’ satisfying, particularly after 1936 when, depressed over the sudden death of a colleague, he asked his friend, French baritone Pierre Bernac, to drive him to the shrine of the Black Virgin at Rocamadour. The experience brought him back to the Catholicism of his father. After that, an increasing proportion of his output was liturgical or religious in nature. He said later, “I think, in fact, that I’ve put the best and most genuine part of myself into [his religious music]… I have a feeling that in that sphere I’ve really produced something new, and…. if people are still interested in my music fifty years from now, it’ll be more in the Stabat Mater than the Mouvements Perpetuels [a popular early secular work]…”.

Gloria is a setting of the second portion (after the Kyrie) of the Ordinary, i.e., the fixed portion, of the Latin mass, and begins with the song of the angels to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace…”. Poulenc planned its form some time before its commission by the Koussevitsky Foundation, writing that he would like to make it an entity of six or seven closely related movements. The six which resulted are indeed linked by rhythmic and, to some extent, melodic similarities. The listener may find the sound unfamiliar– certainly in sharp contrast to the traditional melodies elsewhere in tonight’s program, or, particularly, to Vivaldi’s setting of the same text, which the Chorus performed a couple of years ago. The New Groves Dictionary of Music describes it as “…choral writing… unsanctimonious to the point of wilfulness…”. There are influences derived from jazz, dance—perhaps even can-can– nods to earlier French composers such as Faure, and bits of sardonic humor. One writer hears, in the martial opening, the tramp of goose-stepping troops, and indeed Poulenc did endure the German occupation of France during WWII. However, Poulenc’s rascality is really intended to threaten only religious traditionalists: He said of Gloria, “I had in mind those frescoes by Gozzoli where the angels are sticking out their tongues, and also those Benedictine monks I spotted one day playing soccer.”

Poulenc was largely self-taught, and had no training in orchestration. He himself was not troubled by that gap: “I know perfectly well”, he said, “that I’m not one of those composers who have made harmonic innovations, like Igor [Stravinsky], Ravel, or Debussy, but I think there’s room for new music that doesn’t mind using other people’s chords. Wasn’t that the case with Mozart-Schubert?” As for choral music, his teacher Koechlin had given him Bach chorale melodies to harmonize, and this exercise both fascinated and inspired him.

Gloria was to be Poulenc’s penultimate choral work, although he continued to compose up to his sudden death in 1963. When Gloria was completed in 1959, he was also at work on an opera, a setting of his long-time friend Cocteau’s masterpiece, The Infernal Machine, which was never completed. He did see the premiere of Gloria, however, in Boston in 1961, and it was produced in Paris shortly thereafter.

Poulenc’s many critics have often accused him of irreverence, which one must say has some truth, or of irreligiousness, which is a misinterpretation. Referring to the Romanesque architecture of his father’s southern France, he once said, “I like religious inspiration to express itself clearly in the sunshine with the same realism as we can see on those Romanesque capitals.” Certainly the bright enthusiasm of Gloria meets that standard.

The Naperville Chorus performed Gloria on one previous occasion, in 1986.

J. R. Fancher