Igor Stravinsky and Olivier Messiaen intersect via Francis Poulenc

I have recently discovered yet another library in the City of Stockholm: Musik och Teater Biblioteket. From the English version of their web page:

“Open to everyone – with great collections, sheet music for all instrumentations to loan, and literature and magazines about music, theatre, and dance. 100,000 works of sheet music to download, and a great number of books, sheet music and plays to take part of.”

ScreenHunter_375 Feb. 13 12.23

Ah, Stockholm, I grow to appreciate you ever more.

I found out about this library by querying the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, looking for a book about Johannes Brahms. They promptly referred me to the library, a separate but collaborating organization. The building is located next to Bonniers Konsthall (art gallery), a short walk from the Sankt Eriksplan subway station (Green Line).

I quickly obtained a library card (no charge) and began looking for books on Brahms. Despite there being much material on display for browsing and borrowing, the bulk of the available material was stored elsewhere in the building. The catalog was available via computer station, where I found the call letters of the books I wanted. I gave these to the librarian at the front desk, and she ordered them for me, to be collected on the day following.

poulencBefore leaving, I wandered a bit and found music CDs and DVDs, an unlimited number of which I could immediately borrow ( I borrowed three). I also found and borrowed a new book about Francis Poulenc, one of my favorite composers, which lead me to writing about him here. First, a brief description of his music:

Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963) was the leading composer of Les Six, the French group devoted to turning music away from Impressionism, formality, and intellectualism. He wrote in a direct and tuneful manner, often juxtaposing the witty and ironic with the sentimental or melancholy. He heavily favored diatonic and modal textures over chromatic writing. His music also shows many elements of pandiatonicism, introduced around 1920 by Stravinsky, whose influence can be heard in some of Poulenc’s compositions, such as the religious choral work, Gloria. Poulenc is regarded as one of the most important twentieth century composers of religious music, and in the realm of the French art song he is also a major voice of his time. Poulenc was also a pianist of considerable ability. (Source)

The book is “Francis Poulenc, Articles and Interviews: Notes from the Heart.” Here are excerpts from the review under the previous link:

This volume appears on the heels of the fiftieth anniversary of Francis Poulenc’s death (1899-1963)… Despite Poulenc’s popularity among performers and audiences–he is the most-performed composer of Jean Cocteau’s group Les Six–Poulenc has yet to receive the level of musicological attention, in English or French, that has been bestowed upon his compatriots Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Olivier Messiaen… This volume is divided into seven sections according to the type of source: “Articles”; “Critical Articles and Reviews”; “Contributions to Works by Others”; “Response to a Survey”; “Lectures”; “Interviews”; and “Interviews with Claude Rostand.”

Even in translation from the French, Poulenc’s writings are highly entertaining, both witty and informative. His analyses and commentary on modern/contemporary music and its critics provide a depth of understanding which now enhances my appreciation, not only of his music, but of the others he mentions, especially Stravinsky and Messiaen. Which leads me to the anecdote in his article on pp. 31-32, ‘Long Live Stravinsky!’, from Le Figaro, 7 April 1945, with a prologue by the editor:

After the Liberation (French liberation from the Nazis), French Radio broadcast Stravinsky’s complete works (in which Poulenc took part, and conducted by Manuel Rosenthal)…  But on 15 March, Stravinsky’s Four Norwegian Moods were whistled at… by some of Messiaen’s pupils.. Also, Stravinsky’s Danses concertantes… had been greeted with protests by these same young musicians. André Jolivet took up his pen to denounce the importance given to Stravinsky in these concerts. Poulenc replied in the following article:

“Incredible as it may seem, I am having, in 1945, to take up my pen to defend Igor Stravinsky, because there is currently, as in the great days of The Rite of Spring, a Stravinsky scandal.

Only… the detractors of today no longer belong… to the musical Right, but to a pseudo-Left made up of a number of the young and, what is more serious, pseudo-young who owe the whole of the light, modernistic varnish that covers their works entirely to the researches of Stravinsky of 1913 which he himself has already left behind.

For truly young composers to be turning their backs on The Rite, as we once turned our backs on Debussyism and Ravelism: bravo! But this is not the case here… One could imagine a Strauss vs Stravinsky combat on the lines of the earlier battle between Debussy and Wagner, but when it’s a question of detractors of this stamp, I can only think of little pugs in the public gardens who cock their legs against the plinths of the statues…

You may be sure I should not have attached the slightest importance to these yappings if there were not the possible repercussion that they might create a misunderstanding around a first-class composer whom I admire profoundly: Olivier Messiaen.”

The article goes on, his rapier wit slicing the miscreants. In a footnote the editor states:

Messiaen thanked Poulenc for his article on 19 April. He also tried to calm the situation in an article of 16 May in the review Volontés. Furthermore, he had gone backstage after the demonstration in the theater… to apologize to (conductor) Rosenthal  for the behaviour of his students—and apology that Rosenthal later said he had accepted.

Along with an anecdotal history of the development of music in the 20th Century, the book is filled with small but important, or at least entertaining, incidents hidden from general view, all of which enhance one’s appreciation for the composers and musicians mentioned, especially Francis Poulenc.

Here is a sampling of his music, of which I have copies:

Sextet for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn

Sonata For Clarinet And Piano

Sonata for flute and piano

For those who have not yet have experienced Olivier Messiaen, here is one of several pieces of his I have in my collection:

Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the end of Time)



Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) / Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992)

About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate American living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles, memoirs, and creative writing.
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