Composer Spotlight Lent V: Francis Poulenc

March 10, 2016 Comments Off on Composer Spotlight Lent V: Francis Poulenc

The choral music scheduled at St. Luke’s for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (March 13th) will be:

  • Constanzo Porta – Judica me, Deus (Introit)
  • Francis Poulenc – Timor et tremor
  • Iain Quinn – O esca viatorum
  • Jehan Alain – O salutaris

-Blog Editor


Francis Poulenc was born in Paris in 1899 and died there in 1963.  He first studied the piano with his mother and then with Ricardo Viñes.  He had already attracted attention as a composer when in 1920 he began three years of harmony lessons with Charles Koechlin.  It was also in 1920 that he was included in a group of composers that would come to be known as ‘Les Six’.  Poulenc considered that his worldly side, which produced many songs and piano pieces as well as ballet music, came from his mother, while the religious side came from his father.  His early interest in religion apparently lapsed with the death of his father in 1917.  It was rekindled in 1935, when, after the death of his friend Pierre-Octave Ferroud, the composer visted Rocamadour and was emotionally overcome by its black wooden Virgin.  The Quatre motets pour un temps di pénitence along with the Mass in G Major, and theLitanies à la Vierge were composed shortly after this experience.

The Quatre motets pour un temps di pénitence (Four Motets for a Time of Penitence’), for four-part a capella mixed choir, were not composed in the order in which they are published.  The first three were written at Poulenc’s home in the Loire valley: Timor et tremor in January 1939, Vinea mea electa in December 1938, and Tenebrae factae sunt (dedicated to Nadia Boulanger) in July 1938, while Tristis est anima mea was composed in Paris in November 1938.  When Poulenc composed these motets he had in mind the realism and tragedy of a painting by Mantegna and this no doubt accounts for the sudden dynamic changes in the music and the direction ‘très doux’ (‘very soft’) in Vinea mea electa followed only six bars later by ‘excessivement doux’ (‘extremely soft’).  Dramatic changes are most noticeable in Tenebrae factae sunt, all cleverly designed for maximum vocal effect and verbal emphasis.  The composer also revealed, in a radio conversation with Claude Rostand, that when he was at work on these motets he thought constantly of the early Spanish composer Victoria, for whom he had an unlimited admiration.  The texts of all of the motets, with the exception of Timor et tremor are Tenebrae responsories.

– David Shuler, Director of Music


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