On Friday 21 June 2013, around forty scholars and postgraduate students from the UK, Europe and North America gathered at Keele University for the three-day international conference, ‘Rethinking Poulenc: 50 Years On’. Keele’s leafy campus provided a picturesque setting for this highly enjoyable and intellectually stimulating event. Organised by Barbara Kelly (Keele University), Christopher Moore (University of Ottawa), Deborah Mawer (Lancaster University) and Sylvie Douche (University of Paris-Sorbonne), the conference was designed to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Poulenc’s death: an opportune moment to reassess his contribution to twentieth-century music.
The call for papers attracted a considerable number of abstracts and the programme committee reported its difficulty in choosing between them. The conference was the UK’s most significant tribute to the French composer this year. Notwithstanding a handful of other anniversary celebrations (including a special edition of BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters on 13 April titled ‘Poulenc’s Legacy’ and the City of London Sinfonia’s mini Poulenc Festival the same month), the limited number of commemorative events is indicative of Poulenc’s often overlooked status in the re-structuring of French music and the arts after World War One. This year’s Proms, for example, featured only a single chamber work by Poulenc performed at Cadogan Hall: his Sextet, originally composed in 1932.
Yet the emergence of new studies of the composer and the publication of important primary sources in recent years call for a re-evaluation of Poulenc, his rejection of certain modernist trends, as well as the scope and nature of musical modernism itself. (See, for example, Hervé Lacombe, Francis Poulenc (Paris: Fayard, 2013); Barbara Kelly, Music and Ultra-Modernism in France: A Fragile Consensus, 1913–1939 (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2013); and Francis Poulenc, J’écris ce qui me chante, ed. Nicolas Southon (Paris: Fayard, 2011)). At Keele, the diversity of subjects and methodologies engaged with bears witness to the enduring and vibrant interest in Francis Poulenc today. Papers were presented in both French and English—a sign of the conference’s multinational perspective—and were grouped in sessions that dealt not only with Poulenc and his immediate environs, but also with broader issues of patronage, politics, religion and sexuality.
Musical geography was a recurring theme throughout the conference. In addition to Nicolas Southon’s entertaining and illuminating keynote lecture on the importance of Touraine for Poulenc, a paper session was devoted to the subject of ‘Poulenc and Place’ on Saturday afternoon. Michael Masci began by examining the politics of flânerie in the composer’s songs of the late 1930s, with particular reference to ‘Montparnasse’. (This song was in fact one of the more discussed works during the conference, along with the opera Les Mamelles de Tirésias and the ballet Aubade). Stéphan Etcharry then explored Poulenc’s musical allusions to Spain, and Christopher Moore considered the composer’s creative interest in various forms of the pastoral. The session was chaired by Jonathan Hicks, who also led the musical geographies session of Saturday’s Royal Musical Association postgraduate study day: ‘Studying the “Tonal” Avant-Garde: Methodologies of Twentieth-Century Music, 1900–1960’. Benefiting from the expertise of the many Poulenc scholars gathered at Keele the same weekend, postgraduates were invited to participate in workshops ranging from gender and camp theory to analytical approaches and archival study.
Another stimulating session on Saturday explored the banality of Poulenc’s Le Bal masqué (Louis Epstein), the irony underlying so many of his musical works (Pascal Terrien) and the composer’s anti-sublime agenda (Stephen Downes). This last paper, in particular, attempted to refine the longstanding cliché of Poulenc as ‘half monk, half rogue’ (initiated by French musicologist Claude Rostand in 1950), and all three presentations pointed to the ambiguity, complexity and even gravity underlying his frothy compositional facades. The conference also placed emphasis on the performance of Poulenc’s music. Emily Hindrichs’s lecture-recital in the University Chapel on Sunday was a highlight, featuring sung extracts from the author’s new performance edition of Les Mamelles arranged by Benjamin Britten for the 1958 Aldeburgh Festival.
No less than four concerts sponsored by the Keele Key Fund were staged throughout the weekend. The first and third of these focused primarily on Poulenc’s chamber and vocal music and featured a number of highly acclaimed musicians: cellist Marc Coppey, clarinettist Victoria Soames-Samek, mezzo-soprano Karen Radcliffe, and pianists Roy Howat, Ronald Woodley and Michael Bell. Hervé Lacombe’s enlightening keynote presentation on Poulenc’s recycling of musical material in his score for Jean Anouilh’s Le Voyageur sans baggage resonated strongly with the sense of déjà entendu that one so often feels when listening to works by this composer. The second and final concerts were devoted to Poulenc’s L’Histoire de Babar, le petit elephant, narrated in French and English by Didier Francfort and David Amigoni, respectively.
The ‘Rethinking Poulenc’ conference was a decidedly upbeat and convivial event and the conference banquet on Saturday evening provided an excellent opportunity for discussion to continue over a delicious three-course meal. On Sunday, the numerous critical issues that had arisen over the course of the weekend were reviewed and debated in the roundtable ‘Poulenc Scholarship Today’. Though this culminating session was led by Philippe Cathé, Barbara Kelly, Hervé Lacombe, Christopher Moore and Nicolas Southon, it was once again a very inclusive affair. Questions of historicism were debated and it was agreed that studies of Poulenc’s prose writing and intimate reflections, some of which have only recently been made available, is crucial for any credible reassessment of his legacy. The ‘Rethinking Poulenc’ conference both confirmed the enduring significance of Francis Poulenc and suggested stimulating directions for future research in this field. Many thanks are due to Barbara Kelly and her programme committee for organising such a rich and rewarding event.
Emma Adlard is currently completing her AHRC-funded PhD at King’s College London on women patrons of French musical culture during the early twentieth century.