Poulenc: The Life in the Songs

Liveright: Norton. Apr. 2020. 672p. ISBN 9781631495236. $49.95. MUSIC
French composer Francis Poulenc (1899–1963) was the best-known member of the famed “Les Six,” six French composers who dominated French musical life of the 20th century. Johnson (Franz Schubert) has written a biography not so much of the composer but of his works, particularly his many songs. Chapters begin with a chronological “Outline of a Musical Life,” followed by a catalog of songs. Song are presented in French (sometimes Polish), with English translation. “Biographical Interludes” and other topics (“The Sexual Milieu of Francis Poulenc”) are interspersed throughout the “Song” sections. This well-illustrated volume includes scholarly apparatus (notes, bibliography, index of song titles, index of names) yet has a breezy, informal tone that informed readers will find accessible. An attractive feature of Johnson’s work is the broad cultural context in which he sets his subject. Numerous figures from the realm of classical music (Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy), painting (Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne), and literature (Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Éluard) make appearances.
VERDICT Highly recommended to readers interested in the life and works of the composer, as well as to those eager to learn about the cultural and political milieu of Poulenc’s life.
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