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Francis Poulenc (20th Century Composers) Paperback – September 25, 1996
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The French composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) is often dismissed as the lightweight composer of short, clever pieces, lumped in with the rest of "Les Six." In this volume--one of Phaidon's 20th-Century Composers series--author Benjamin Ivry argues for more consideration and respect for the man who wrote Dialogues of the Carmelites. As is the rule with Phaidon's series, the book is rich in photographs and integrates the composer's life and work in a relatively brief (240 pages, including index), very accessible form; there are no musical examples, although they might be helpful. Mr. Ivry approaches his task with more humor than some of his colleagues, and he is open throughout about Poulenc's homosexuality and its effect on the composer's work and personal life.
'Ivry's much-needed and informative Poulenc captures the French between-wars scene vividly.' (Sunday Telegraph) 'His narrative is fluent, full of interesting stories and very thorough.' (Classical Music) 'Such a fascinating man; such fascinating music; such good reading.' (American Record Guide) 'As a series, Phaidon's 20th Century Composers has brought remarkable variety and a welter of information, both necessary and delightfully trivial. Intended both for the general reader and for the more enthusiatically musical...' (The Scotsman)
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Dr. Alan-Clarke Hudson
The first thing that struck me was his choice of subjects. Simply put, Poulenc was homosexual. While this may be a fact of his life, Ivry goes well out of his way to let the reader know this in an unnecessary frequency. I'm not sure why Ivry was so adamant in referencing this fact at about every third page. It's unfortunate that this book may give one the impression that Poulenc was infatuated -- obsessed even -- with sex.
It has been mentioned in the other reviews that there is a great deal of gossip in this book, a point I agree with. It even gets downright catty at times. I remember an image on page 78 of the highly influential arts patron Marie-Laure de Noailles, with the caption that reads "Marie-Laure de Noailles is here charitably photographed by Man Ray in his best fashion-magazine style, her equine nose de-emphasized in a full-face portrait."
Me-YOW. (I must add here that Marie-Laure was, in fact, a lovely woman.)
Above aside, there are some nice, albeit concise, analyses of various works that gives one a good idea of its background and intention when writing them. We are also given some insight to his mental anguish and fear of not being taken seriously as a composer, his time in the military, and his subsequent care-free playful spirit with his many friends. I read this book as a fan of Poulenc's work. But as a reference point on this composer I recommend looking elsewhere. A wonderful choice would be the now out-of-print collection of interviews with Stéphane Audel entitled "My Friends and Myself" (ISBN 0234772514).