Histories of French music inevitably record the arrival in January 1920 of the Groupe des Six, the six young French composers who were billed as the nation’s new white hopes after the carnage of the First World War. Of the six, two, Germaine Tailleferre and Louis Durey, would live a quiet life in the second division of composers, while Georges Auric would make his name, and eventually a lot of money, as a film composer. But of the other three, few critics in 1920 would have prophesied that, rather than Darius Milhaud or Arthur Honegger, it would be Francis Poulenc who, some 90 years later, would have captured the hearts of the general music-loving public – the ‘mélomanes’, to use that elegant French title.

In a society that liked things to be well ordered, Poulenc got off to a bad start. For one thing, he was rich and, as we know, composers are supposed to struggle financially and even those who, like Massenet, achieve wealth by working 14-hour days are somehow guilty of poor form. And then he never passed through the hallowed portals of the Paris Conservatoire, contenting himself with lessons from Charles Koechlin sometime after his career had got under way. This meant not only that he missed out on the joys of writing fugues (like poverty, good for the soul) but that he had no ready-made constituency of fellow-pupils to draw on for comfort when he was confronted by compositional dilemmas or when critics turned nasty.

The general view, then, that the young Poulenc was a fils à papa (daddy’s boy) was, from an emotional perspective, utterly misleading; and not even true in the literal sense, since he had lost both his parents by the time he was 19. He seems never to have spoken about these early losses of two parents whom he loved, but it does not need any great psychological insight to suppose that he was deeply affected. Poulenc’s niece Rosine Seringe was at some pains to point out to me that her uncle was at heart ‘un inquiet’, and Madeleine Milhaud recounted how one day, at a party in the Milhauds’ flat, Poulenc found a one-franc piece on the floor and was making a terrible fuss over whose it might be until Madeleine exclaimed, ‘Oh, Francis, for Heaven’s sake!’.

His anxiety was further fed by conflicts in the fields of sex, religion and music. He was predominantly homosexual, with a penchant for handsome young men of no great intellectual pretensions. He should not therefore have been surprised if they failed to respond to his premieres with informed enthusiasm. But their derelictions hit him hard, most notably that of Lucien Roubert during the gestation of his opera Dialogues des Carmélites… whereupon Roubert became mortally ill and, after a rapprochement, died just as Poulenc was copying out the final notes of the work. It undoubtedly bears the scars of this terrible time.

He said towards the end of his life that he liked living between nuns and sluts. Time and time again in his writings we come across this kind of division of the self. It was present too between his homosexuality and his sporadic attraction towards women. He had a daughter, now in her early sixties, and in the late 1920s seriously offered marriage to his childhood friend Raymonde Linossier. Her sudden death in 1930 exacerbated the depression he was already suffering from, and although his Aubade for piano and orchestra predates her death by several months, it tells unmistakably of his depth of feeling. He called it ‘a wound’, and the final desolate, pounding bars of A minor are the mirror of his ‘inquiétude’.

There was conflict also between his homosexuality and his Roman Catholicism. The accepted view has been that he abandoned the faith sometime after his father’s death (he was a Catholic from the Aveyron, his mother a Parisian atheist), only to be brought back to it in 1936 by the tragic death of his fellow composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, which he learnt of while staying near Rocamadour, and after which he wrote his ravishingly pure Litanies à la vierge noire.

In a photo of him descending the steps of the little church that houses the Black Virgin, the choral conductor Yvonne Gouverné is behind him. But when I talked to Gouverné of a ‘return to the faith’, she responded smartly that for those brought up as Catholics, as Poulenc was, there could never be any real abandonment, and hence no return. This might explain why there is no discernible break in Poulenc’s technique at this point, even if we may detect a further deepening of emotion. At all events, he was not alone in having to find a way of dealing with the Church’s opposition to homosexuality: what this was, only his confessor would know.

On the compositional front, the division lay between his determination to remain true to his lyrical gifts and the relatively conventional language in which they were couched, and a fear of being left behind. One of his main touchstones in all this was Stravinsky. It has often been noted that the opening of Poulenc’s Gloria of 1961 is a crib from the opening ‘Hymne’ of Stravinsky’s 1925 Serenade for piano – far enough away in time not to invoke charges of competition. Less well known is the almost-crib of the same passage in what was finally published as the second of Poulenc’s Trois pièces of 1928…entitled ‘Hymne’.

Here Poulenc seems to be saying, ‘Nice start, Igor, but you missed on the continuation.’ His fears of becoming vieux jeu were only increased by his appreciation of the best of the modern music round him. Though he loathed Stockhausen’s piano pieces and thought the serial Stravinsky was ‘wearing hats too young for him’, he wrote warmly of Messiaen’s La nativité, came round eventually to Turangalîla, and considered Boulez to be a composer of the first rank. His letters regularly tell of him finishing a piece and thinking it the best thing he has done. A matter of weeks later, the doubts set in once more…

He sounded a distinct note of triumph in boasting that he excelled in song, the one area to which Stravinsky had never contributed anything of importance. Poulenc remains, as it has turned out, the last in the line of mélodistes that began with Berlioz and Gounod. That his genius in this respect could flourish independently of technique is clear from the little cycle Le bestiaire of 1919, in which, before any composition lessons, he captured perfectly the naive, crystalline charm of Apollinaire’s poems. But with growing technique came growing ambition and power.

The divided Poulenc is again on display, not least in his attraction to the Surrealist poetry of Éluard and Max Jacob, where opposites converge and logic is an optional extra. The mad and sinister elements stretch Poulenc’s language, as in ‘Une roulette couverte en tuiles’ in the cycle Tel jour, telle nuit, which has been compared with Schubert’s Der Doppelgänger. At the other extreme, the love poetry speaks to his strengths. Of ‘Nous avons fait la nuit’, the last song of the cycle, Poulenc said: ‘I wrote this song in the sincerest of emotions. It is difficult to convince performers that only calm can give intensity to a poem about love. Everything else is superfluous.’

André Gide wrote that classicism derives its impact from suppressed romanticism. Similarly, the intensity behind Poulenc’s calm derives from his suppressed anxiety, which only the act of composition seemed to allay. In the things that mattered, Poulenc was never ‘left behind’, but was truly a composer of his time, the conflicted 20th century.

Roger Nichols