Thursday, July 16, 2009

Exultate Deo by Francis Poulenc

Sung by Polyphony conducted by Stephen Layton. To be performed by The Washington Collegium under the direction of Benjamin Hansen this Sunday, the 19th of July at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Washington DC.

Memorably described as 'half-monk, half-delinquent' Poulenc's music alternates consistently between these two strains. Often displaying a religiously Catholic austerity right next to a light-heartedness reminiscent of Stravinsky in his neo-classical period.

(The second of the three Novelettes for Piano by Poulenc. Showing the various aspects of his lighter side.)

Like Stravinsky, Poulenc was extremely devoted to his Christian faith (though Stravinsky was Orthodox). But unlike the vigorously heterosexual Stravinsky, Poulenc struggled his entire life with reconciling his homosexuality with his Catholicism. His music often seems to reflect the tension between these two worlds. The text of Exultate Deo as sacred as sacred becomes, yet the music sounds as though it should be an accompaniment to the Follies of French Vaudeville.

It is a short piece and only indicative of a part Poulenc's stylistic makeup. In an era dominated by atonality, Poulenc resolutely affirmed his allegiance to tonality - the one certainty of his life. Some of his tonal compositions display a greater ferocity than most atonal composers were capable. The range of both his technique and expression was stupefying. Poulenc was a composer committed to human expression in an age that declared such expression useless.

(The famous and terrifying ending of his opera Dialogue of the Carmelites in which an entire order of nuns martyr themselves to the guillotine. James Levine conducts the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and chorus. Jessye Norman and Maria Ewing star.)

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