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  • Francis Poulenc, Profane and Sacred
  • H. Wendell Howard (bio)

In the Parisian world of musical composition between World War I and World War II, Francis Poulenc was not deemed a first-tier composer. Foremost at that level were Igor Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud. By 1958, however, when Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic wanted to commission a work for the prestigious 1962 opening of Lincoln Center, they turned to Poulenc, for in the postwar era serious listeners had at last discovered in a significant number of Poulenc's works the impressive transcendent qualities that make him a great composer. To be sure, he is not always that, but even those compositions that do not rise to the level of greatness are still music that profoundly enriches and embellishes civilized life. The "American" Stravinsky on one occasion wrote to Poulenc: "You are truly good, and that is what I find again and again and again in your music."1

Perhaps no two works illustrate Poulenc's artistic span so well as his operas Les Mamelles de Tiresias and Dialogues des Carmelites. Frequently commentators try to explain the distinctions between these two musico-dramatic expressions by setting up polarities: satire versus romance, comedy versus tragedy, word versus music, [End Page 14] sensation versus intellect, naturalism versus ceremony, all of which ultimately, they suggest, intimate a confrontment of the ridiculous and the sublime. Since, however, Poulenc's two operas will not easily reside within the confines of categories, any of these qualifying terms prove to be more confounding than clarifying.

The words that best reveal these two works are "profane" and "sacred." In our context added to the generally accepted meaning of "profane"—secular, common, unhallowed—is the notion that the profane interprets given characters and their actions. Sacred's immediately recognized definition—dedicated, set apart, consecrated—is expanded to include a mode of dramatization. Ethan Mordden in Opera in the Twentieth Century, Sacred, Profane, Godot says in this regard: "Doubtless the best example of the sacred is Wagnerian music drama (whether Christian, pagan, or, as in Die Meistersinger, middle class), with its mesmerization of the spectator through the sheer power of its music."2 The italics are mine. How Poulenc's Les Mamelles and Dialogues fit here will take some telling.

In June 1917, Guillaume Apollinaire's drama Les Mamelles de Tiresias (The Breasts of Tiresias) premiered in Montmartre to an audience that included Picasso, Cocteau, Satie, Matisse, and Poulenc. These conspicuous attendees were artistic soul mates of Apollinaire, a leader in the restless period of technical innovation and experiments in the arts, the writer of bizarre poems and art criticism that advanced the cause of Cubism, and the coiner of the term surrealism. With Picasso he applied himself to the task of defining the principles of a Cubist aesthetic in literature as well as in painting, a task they never completed. Cocteau in this group became the primary spokesman for surrealism. Satie reacted against the lush and the sensuous in music until his simplified style for years relegated his music in the eyes and ears of "traditionalist" critics to children's pieces. The same was true for Poulenc's early works that lived and breathed childhood but that were never childish. Matisse was kin as the outstanding representative of Fauvism with its bold distortions. They all had gathered to witness the absurd drama Apollinaire had crafted. [End Page 15]

This remnant of early-middle Dadaism is a tale of Therese, a discontented wife who grows a beard, sends her breasts in the forms of balloons into the air to explode them, rechristens herself Tiresias, and then vanishes. Her cast-off husband decides to have children without his wife's help—it is his patriotic duty—and within a few hours has given birth to 40,049 infants. Tiresias in the end returns, now an advocate for family life and child bearing. She and her husband urge all who can hear them to have offspring and are so convincing that A Fat Lady and A Bearded Man, displaced from the circus to the audience, chime in as two more voices to convince their fellow viewers to follow suit.

Initially Poulenc was...


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