Poulenc – Gloria for Soprano Solo, Mixed Chorus, and Orchestra

by Max Derrickson

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Gloria for Soprano Solo, Mixed Chorus, and Orchestra

Early in the 20th Century, a group of young composers in Paris reacted to the state of French music—really to all of Western music. They objected most strongly to the influence of Impressionism. But because Paris was such a musical center, they were rebelling not just against Debussy and Ravel, but also Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Strauss. French writer Jean Cocteau, himself a trendsetter, called for a truly French music. The cry was for music that was unaffected by earlier musical movements or by the “conservatoire.” Such a fresh approach certainly describes Francis Poulenc.

Critic Henri Collet ordained six of the young composers as the “French Six” (“Le Groupe de Six”): Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey.
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The Gloria was commissioned by the Koussevitsky Music Foundation in collaboration with the Library of Congress. Poulenc completed the work in 1959; it was premiered in 1961. Poulenc chose to set the second “ordinary” part of the Catholic Mass. This text best spoke to his faith. He created a work that is both exclamatory and deeply reverent.

Poulenc had always used many kinds of styles and techniques of composition. Rather than taking a compositional stand, he responded to whatever best expressed the text or subject. In the middle 1900’s his style became very eclectic, incorporating cabaret, sacred structures, song-form, and polytonality. By the time he wrote the Gloria, he had adopted the clarity and simplicity of Stravinsky’s late Neo-Classical style.
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No more breathtaking a choral movement has been written since his mysterious third movement, “Domine Deus.”   Now only half a century old, the Gloria is a fresh, vibrant, and glorious piece.

Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Et in terra pax hominibus
bonae voluntatis.
[. . .]
Glory to God in the highest.
And on earth peace to men
of good will.
[. . .]