Poulenc frustrates biographers, and perhaps musicologists too: no grand storylines can be teased out of his life, and there are few large-scale works to analyse in depth either. He doesn’t rank as one of the ‘great’ composers, and perhaps didn’t even aspire to. Urbane, insouciant and a little bit lazy, he was born into the haute bourgeoisie of Paris in 1899 and remained in unabashed material comfort until his death in 1963, his life marred only by ill health, exacerbated by hypochondria and periods of depression.
He was much liked, both personally and professionally, keeping his busy sex life discreet while maintaining an impressive number of close long-term friendships. Money seldom worried him; he was never persecuted. He had no interest in politics and survived the Nazi occupation unscathed. Nobody ever said he wasn’t a nice man.
But this doesn’t make him easy to write about, and in these two admirably written, long-pondered and scrupulously researched studies, both Roger Nichols and Graham Johnson rub up against insuperable problems.
Nichols interweaves life and works in a narrative richly informed by his long immersion in modern French music. But there