How six women influenced the music of Francis Poulenc

A portrait of six women, each with a considerable influence upon the music of Francis Poulenc, and 20th-century cultural and artistic life.

How six women influenced the music of Francis Poulenc
How six women inspired the music of Francis Poulenc, © Getty / ullstein bild Dtl.

From his early years as a young composer until his death in 1963, the composer Francis Poulenc witnessed several important cultural revolutions: Cubism by Picasso and his faithful followers, the "bande à Picasso", Surrealism by André Breton, the Ballets Russes and Serge Diaghilev, and even the shows at the Folies Bergères produced by Paul Derval.

Within the "bande à Picasso" was also the artist-painter Marie Laurencin. Amongst the first Surrealist writers was Raymonde Linossier, childhood friend of Francis Poulenc, and at the Folies Bergères worked the composer's future muse, Denise Duval.

Across these six portraits of the woman that crossed paths with, and inspired, Francis Poulenc, we discover six noteworthy individuals, as modern and audacious as the composer of the famous Dialogue des Carmélites.

In the bookshop of Adrienne Monnier

Adrienne Monnier dans sa librairie, 'La Maison des Amis des Livres', en 1926.
Adrienne Monnier dans sa librairie, 'La Maison des Amis des Livres', en 1926., © Getty

1917. The Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, in Paris. A performance of Rhapsodie Nègre, a work for voice and orchestra composed by a certain Francis Poulenc. In the enthusiastic audience, one woman is of particular importance: Adrienne Monnier. Her name is perhaps unknown today, and yet she rubbed elbows with many of the greatest writers of her time: Louis Aragon, Ernest Hemingway, Nathalie Sarraute, André Breton, Jacques Prévert, and Guillaume Apollinaire, to name but a few…

Two years earlier, in 1915, Adrienne Monnier bought an office space at 7, rue de l’Odéon and opened a bookshop, La Maison des Amis des Livres. At only 23 years old, the young entrepreneur already had one firm conviction: one cannot buy a book without having read it. She thus organised a lending system, similar to a library, and took care to assist and advise each one of her clients.

She quickly forged a close friendship with the numerous artists that visited her shop and organised literary soirées, small exhibitions, and concerts. In only a few months, La Maison des Amis des Livres became the meeting points for the Potassons (the nickname given to the regulars), a stimulating place of cultural exchange and creation of which the young Francis Poulenc was particularly fond.

"What rare and wonderful memories I owe to this friendship! It's at the rue de l'Odéon that I had the privilege of meeting Apollinaire on several occasions [...] It is here, too, escorted by Breton and Aragon, that I first metPaul Eluard , who played such an important role in my life" (Francis Poulenc, in a special edition of the publication Mercure de France dedicated to Adrienne Monnier, published in 1956).

Denise Duval, "la Voix" (the Voice)

Denise Duval et Francis Poulenc lors de l'enregistrement de l'émission "Livre d'or de Paris Inter", Salle Gaveau de Paris, 1960.
Denise Duval et Francis Poulenc lors de l'enregistrement de l'émission "Livre d'or de Paris Inter", Salle Gaveau de Paris, 1960. , © AFP / Louis Joyeux / Ina

More than just a singer, Denise Duval was an excellent performer. She began her career at the Folies Bergères in Paris, distinguishing herself as a talented singer with a touch of unpredictability and excellent acting skills. She soon became an inspiration for Francis Poulenc, and his go-to soprano.

In preparation for her role in the Dialogue des Carmélites (1957), Denise Duval lived with and observed the nuns in the convent of Compiègne, preparing much like a movie star a role that was tailored specifically for her: Poulenc composed for the voice of Denise Duval, having previously performed the role of Thérèse in Les Mamelles de Tirésias. In 1957, she therefore took on the role of Blanche de la Force in the Dialogue des Carmélites, and two years later the famous woman alone on stage in La Voix Humaine.

"Poulenc found me amusing [...] I spoke to him earnestly and bluntly, and he appreciated that" (Libération, 6 November 2004, interview by Eric Dahan).

But Denise Duval was not only the Voice of Francis Poulenc. She also interpreted other principal roles, including Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, Puccini's Tosca, and Ravel's L’Heure Espagnole… until 1965, when she decided to put an end to her career due to issues concerning her health, a career during which she graced the stages of the Opéra de Paris, la Scala in Milan, and Carnegie Hall in New York.

The brushstroke of Marie Laurencin

Portrait non daté de Marie Laurencin / "Le Baiser", 1927
Portrait non daté de Marie Laurencin / "Le Baiser", 1927 , © AFP

History has not remembered the name Laurencin as well as it has those of Picasso and Matisse, and yet the artist-painter Marie Laurencin was part of the same generation of modern artists, precursors. She left behind an important body of work: almost 200 oil paintings, 300 engravings, and countless drawings and stage designs.

Not satisfied with being recognised and praised in a primarily male-dominated field, Marie Laurencin sought to abolish the barriers between the arts. She thus conceived the stage design and costumes for Biches (1924), a performance by the famous dance company Ballets Russe with music by Poulenc. The composer was immediately taken by the artist's libertine attitude and was thrilled to find this same spirit, several years later, in the person of Louise de Vilmorin.

The literary fantasies of Louise de Vilmorin

Louise de Vilmorin, le 1er avril 1960, à l'aéroport d'Orly.
Louise de Vilmorin, le 1er avril 1960, à l'aéroport d'Orly., © AFP

Louise de Vilmorin certainly turned a few heads: André Malraux, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Gaston Gallimard, Orson Welles, and Léo Ferré… A beautiful and talented poet with a passion for travelling, Francis Poulenc described her as the (female) literary equal of Paul Eluard, and chose to put to music several of her literary works, notably the famous Fiançailles pour rire (1939).

This fake fiançailles (engagement) is an ironic reference to her missed marriage with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a union opposed by the young woman's bourgeois family. Such was the trademark style of Louise de Vilmorin: narrating with composure and levity, bringing a smile to one's face, and even provoking certain readers.

Water-of-life! Beyond! At the hour of pleasure, to choose is not to betray, I choose that one.

After passing away in 1969, Louise de Vilmorin left behind a masterpiece of 20th-century literature, Madame de (1950), and numerous poems that live on through the music and melodies of Francis Poulenc.

The harpsichord of Wanda Landowska

La pianiste et claveciniste Wanda Landowska, en 1942.
La pianiste et claveciniste Wanda Landowska, en 1942., © Getty / Hulton Archive

In 1923, presented by the Princesse Edmond de Polignac, Poulenc made the acquaintance of the greatest harpsichordist of his time, Wanda Landowska. "Ihave for her as much artistic respect as human tenderness. It was she who provided me with the key to Bach's harpsichord music. It was she who taught me all I know about our French harpsichordists", explained the composer in an interview with his friend Stéphane Audel.

Wanda Landowska was a unique pianist and harpsichordist, a specialist of the keyboard music by Johann Sebastian Bach. But her work for the stage was not enough for the musician, and thus turned to teaching, the renewal of early music and the promotion of the repertoire for harpsichord. She asked her contemporaries, Francis Poulenc in particular, to composer for her instrument of choice. This resulted in the creation of the Concerto Champêtre, premiered by Wanda Landowska on 3 May 1929, at the Salle Pleyel in Paris.

The eternal friendship of Raymonde Linossier

Amie proche de Francis Poulenc et Léon-Paul Fargue, Raymonde Linossier était surnommée "La Violette Noire" par ce dernier.
Amie proche de Francis Poulenc et Léon-Paul Fargue, Raymonde Linossier était surnommée "La Violette Noire" par ce dernier. , © Getty

"Raymonde Linossier […] was the spiritual guide of my adolescence", wrote Francis Poulenc. More than a wise friend from Poulenc's childhood, Raymonde Linossier was an erudite and literary figure, author of the (short) Surrealist novel Bibi-la-Bibiste (1918). The author was nonetheless forgotten until the researcher Sophie Robert brought her life and work back to light in 1999.

The writer Léon-Paul Fargue called her Violette noire [Black violet], due to the fact that her life was full of mystery and secret activities. Though traditionally, the girls in the wealthy Linossier family married at an early age, Raymonde decided to become a nurse during the First World War, thus breaking the family tradition.

After the war, she studied Law in Paris and focused on her work defending prostitutes, alongside her work as a member of the National Women's Council. Though these activities seemed to be already time-consuming and mentally stimulating, they represent only a fraction of the young woman's passions and interests. Fascinated by oriental cultures and civilisations, Raymonde Linossier joined in 1926 the photography department of the Musée Guimet, the national museum of Asian art.

In 1928, through a letter addressed to her sister, Francis Poulenc asked for his friend's hand in marriage. Was he in love? Was he giving in to the social pressure weighing on his mind because of his homosexual relations? The answer shall remain a mystery, and though the proposal created a rift between the two friends, Poulenc never forgot Raymonde, forever keeping close the picture of his beautiful Violette noire.