Poulenc Trio in Carmel

The first time I heard the music of Francis Poulenc, whose magical trio for bassoon, oboe and piano will be perfomed in Carmel this Saturday, what I heard was more than music.  I heard another way of being.  I was in my early 20s, attending graduate school in Santa Barbara, my schedule heavy with teaching and books and studying.  It was summer, and whenever I managed to find the time I would ride my bike to the Music Academy of the West, in Montecito, for their summer series of free recitals.  One afternoon, I sat in the small, elegant auditorium, tucked into the leafy campus next to the Pacific, and listened to unfamiliar sounds that were fresh and witty and above all free.  I’d never heard anything like it before.

I grew up in a house where classical music was our religion, and the three Bs—Bach, Beethoven and Brahms—were its gods.  These composers and their music are etched deep into my very being, and I’m grateful for my childhood steeped in music.  But what I heard in the music of Poulenc was an absence of certain qualities I associate with the Germanic—the rigid mindset, the obsession with discipline, the almost overwhelming element of drama.

In contrast, the music of Poulenc feels essentially spontaneous, unplanned, characterized by a deep vein of joy.  His compositional style is harmonically inventive, with original colors achieved through bold chromaticism that never overtakes the melody.  If the heavier German music of my childhood evoked furrowed brows and stormy emotions, here was music that described how I might aspire to live.

Even in the slower, more melancholy sections of his music, there is a rueful, philosophical quality of acceptance.  To my ears, the music says that yes, things don’t always work out, and that’s how it is sometimes.  Let’s go for a walk, have a glass of wine.  Life goes on.

Later, I learned that Poulenc, who was born in 1899, was not only gay but openly so.  In his thirties, after the death of several close friends, he turned more to the Catholic faith in which he’d been raised, but this did not conflict with his essential nature.  I am as sincere in my faith as I am in my sexuality, he once remarked.  In 1950, a critic described him as “a lover of life, mischievous, bon enfant, tender and impertinent, melancholy and serenely mystical.”  Poulenc once compared his music to a scene he’d observed which delighted him: a group of monks on a field, playing soccer.

I love the idea that we can be serious, and spiritual, and have all our emotions, and that we also get to cut loose and play.  Each time I hear Poulenc’s music, it is as if I discover afresh what I heard that first time in Santa Barbara, something true about my own essential nature, that of a boy who wants to put down his books and his worries and go outside and play.

Poulenc Trio, presented by Chamber Music Monterey Bay, Saturday, December 1, at 8:00 p.m., at Sunset Center, in Carmel.  The program also features works by Beethoven, Glinka, Shostakovich, and Previn.  Call (831) 625-2212 for tickets or information.