The French composer Francis Poulenc had a profound admiration and empathy for the writings of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. That empathy was rooted in shared aspects of the artistic temperament of the two figures but was also undoubtedly reinforced by Poulenc’s fellow-feeling on a human level. As someone who wrestled with his own homosexuality and who kept his orientation and his relationships apart from his public persona, Poulenc would have felt an instinctive affinity for a figure who endured similar internal conflicts but who, especially in his later life and poetry, was more open about his sexuality. Lorca paid a heavy price for this refusal to dissimulate; his arrest in August 1936 and his assassination the following day, probably by Nationalist militia, was accompanied by taunts from his killers about his sexuality.
Everything about the Spanish poet’s life, his artistic affinities, his personal predilections and even the relationship between these and his death made him someone to whom Poulenc would be naturally drawn and whose untimely demise he would feel keenly and might wish to commemorate musically. Starting with the death of both his parents while he was still in his teens, reinforced by the sudden loss in 1930 of an especially close friend, confidante and kindred spirit, and continuing throughout the remainder of his life with the periodic loss of close friends, companions and fellow-artists, Poulenc’s life was marked by a succession of bereavements. Significantly, many of the dedications that head up his compositions are ‘to the memory of’ the individual named.
As Poulenc grew older, and the list of those whom he had outlived lengthened inexorably, his natural tendency towards the nostalgic and the elegiac fused with a growing sense of what might be termed a ‘survivor’s anguish’, part of which he sublimated into his musical works. It should therefore come as no surprise that, during the 1940s, and in fulfilment of a desire that he had felt since the poet’s death, he should turn to Lorca for inspiration and, in the process, attempt his own act of homage in two separate works: the Violin Sonata and the ‘Trois Chansons de Federico García Lorca’.
This exposition attempts to unfold aspects of the two men’s aesthetic pre-occupations and to show how the parallels uncovered cast reciprocal light upon their respective approaches to the creative process. It also examines the network of enfolded associations, musical and autobiographical, which link Poulenc’s two compositions commemorating Lorca, not only to one another but also to a wider circle of the composer’s works, especially his cycle setting poems of Guillaume Apollinaire: ‘Calligrammes’. Composed a year after the ‘Trois Chansons de Federico García Lorca’, this intricately wrought collection of seven mélodies, which Poulenc saw as the culmination of an intensive phase in his activity in this genre, revisits some of ‘unheard voices’ and ‘unseen shadows’ enfolded in its predecessor. It may be viewed, in part, as an attempt to bring to fuller resolution the veiled but keenly-felt anguish invoked by these paradoxical properties.