Have you ever bought a box of aspirin in France and noticed the name ‘Rhône-Poulenc’ on the packaging? Poulenc pharmaceuticals was founded by Étienne Poulenc, grandfather of composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). As a young man Francis Poulenc mixed with the smart set in Paris, including Apollinaire, Cocteau, Gide, Stravinsky and Diaghilev. Together with the composers Milhaud, Auric, Honegger, Tailleferre and Durey, he was a member of the group known as Les Six (a group which didn’t have a manifesto, as such, but which maintained a generally anti-Romantic bias). His works include the ballet Les biches (commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballets russes), the opera Les mamelles de Tirésias (adapted from a play by Apollinaire), an Organ Concerto and many songs and solo piano works. In the 1950s he received a commission from La Scala, Milan, for Dialogues des Carmélites, an opera set in a community of nuns in revolutionary France. It was subsequently taken up by other major houses worldwide. The work points to Poulenc’s devout Catholicism. At the same time, he had a love for and interest in the witty and subversive. Indeed, some would argue that his sacred music is altogether too frivolous. Whatever the verdict on that score, his varied output is among the most interesting of any 20th-century composer. Like Diaghilev, Gide and Cocteau, Poulenc was homosexual. That said, he fathered a child who was born in 1946.

© Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra