The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Today is the Summer Solstice, and nobody wrote better summer music than Francis Poulenc. Can you name someone who did?

June 20, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Summer Solstice (below) – the beginning of the summer and the longest day and shortest night of the year. It happens at 6:09 p.m. CST.

For weeks, various critics on radio, TV and the interview have been offering their suggestions for summertime reading, summertime movies, summertime food, summertime trips.

But you hear very little about summertime music.

Oh, there are certain well-known pieces, from Vivaldi’s “Summer” concerto in The Four Seasons to Ralph Vaughan Williams and “The Lark Ascending” and all those early 20th century British composers who do pastoral music so evocatively and beautifully.

Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Summer” from his oratorio “The Seasons” does the job nicely, as do his “Morning,” “Noon” and “Night” Symphonies Nos. 6, 7 and 8 as well as his “Sunrise” String Quartet.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s famous Symphony No. 6 (“Pastorale”) his Piano Sonata In D Major, Op. 28 – also subtitled “Pastoral” — also capture the mood of the season. And you can find Franz Schubert songs that do the same very evocatively. And a lot of the music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is unbeatably sunny, lyrical and cheerful.

Mendelssohn’s “Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream” certainly captures the right mood, as does Shakespeare’s original play. And his sunny, upbeat “Italian” Symphony is also a pretty good bet.

Then there are also wonderfully warm and moody pieces by Debussy and Ravel that are full of water and sun and breezy wind, all with a kind of seasonal torpor and lassitude.

But for my money, no one has ever done a body of work that better expresses summer than the French composer Francis Poulenc (below). For me, his music goes down as easily as a dry French rose wine with a Salade Nicoise.

Although he could also be very serious and dark, Poulenc (1899-1963) has the great French gift of lightness – beautiful melodies, poignant harmonies, all tempered with the informality and good time quality of the music hall. His music is always graceful and kind.

I also love that the same Poulenc who was a devout Roman Catholic was also an unapologetic gay man who said, “If I wasn’t homosexual, I couldn’t compose music” or words to that effect.

We just don’t hear enough Poulenc during the usual concert season – so summer is an especially good time to revisit his work, which early on, during his days as the clown of Les Six composers in France, was grossly underestimated and underperformed. Listen for yourself:

Make no mistake: Poulenc is a modern master.

So here is my offering for the summer to mark the solstice. I hope you will look at some of the wonderful collection of Poulenc’s solo piano and chamber music that are out there and agree that when the weather s warm and the light is long, that’s the perfect time to take out something by Poulenc and put it on the CD player and listen to it – to bask it during the sunny days of summer, maybe even with some great summer food in front of you. He would like that.

But if you have other pieces or other composers who you think better capture summer, just let us know.

The Ear wants to hear.

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