Born in Paris to a wealthy family, Francis Poulenc received piano lessons from the age of five. His parents insisted that he complete a formal education before attending a conservatoire, but the outbreak of war prevented him from doing so. Through his teacher Ricardo Viñes he was able to meet Auric, Satie and Falla, and it was to Satie that he dedicated his first major successe. Aged 18, his work Rapsodie nègre was performed at a concert of contemporary music. Stravinsky took note of him soon after, and helped to get his works published. Poulenc, like many French composers of the time, became greatly influenced by the music of his champion.
Poulenc was something of a sophisticated eccentric, on one occasion chatting up a surprised Cannes bartender about an ingenious harmonic progression he had managed to create that morning. This eccentricity showed in his music. His early music is characterised by its bright colours, strong, clear rhythms, and novel diatonic harmonies. It is ‘warmer’ and less intellectual than Stravinsky, more passionate and musically more refined than Satie. His piano compositions are especially noteworthy, an example being the Trois mouvements perpétuels.
During the First World War Poulenc was conscripted and remained so until 1921, continuing to compose. Next he worked as a typist for the Admiralty in Paris and in the 1920s became one of a group of six French composers, appropriately known as 'Les Six'. These comprised Poulenc, Honegger, Auric, Tailleferre, Durey and Milhaud, and their aesthetic rejected romanticism and impressionism. They tried instead to find a new way of seeking musical inspiration, incorporating ideas from other artforms. They likened this to cubism in the visual arts. After the war Poulenc also studied under Charles Koechlin.Poulenc's Catholic faith was rekindled after the death of a close friend in 1935 . His music became more ‘deep’ and less light-hearted, and he became one of the great religious and choral composers of the century. This period includes among its masterpieces the organ concerto (arguably the finest for the instrument), Litanies à la Vierge Noire, the Mass in G and Quatre Motets pour le temps de Pénitence. Poulenc also wrote chamber music, three operas, and several concertos. He wrote little for the orchestra that was not intended for the theatre, although he did write several ballets. The songs written after 1935, when he began accompanying the French baritone Pierre Bernac, are among his best works.