Daniel Albright on Poulenc and Surrealist Music

1. "When we look at musical compositions that might be called surreal--works by Poulenc, Martinu, Ravel, and so forth from the 1920s--and compare them to Schoenberg's early twelve-tone compositions, also from the 1920s, we notice that the surrealist works seem strikingly conservative in certain ways. Melodies tend to move in a conjunct, singable manner; harmonies rarely grate; structures are often easily assimilated and full of predictable recurrences. But it is a mistake to think of Schoenberg as a more modern or venturesome sort of composer than Poulenc, because Poulenc attacked musical conventions as fiercely as Schoenberg, not on the level of harmonic syntax, but on the level of semantics. As a harmonist, Poulenc was, compared to Schoenberg, a child; but Schoenberg's Moses und Aron (1930-32) depends on interpretive cues every bit as simple and rigid as those of Saint Saens's Samson and Delilah (1875)--as soon as the spectator learns that triadic figures, instead of chromatic figures, represent evil. Poulenc was original not in the way that his music sounds, but in the way that his music means." Untwisting the Serpent at 288 (emphasis in the original).

2. "The charm of Poulenc arises from his unusual adeptness at working out fluid systems of musical meaning while bobbling along on rivers of disabled textual systems." Id. at 305.

3. "The surrealism of Poulenc and his fellows didn't try to create a new language of music--it simply tilted the semantic planes of the old language of music." Id. at 289.

4. "Auden once wrote that music cannot lie but I think these passages [Honegger's funeral march for Cocteau's Les maries de la Tour Eiffel] are evidence that music can lie." Id. at 291.