Fondren Library acquires ‘treasure trove’ of materials belonging to composer Poulenc

Largely self-taught and prodigious in both secular and sacred genres, Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) is considered to be among France’s leading composers of the 20th century. This spring Fondren Library acquired a sizable archive containing Poulenc’s original musical manuscripts, signed and inscribed printed scores and letters. The archive is now open to the public in the library’s Woodson Research Center.

Fondren Library's Mary Brower, left, and Dara Flinn review materials belonging to the library's new Francis Poulenc archive. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

“Poulenc’s music, particularly for solo piano, voice and choir, stands as some of the most important Western art music to appear after the First World War, by turn irreverent, sensuous and deeply sentimental,” said Mary Brower, Fondren’s music librarian, who oversaw the acquisition.

The materials are part of the Lambiotte Poulenc Archive from the family of Rose Lambiotte (1891-1964). Lambiotte was a longtime friend of the composer, to whom he dedicated “Adelina à la Promenade” from the song cycle “Trois Chansons de F. Garcia-Lorca” and the “13e Improvisation” for piano solo. Lambiotte’s husband, Auguste, was a wealthy Belgian industrialist and noted book collector. The Lambiottes became Poulenc’s Belgian family, so to speak, in the mid-1940s, and he frequently stayed with them at their Rue Saint-Bernard mansion in Brussels.

Mentored by Parisian avant-garde leaders Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau, Poulenc was a member of the group of French composers known as “Les Six,” the other five of whom were Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Germaine Tailleferre, Arthur Honegger and Louis Durey.

“They (Les Six) were a reaction to the late-Romanticism in music at the time, to composers such as Wagner or Impressionists like Debussy,” Brower said. “Their style generally emphasized more brevity and included a lot of humor and parody. They were inspired by everyday life subjects instead of more high-minded things. They were most interested in popular music genres at the time, including jazz, cabaret and even circus music.”

In recent years, leading regional music institutions such as Houston Grand Opera, Houston Symphony and Houston Chamber Choir have performed works by Poulenc.

The archive consists of original autograph musical manuscripts, including a working draft of the “Aubade Concerto Chorégraphique pour Piano et Dix-Huit Instruments,” the only known autographs of the “Nocturne No. 1” in C for piano and the “Quatre Poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire pour Baryton (ou Mezzo) et Piano” as well as signed and inscribed printed scores, approximately 100 letters in Poulenc’s handwriting and an autographed Pierre Balmain silk scarf.

A Pierre Balmain silk scarf autographed by Poulenc is part of the collection.

The Poulenc acquisition expands Fondren’s 20th-century special collections in music, Brower said. “I’m very happy to add these more recent materials because of the opportunities for new discovery and research. They have never before been publicly available for study,” she said.

The materials were purchased from descendants of Rose Lambiotte, siblings Peter and Caroline Donhauser, through an antiquarian music vendor in New York City. By coincidence, Peter Donhauser’s wife, Whitney, is a native of Houston, and members of her family are longtime acquaintances of Allen Matusow, the William Gaines Twyman Professor of History at Rice.

Keith Chapman, music catalog librarian, and David Bynog, assistant head of library acquisitions, collaborated with Brower in studying the archive’s materials. Dara Flinn, a Woodson archivist and special collections librarian, processed the materials with appropriate preservation measures, wrote the archival finding aid describing the materials and prepared them for public viewing.

“He (Poulenc) is perhaps the most important voice of French neoclassicism and modernism in an era dominated by Austrians and Russians,” said Peter Loewen, associate professor of musicology at Rice’s Shepherd School of Music, who wrote a letter supporting the purchase of the archive. “This archive is a veritable treasure trove of cultural insight to a society searching for identity in the postwar, post-Debussy era.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.