Penitence and Praise
Countless hymns of praise have been composed and sung to the glory of God over the ages. The most sublime among them come from composers who realize that authentic praise begins with profound penitence. In this collection of choral masterworks, composers from Purcell to Poulenc contrast humankind's sinfulness with God's abundant mercy and forgiveness. Their music expresses heartfelt contrition, fear of divine justice, and awe at the mystery of God's grace, leading to an outpouring of praise which cannot fail to move the listener's heart.
GLORIA - Francis Poulenc
As a young man living in Paris during the years after World War I, Francis Poulenc enjoyed the life of an urban sophisticate, famous as one of the glamorous young composers dubbed Les Six. When his good friend Pierre-Octave Ferroud died tragically in a car accident in 1936, Poulenc responded to the loss with a fervent return to his Roman Catholic faith. He turned his pen from art songs and witty piano works to composing sacred choral music of great beauty and emotion.
Poulenc composed the Gloria, his last and greatest sacred choral work, as a commission from the Serge Koussevitzky Foundation in 1959. Poulenc objected to the Foundation's initial request for a symphony, proposing instead a Gloria for soprano solo, chorus, and orchestra. He persuaded the Foundation by writing "the pure symphonic form is not my forte, whereas with the human voice... I am usually successful."
Poulenc drew inspiration from his 1936 Mass in G for soprano solo and chorus, among his first compositions after returning to Catholicism. The rhythmic statement of Gloria in excelsis Deo echoes the opening of the Gloria movement of the Mass; the haunting soprano solo "Amen" at the close of the Gloria quotes the choral Amen from the Agnus Dei of the Mass. Poulenc's colorful orchestration replete with brass and woodwinds, however, contrasts vividly from the austere a capella setting of the mass.
Poulenc's unique setting of the ancient liturgical text makes it a hymn of penitence as well as praise. The second half centers on the image of Christ as the Lamb of God, with repeated pleas of miserere nobis, have mercy upon us. Poulenc returns to these words after completing the liturgical text, relegating the line cum Sancto Spiritu in Gloria Dei Patris to only a single statement in the sopranos and tenors. The Amen proclaimed by the soprano soloist interrupts the choir in mid-sentence with the unexpected force of Judgment Day, as Christ descends from the right hand of the Father to administer both justice and mercy. The soloist utters a final, impassioned plea of miserere nobis against dissonant major sevenths in the orchestra before the concluding amens by the chorus and soloist, fading to a pianissimo mingling contrition with hope.
Charles Munch conducted the Boston Symphony for the premiere on January 20, 1961, and Robert Shaw prepared the chorus. The Gloria was generally well received, although some in the audience objected to the boisterous quality of certain movements, most notably the Laudamus Te. Poulenc later commented, "It caused a scandal; I wonder why? I had in mind those frescoes by Gozzoli where the angels stick out their tongues. And also some serious Benedictine monks I had once seen reveling in a game of soccer." Poulenc saw no contradiction in glorifying God through whimsy as well as piety, an opinion vindicated by the instant acceptance of his Gloria into the standard choral repertoire.