Poulenc was born in Paris. His mother, an amateur pianist, taught him to play, and music formed a part of family life. As a young man, in 1918 he was fulfilling his National Military Service but still managed to create the composition of three miniatures. At one time, the best known of all Poulenc's music was the three Mouvements perpétuels of 1918.
Influenced by Igor Stravinsky as well as Maurice Chevalier and the French vaudeville, after the War, Poulenc joined a circle of young composers gathered around Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau whose followers opposed Impressionism, advocating instead simplicity and clarity and espousing a particularly flippant form of anti-Romanticism.
This talented and innovative group believed emotions should be more restrained than they had been in late 19th century Romantic music, although the Satie set readily made exceptions to the rule for the purposes of satire. In 1920, the critic Henri Collet dubbed Satie’s group as Les Six.
The other members of "Les Six" were:
Poulenc used some of the style from Les Six to build his own musical career. He embraced the Dada movement's techniques, creating melodies that would have been appropriate for Parisian music halls. For Poulenc at this time, a charming vulgarity replaced any sort of romantic sentiment. An outstanding pianist, the keyboard dominated much of his early compositions but his friendships with the leading avant-garde poets of Montparnasse such as Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Eluard also saw him write dozens of songs, many of which were set to their words.
He produced a great deal of orchestral music and made a significant contribution to the art of the French solo song, producing more than 150 songs. In addition to a number of choral works, in 1936 he began creating the somber tones of religion after returning to his Catholic faith. These religious works are seen by many as his most significant compositions although his main musical attraction was in the creation of operas.
For his first opera, performed for the Paris Opera-Comique in 1947, Poulenc chose to create something in the same milieu as his songs and again used Apollinaire as his inspiration, chosing his 1917 Les Mamelles de Tiresias (The Breasts of Tiresias).
The 1957 opera, Les Dialogues des Carmelites, commissioned by Ricordi for La Scala, is Poulenc’s most renowned. The story deals with the execution of Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution and is based on Gertrud von le Fort's[?] novel Die Letzte am Schafott (The Last on the Scaffold). Poulenc's final opera was a one act tragedy entitled La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice) that was premiered at the Paris Opera-Comique on February 6, 1959.
In addition to his three operas, Francis Poulenc composed several concerti for organ, harpsichords, and piano, as well as masses, and chamber music with only a few orchestral works.
Though a Parisian by birth, the Loire Valley was the part of France he loved best, spending as much time as possible in his home there writing music in the peaceful countryside.