Poulenc is remembered mainly as a gay boulevardier, but he also had a serious, deeply sincere religious side, expressed with austere beauty in his Stabat Mater. Poulenc wanted to write something in memory of a friend, painter Christian Bérard. Although he resisted writing a requiem, the slow movements of this work often call to mind the gentle Requiem of Gabriel Fauré, and structurally it adheres to the old motet patterns employed by Jean-Baptiste Lully. The Stabat Mater calls for mixed chorus, full orchestra, and soprano solo.
The opening "Stabat Mater dolorosa," grave and dignified and at about four minutes, is one of the work's longest movements. This is followed by the turbulent "Cujus animam gementem," then the quiet, initially a cappella "O quam tristis et afflicta," whose austerity is relieved by sensuous harp glissandi halfway through.
The tuneful "Quae moerebat et dolebat" has an agreeable, antique pastoral air, whereas "Quis est homo, qui non fleret" is highly dramatic, full of slamming brass chords in its first half and breaking into Stravinsky-like jaggedness in the second part. Complete contrast comes with the tender yet harmonically restless "Vidit suum dulcem natum," where the soprano first appears; the two halves of the Stabat Mater symmetrically hinge on this movement.
"Eja Mater, fons amoris" is more celebratory, despite a suggestion of tragedy at the mid and end points. "Fac ut ardeat cor meum" begins canonically for unaccompanied chorus, but soon the writing becomes more traditionally vertical (harmonic) rather than horizontal (polyphony was not one of Poulenc's major concerns). "Sancta mater, istud agas" begins as one of the score's darkest sections, and takes its inspiration partly from plainchant, but in the middle it rises to a peak of religious ardor.
"Fac ut portem Christi mortem" is a severe funeral march, and very distantly recalls the Berlioz Symphonie funèbre et triomphale; before long, though, the solo soprano returns, bringing with her a harmonic environment that is simultaneously rarefied and voluptuous. "Inflammatus et accensus" begins turbulently, withdraws into a hushed passage for chorus, then rises steadily through a passage that recalls the soprano solo in "Vidit suum dulcem natum." From that dramatic peak, the beginning of "Quando corpus moritur" drops to a whisper; this quiet writing alternates with outbursts at full volume, some involving the soprano. The music levels off and becomes more soothing, although it does rise to a fierce conclusion on the word "Amen."