Poulenc was born in Paris in 1899. His father Emile Poulenc was a second generation director of Poulenc and later Rhone-Poulenc chemical corporation. His mother, an amateur pianist, taught him to play and music formed a part of family life. He was a capable pianist and the keyboard dominated his early compositions. He borrowed from his own compositions as well as those of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Camille Saint-Saëns. Later in his life, the loss of close friends, coupled with a pilgrimage to the Black Madonna of Rocamadour, led him to rediscover the Roman Catholic faith and resulted in compositions of a more sombre, austere tone.
He was identified with this group before he undertook his first formal musical training, with Charles Koechlin in 1921.
Poulenc was a featured pianist in recordings, including some of his own songs (with Pierre Bernac, recorded in 1947; and Rose Dercourt) and the Concerto for Two Pianos (recorded in May 1957). He supervised the 1961 world premiere recording of his Gloria, which was conducted by Georges Prêtre. His recordings were released by RCA Victor and EMI. Poulenc's Perpetual Motion No. 1 (1918) is used in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948).
Among Poulenc's last series of major works is a series of works for wind instruments and piano. He was particularly fond of woodwinds, and planned a set of sonatas for all of them, yet only lived to complete four: sonatas for flute, oboe, clarinet, and the Elégie for horn.
He had only one piano student, Gabriel Tacchino, who has performed and recorded all his piano music, lending it a unique insight.
Poulenc was a member of a rich industrialist family and known for his generosity. Rhône-Poulenc was and is one of the biggest chemical corporations in the world.
Some writers consider Poulenc one of the first openlygay composers. His first serious relationship was with painter Richard Chanlaire, to whom he dedicated his Concert champêtre: "You have changed my life, you are the sunshine of my thirty years, a reason for living and working." He also once said, "You know that I am as sincere in my faith, without any messianic screamings, as I am in my Parisian sexuality." However, Poulenc's life was also one of inner struggle. Having been born and raised a Roman Catholic, he struggled throughout his life between coming to terms with his "unorthodox" sexual "appetites" and maintaining his religious convictions.[dubious– discuss]
Poulenc also had a number of relationships with women. He fathered a daughter, Marie-Ange, although he never formally admitted that he was indeed her father. Her mother, "Freddy" is the dedicatee of two of his pieces. He was also a very close friend of the singer Pierre Bernac, for whom he wrote many songs. The published correspondence between the two men, however, strongly suggests that they were never sex partners.
Poulenc lived at 5, rue de Médicis, Paris.
Poulenc was profoundly affected by the death of friends. In 1923 he was "unable to do anything" for two days after the death from typhoid fever of his twenty-year-old friend, the novelist Raymond Radiguet. However, two weeks later he had moved on, joking to Sergei Diaghilev at the rehearsals he was unable to leave, about helping a dancer "warm up". Then in 1930 came the death of the young woman he had hoped to marry, Raymonde Linossier. While Poulenc admitted to having no sexual interest in Linossier, they had been lifelong friends. In 1936, Poulenc was profoundly affected by the death of another composer, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, who was decapitated in an automobile accident in Hungary. This led him to his first visit to the shrine of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour. Here, before the statue of the Madonna with a young child on her lap, Poulenc experienced a life-changing transformation. Thereafter, he produced a sizeable output of liturgical music or compositions based on religious themes, beginning with the Litanies à la vierge noire (1936) and including his opera The Dialogues of the Carmelites (1956). In 1949, Poulenc experienced the death of another friend, the artist Christian Bérard, for whom he composed his Stabat Mater (1950). Other sacred works from this period include the Mass in G (1937), Gloria (1959), and Sept répons des ténèbres (1961–2).