Poulenc was the heir to the pharmaceuticals business later known as Rhône-Poulenc. As a wealthy student-about-Paris, he moved in avant-garde artistic circles and found musical mentorship from two unconventional composers, Georges Auric and Erik Satie. With their encouragement he launched himself into the cultural life of 1920s Paris and found himself classified by the press as one of "Les Six" – an arbitrary grouping of fashionable young composers that included Milhaud, Honegger and Germaine Tailleferre. But Poulenc's own irreverent and playful scores – such as the ballet Les biches, composed for Diaghilev (1923), and the Concert Champêtre for harpsichord (1928) – soon established him as a striking new voice in his own right.
Although he generally avoided the grander classical forms, he became a superb composer of songs (mélodies) and chamber music (favouring woodwinds). In 1936 a moment of religious revelation at the shrine of Rocamadour reignited his religious faith, and he expressed his new ethical commitment in a series of large-scale choral works including a Mass (1937) and Stabat Mater (1950) as well as his Organ Concerto (1938) and his opera Dialogues des Carmélites (1957). But he never lost his sense of humour, and works such as the Piano Concerto (1950) and the exuberant, hugely popular Gloria (1961) are recognisably the music of a man whom one critic called "part monk, part rascal".