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Poulenc: Concerto for Organ, Timpani, and Strings

Poulenc: Concerto for Organ, Timpani, and Strings


528 words
program notes by Chris Myers

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Copyright © 2014 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

Concerto for Organ, Timpani, and Strings in G minor
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
solo organ, timpani, strings

Composed 1934-1938. First performance: December 16, 1938, Paris. Maurice Duruflé, organ. Nadia Boulanger, conductor.

The young Francis Poulenc fit perfectly in the atmosphere of post-war Paris. He drew freely upon the music and spirit of its music halls and theaters for inspiration, and the city openly embraced the witty and irreverent humor of his compositions. As a founding member of Les nouveaux jeunes (an informal group of young composers which would, with Jean Cocteau as mentor, evolve into the influential Les Six), he was at the very center of Parisian artistic society. Upon the premiere of his light-hearted and cleverly-constructed Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, Poulenc could justifiably brag to a friend, “I am really entering my great period.”

After the success of this concerto, Winnaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac, heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune and the patron who had commissioned the work, asked Francis Poulenc to write her a piece for organ and small orchestra that she could perform at one of the many musical soirées she hosted at her mansion. However, the playful amusement that she was expecting didn’t materialize.

In 1936, the death of his friend Pierre-Octave Ferroud left Poulenc in a deep depression, and he went on a pilgrimage to the Black Virgin of Rocamadour. This journey led him to rediscover his Christian faith and had a profound effect on Polignac’s organ piece. Poulenc immersed himself in an extensive study of church music, focusing particularly on the works of J.S. Bach and Dieterich Buxtehude, influences which are readily apparent in the new piece.

The Concerto for Organ, Timpani, and Strings showcases a side of Poulenc’s personality that had rarely surfaced in prior works. The wit and humor are still present, to be sure, but there is a sincerity that sets it apart. The piece makes use of a small orchestra in order to allow it to be performed in the princess’ music room, and the organ part was composed with her Cavaillé-Coll organ in mind. Poulenc, who had never written for organ, was assisted with technical issues by the great French organist and composer Maurice Duruflé, who also performed the concerto on both its private and public premieres.

This work is written as a single movement divided internally into seven contrasting sections—a structural feature owing a debt to the organ fantasies of Buxtehude. The opening organ figure channels the Gothic grandeur of Bach’s toccatas and alternates with haunting orchestral chords over an insistent timpani pulse. The subsequent Allegro giocoso reminds us that our clever Francis is still behind this music, but this is a more subdued and sincere composer than the impish prankster from whom the work was originally commissioned. In the Andante that follows, we encounter a gorgeous melody of heartfelt lyricism. The composer proceeds to alternate moods between quick intensity and slower introspection until the initial material returns and, exhausted, settles into calm meditation. A transcendent viola melody rises from within the pulsing orchestra, joining the organ as it sits quietly with its thoughts before one final grand statement.

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