Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Piano Music, Volume 2
Francis Poulenc was born on 7th January 1899 in Paris into a well-to-do family. His father and two of his brothers were successful businessmen in the well-known Poulenc pharmaceutical company. His mother was a skilled amateur pianist and her son's first piano teacher. While his father insisted on a sound classical education for his son, the boy's obvious musical talent could not be ignored. Reminiscing many years later, Poulenc recalled his one childhood passion, to play the piano, and the present of a child's piano when he was five. By 1915 he determined to undertake serious study of the instrument and began lessons with the eccentric virtuoso and family friend Ricardo ViÃ±es. It was the latter who introduced him, about a year later, to Erik Satie and it was through ViÃ±es that he met a composer of his own age, Georges Auric, who became his life-long friend. ViÃ±es's ideas about the use of the piano pedals made a strong impression on Poulenc, who later gave forthright expression to his opinions on the matter: "The use of the pedals is the great secret of my piano music (and the lack of it often its downfall). They will never use enough pedal! Never enough!" Many years later Poulenc wrote: "I owe him everythingâ¦ It is really to ViÃ±es that I owe my first flights in music and everything I know about the piano". He quickly became an excellent pianist, a virtuoso with a highly personal technique, often performing his own compositions, both as a soloist and accompanist, and as late as 1957 his recordings of Satie's piano music were awarded a prize by the Academie Charles Cross.
Poulenc wrote his first piano compositions in early 1917. After World War I he returned to the study of music, although he remained in the French army until after the Armistice. In 1919 concert audiences first heard his quickly popular three Mouvements perpÃ©tuels. Around the year 1920 the critic Henri Collet grouped together Auric and Poulenc, with Milhaud, Honegger, Durey and Tailleferre, as Les Six. It was soon after this that Poulenc sought further instruction and in 1921 he became a pupil of the composer Charles Koechlin, an excellent teacher, who well understood how to develop the particular qualities of a student, advising his pupils to avoid the exaggeration of romanticism without sacrificing depth of feeling.
In 1924 Sergey Dyagilev commissioned from Poulenc the score Les biches (âThe Doesâ) for the Ballets russes. The work was a great success, praised by one critic for its exquisite score, ironic twists and traditional elegance of thought. Many works followed, the Concert champÃªtre, the Concerto for two pianos, the Mass in G major, songs, chamber music and, of course, more piano pieces. During World War II, after his discharge from the army to which he had again been conscripted, Poulenc chose to identify himself with resistance to the German occupation by musical means. His compositions from this period include a violin sonata dedicated to the memory of the Spanish poet Lorca and his eloquent Figure humaine, a setting of a poem by Paul Eluard for unaccompanied double chorus, a musical protest against the Occupation. 1947 brought the opera-burlesque Les mamelles de TirÃ©sias (âThe Breasts of Tiresiasâ) and 1957 the major opera Dialogues des carmÃ©lites (âDialogues of the Carmelitesâ). In 1959 he wrote La voix humaine (âThe Human Voiceâ) to a text by Cocteau and in 1961 his six-part Gloria for soprano, chorus and orchestra Poulenc died at his home in Paris on 30th January 1963.
The earliest of the works included in the second volume of Poulenc's piano music, the Trois mouvements perpÃ©tuels, was written in Paris in December 1918. Dedicated to the painter / designer / illustrator Valentine Hugo (nÃ©e Gross), these three spare, graceful, fluently charming pieces won immediate favour with the public and with performers. Pouleuc himself described them as 'ultra-easy', comparing them to a brisk stroll by the Seine. Each of the three pieces ends inconclusively, leaving the music unresolved, to linger in our minds.
The Cinq impromptus (Five Impromptus) actually began life as six pieces, composed between September 1920 and March 1921. Poulenc published all six in 1922, but in 1924 his publisher, J. & W. Chester, issued the revised set as Cinq impromptus pour le piono. That new edition, revised and corrected by the composer, was issued again in 1939. The original six pieces were first performed on 22nd February 1922 by the pianist Marcelle Meyer, to whom they were dedicated. They show a more experimental and perhaps less instantly likeable side of Poulenc. Like the Promenades of 1921, they toy with bitonality, yet also provide a glimpse of the composer's well-known lyricism.
The PiÃ¨ce brÃ¨ve sur le nom d'Albert Roussel (âShort Piece on the Name of Albert Rousselâ) was composed at Noizay in March 1929. It was published in a collected volume entitled Hommage Ã Albert Roussel, as a supplement to La Revue musicale. Eight composers contributed to his sixtieth birthday tribute: Delage, Honegger, Poulenc, Tansman, Ibert, Beck, HoÃ©rÃ©e and Milhaud. Here Poulenc was able to show his admiration for the older composer.
Poulenc began sketching Les soirÃ©es de Nazelles in 1930 and completed the score on 1st October 1936. The music was written 'in memory of Aunt LiÃ©nard, as a souvenir of Nazelles', as the composer expressed it in the score of the piano suite. It was through this 'aunt', Virginie LiÃ©nard, no relation but a family friend, that Poulenc had come to love the countryside of Touraine, where he wrote the Promenades. Nazelles lies not far from Amboise, with its fifteenth-century castle where Leonardo da Vinci is said to have died. The variations at the heart of this work were improvised at Nazelles in the course of long evenings in the country, where the composer would create at the piano portraits of or tributes to his friends or acquaintances. Presented here between a PrÃ©ambule and a Final, they evoke piano-playing in the salon of a country-house in Touraine, with a window open on the night. With social grace, pathos and charm each section recasts waltzes of FaurÃ©, Chabrier and Saint-SaÃ«ns and there are even glances at Offenbach, for good measure, all offered in good humour.
The Suite franÃ§aise occupies a very important place in Poulenc's piano music. He completed the work in October 1935, scored originally for brass, woodwind, percussion and harpsichord and dedicated to the dramatist Edouard Bourdet, for whose historical play La reine Margot (âQueen Margotâ) it was intended. The piano version was published first in 1935, followed by the orchestral version in 1948 and in 1953 a transcription for cello and piano dedicated to Pierre Fournier. The suite is a transcription of seven dances by Claude Gervaise, whose work appeared in the sets of danceries published in sixteenth-century Paris by Attaignant. The opening movement is a vigorous Bransle de Bourgogne. Next comes a solemn Pavane, modal in its outer framework but with a dissonant central episode. The third movement is a pert trumpet-style Petite marche militaire. This is followed by a haunting, lullaby-like Complainte. There is a suggestion of the tambour in Bransle de Champagne and towards the end a momentary evocation of carillon figures. The sixth movement is a gentle, melancholy Sicilienne and the final movement a spirited Carillon. In 1939 Poulenc added a FranÃ§aise, dedicated to the critic and musicologist Luigi Rognoni. In some editions this has been entitled Allemande.
The Valse-improvisatian sur le nom de Bach (âWaltz Improvisation on the Name of Eachâ) was completed on 8th October 1932 and dedicated to Vladimir Horowitz. Like the earlier PiÃ¨ce brÃ¨ve, it was published as a supplement to La Revue musicale, together with other tributes to Bach by Roussel, Casella, Malipiero and Honegger. Making use of the notes formed from the letters of Bach's name in German notation, E flat â A â C â B natural, Poulenc created a whimsical caricature, perhaps of Horowitz, where the music grows gradually faster and louder. At the end of the piece, in what is almost a gesture of defiance and frustration, the pianist punches several chords on the keyboard and leaves the instrument. Poulenc also dedicated his Presto in B flat majorto Horowitz, a musician for whose playing and technique he had the greatest admiration. "When Horowitz plays the piano, I lose my head", he remarked in 1950. Horowitz often used the Presta as an encore.
Poulenc composed two other short piano pieces in 1934, Humoresque and Bodinage. The first was dedicated to the pianist Walter Gieseking, who made the first recording of the Mouvements perpÃ©tuels. Badinage (âPlayfulness or Triflingâ) is, as the name implies, frivolous and whimsical. Above the score Poulenc quotes lines by the poet and novelist Raymond Radiguet, Cocteau's lover, who had died in 1923 of typhoid fever at the age of twenty:
Dans les verres tiÃ©dit l'orangeade
Un soir d'AoÃ»t
(In the glasses the orangeade grows warm
One August evening
No matter which.)
Written in 1940, MÃ©lancolie is one of Poulenc's most nostalgic pieces. Dedicated to his driver and friend Raymond Destouches, it is a dreamy, sensuous, impassioned piano work that lies graciously beneath the fingers. Wilfrid Mellers has compared the work to the perfumed utterances of FaurÃ©, but more "unreal, and with dreams that are much more elusive". Others have found in it a luminous quality, akin to the paintings of Bonnard, Vuillard and Dufy. Music of deep yearning and nostalgia, whatever its inspiration, it unquestionably haunts us with its mystery and beauty.
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