Re: Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos

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Posted by Erik on February 03, 2002 at 23:08:19:

In Reply to: Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos posted by Ace on February 03, 2002 at 22:06:43:

These are the program notes from the CSO performance in October. It does have a tuba part, but only two trombone parts.



Francis Poulenc
Born January 7, 1899, Paris, France.
Died January 30, 1963, Paris, France.

Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos

Composition History

Poulenc composed this concerto in 1932, and played one of the two solo piano parts in the first performance on September 5 of that year in Venice. The score calls for two solo pianos and an orchestra consisting of two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and english horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones and tuba, side drum, military drum, snare drum, bass drum, castanets, tambourine, triangle, and strings. Performance time is approximately twenty minutes.

Performance History

Winnaretta Singer, armed with money from her father's sewing machine fortune, commissioned Francis Poulenc to write this concerto. Better known by her fancy married name, the Princess Edmond de Polignac hosted one of Paris's most celebrated salons, where many of the early twentieth century's artistic giants regularly gathered. In time she commissioned works from Stravinsky, Fauré, Ravel, Falla, Debussy-he called her Madame Machine à courdre (Madame Sewing Machine)-and two concertos from Poulenc. (The Chicago Symphony performs Poulenc's other Polignac score-the Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani-in January.)

Poulenc was no stranger to Parisian high society. He was born into a wealthy family and grew up in the city center, near the Élysée palace. His father ran the huge Rhône-Poulenc pharmaceutical firm-his family name was as well known as Winnaretta Singer's in business circles-and his mother descended from a long line of native Parisians. He started studying the piano with his mother at the age of five, and later took lessons from Ricardo Viñes, the great pianist and friend of Debussy and Ravel. He soon began to meet the artistic celebrities of the day, including Satie, Cocteau, and Stravinsky. He missed the scandalous premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1913-he was just fourteen at the time-but he caught up with it the following year and was intoxicated by Stravinksy's music. In 1917 he attended the historic opening of Satie's Parade, with sets and costumes by Picasso. It was at the premiere of Falla's Master Peter's Puppet Show in the Princess de Polignac's home that Poulenc met the pioneering harpsichordist Wanda Landowska in 1923. The dazzling Concert champêtre he wrote for her four years later may have convinced the Princess to commission Poulenc to write another concerto, this one for two pianos.

To prepare for the princess' assignment, Poulenc played through concertos by Mozart and Liszt, and acquainted himself with Ravel's two recently completed piano concertos (both the Concerto for the Left Hand and the Concerto in G Major were premiered in January 1932, just months before Poulenc began composing the two-piano concerto). He and his friend Jacques Février, with whom he would premiere his own new concerto in September, even gave an informal performance of Ravel's Concerto in G Major at the home of the princess's niece by marriage, Marie-Blanche de Polignac.

Poulenc's two-piano concerto is a delightful confection, written with apparent ease and obvious joy over the summer of 1932. It is a work of sparkling transparency, filled with crystalline piano writing, and scored with a keen ear for achieving brilliance and bite with an orchestra of classical proportions. (This characteristic Poulenc trait must have pleased the princess. She later recalled that she "had the impression that, after Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, the days of big orchestras were over, and that it would be delightful to return to a small orchestra of well chosen players and instruments.")

The first movement, written in a casual approximation of sonata form, is mostly witty bravura, colored throughout by the sound of two pianos pouring out a steady stream of notes. The ethereal, shimmering music near the end of the movement was inspired by the exotic sounds of the Balinese gamelan ensemble Poulenc heard at the 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris. The slow movement begins in obvious imitation of a Mozart andante, but quickly updates itself to the Paris of the 1930s, with its dance-hall songs and sentimentality of a kind that Mozart never knew. The finale, another perpetuum mobile for the two soloists, is saucy, playful, light-hearted, and always charming.

Despite his early enthusiasm for the radical, rebellious composers of Paris, Poulenc was essentially a traditionalist, although one with wit and a healthy streak of irreverence. "I am not the kind of musician who makes harmonic innovations, like Igor, Ravel, or Debussy," he later said, insisting that "there is a place for new music that is content with using other people's chords." Even a severe modernist such as the young Elliott Carter, writing in Modern Music in 1938, found the concerto convincing, despite what he called its pastiche of styles, "because of its great verve, which with Poulenc's remarkable sensitivity to harmonic and orchestral sonorities, ends by captivating the most stubborn listener."

The premiere was given in Venice, where the princess maintained a magnificent house on the grand canal, its great halls filled with pianos. Like her Parisian salon, it regularly drew celebrities and artists, and in September 1932, Poulenc shared the Palazzo Polignac with Falla and Artur Rubinstein. The first performance of the two-piano concerto was an unforgettable success, but Poulenc would also always remember the morning he and Rubinstein decided spur-of-the-moment to play Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain together for a stunned and ecstatic Falla.

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