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Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos

Francis Poulenc composed his Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos in the summer of 1932 on a commission from the Princess Edmond de Polignac.

Francis Poulenc was born in Paris on January 7, 1899, and died there on January 30, 1963. He composed his Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos in the summer of 1932 on a commission from the Princess Edmond de Polignac.

The first performance was on September 5 that year in Venice, at the Festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music; the composer and Jacques Février were the two soloists, with Desiré Defauw conducting the orchestra of La Scala. Poulenc was also one of the pianists, along with Evelyne Crochet, for the first Boston Symphony performances, with Charles Munch conducting on January 21 and 22, 1961. Poulenc composed his “GLORIA” between May 1959 and June 1960, on a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation; the score is dedicated “To the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky.” Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave the world premiere performances at Symphony Hall on January 21 and 22, 1961 (on the same program as the BSO’s first performances of Poulenc’s two-piano concerto), with soprano Adele Addison and the Chorus pro Musica, Alfred Nash Patterson, conductor, subsequently giving the first Tanglewood performance on July 21, 1961 (this time with the Festival Chorus prepared by Patterson), and the New York premiere (again with Patterson’s Chorus pro Musica) on April 8 that year.

Besides the two pianos, the score of the concerto calls for an orchestra of flute, piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle, small drums with and without snare, military drum, castanets, and tarolle—but no timpani), and strings.

French composers have rarely been bashful about writing music whose main purpose was to give pleasure. It was French composers who began openly twitting the profundities of late romantic music in the cheeky jests of Satie and in many works by the group that claimed him as their inspiration, the “Group of Six,” which included Francis Poulenc.

During the first half of his career, Poulenc’s work was so much in the lighter vein that he could be taken as a true follower of Satie’s humorous sallies. That changed in 1935 when, following the death of a close friend in an automobile accident, Poulenc reached a new maturity, recovering his lost Catholic faith and composing works of an unprecedented seriousness, though without ever losing sight of his lighter style. From that time on, he continued to compose both sacred and secular works, and often he could shift even within the context of a single phrase from melancholy or somber lyricism to nose-thumbing impertinence. But the more serious works include some of his largest, and the sheer size of them tends to change our view of the man’s music from about the time of World War II, when he composed the exquisite a cappella choral work La Figure humaine to a text of Paul Éluard as an underground protest to the German occupation. He became an opera composer, first in the surrealist joys of Les Mamelles de Tirésias (“The Breasts of Tiresias”) in 1944 (performed 1947), but later in the very different religious opera Dialogues of the Carmelites (1956), set during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution, or the one-woman opera La Voix humaine (1958), in which a woman talking to her lover for the last time on the telephone tries vainly to hold on to him. Critic Claude Rostand once wrote of Poulenc that he was “part monk, part guttersnipe,” a neat characterization of the two strikingly different aspects of his musical personality, though the monk seemed more and more to predominate in his later years. Still, as Ned Rorem said in a memorial tribute, Poulenc was “a whole man always interlocking soul and flesh, sacred and profane.”

Possessing the least formal musical education of any noted 20th-century composer, Poulenc learned from the music that he liked. His own comment is the best summary:

The music of Roussel, more cerebral than Satie’s, seems to me to have opened a door on the future. I admire it profoundly; it is disciplined, orderly, and yet full of feeling. I love Chabrier: España is a marvelous thing and the Marche joyeuse is a chef-d’oeuvre.... I consider Manon and Werther [by Massenet] as part of French national folklore. And I enjoy the quadrilles of Offenbach. Finally my gods are Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Chopin, Stravinsky, and Mussorgsky. You may say, what a concoction! But that’s how I like music: taking my models everywhere, from what pleases me.

One of the composers omitted from this list is Debussy, from whom Poulenc may have learned what one analyst calls “cellular writing,” in which a musical idea one or two measures in length is immediately repeated, with or without variation. This kind of mosaic construction is the opposite of a long-range developmental treatment in which themes are broken down into their component parts and put together in new guises. The aim (and the effect) is to produce music that seems somehow instinctive, not labored or intellectual, but arising directly from the composer’s spontaneous feelings. It is a device employed by Mussorgsky and Debussy (who, like Poulenc, admired Mussorgsky), and it was taken up by both Satie and Stravinsky with the aim of writing music that might be anti-Romantic.

Poulenc composed the two-piano concerto during his early period, when he was creating a large number of delightfully flippant works rich in entertaining qualities. He may perhaps have been influenced in the lightheartedness of his 1932 concerto by the fact that Ravel, the year before, had composed two piano concertos, both of which had somewhat the character of divertimentos. Certainly Poulenc’s work could join the two Ravel compositions in cheerfulness: its main goal is to entertain, and in that it has succeeded admirably from the day of its premiere.

Poulenc’s additive style of composition makes his music particularly rich in tunes; they seem to follow, section by section, one after another, with varying character, sometimes hinting at the neoclassical Stravinsky, sometimes at the vulgarity of the music hall. The very opening hints at something that will come back late in the first movement, a repetitious, percussive figure in the two solo pianos inspired by Poulenc’s experience of hearing a Balinese gamelan at the 1931 Exposition Coloniale de Paris.

The second movement begins in the unaccompanied first piano with a lyric melody described by Poulenc as follows:

In the Larghetto of this concerto, I allowed myself, for the first theme, to return to Mozart, for I cherish the melodic line and I prefer Mozart to all other musicians. If the movement begins alla Mozart, it quickly veers, at the entrance of the second piano, toward a style that was standard for me at that time.

Though the style soon changes, there are returns to “Mozart” and possibly some passages inspired by Chopin as well. The finale is a brilliant rondo-like movement, so filled with thematic ideas that it is hard to keep everything straight. But then, Poulenc was here showing us the most “profane” side of his personality. This is the “guttersnipe,” a genial, urbane, witty man whose acquaintance we are glad to have made.

Steven Ledbetter

Steven Ledbetter was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979
to 1998.

The first BSO performances of Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos were on January 21 and 22, 1961, Charles Munch conducting, with the composer and Evelyne Crochet as the piano soloists. Subsequent BSO performances featured Bracha Eden and Alexander Tamir (July 1967 at Tanglewood with Erich Leinsdorf conducting); Katia and Marielle Labèque (January 1985 with Seiji Ozawa, a recording session for Philips following four years later in April 1989); the Labèques again (August 1987 at Tanglewood, with Leonard Slatkin); and Martha Argerich and Alexander Durning (August 2004 at Tanglewood, with Charles Dutoit). Prior to the first BSO performances, the Boston Pops had already played the piece on several occasions, the first being under the direction of Arthur Fiedler on June 23, 1936, with pianists Jesús María Sanromá and Leo Litwin.