Three Pieces by Poulenc

Poulenc in Paris

Poulenc in Paris

If I no longer send you my music it is because I simply do not think it would interest you any more.
—Poulenc to Igor Stravinsky, Letter 343 (1962)

I used to listen to composer Francis Poulenc’s Gloria and Stabat Mater so much that I wore them out. From time to time, I’ve thought to add some pieces to my Poulenc listening repertoire, but I never got very far. I did, however, read Echo and Source, Selected Correspondence 1915-1963, on a prompt from David Nice:

Steeped in Poulenciana, and happily ploughing my way through the correspondence, I’m always aware of the sheer joy in his tradition-conscious music. He loves what he absorbs. But he also realised his limitations. He writes to a friend in 1942: “I am well aware that I am not the kind of musician who makes harmonic inventions like Igor [Stravinsky], Ravel or Debussy [always the top names among living composers he tended to cite, along with Richard Strauss and Prokofiev, occasionally Hindemith]. But I do think there is a place for new music that is content with using other people’s chords. Was that not the case with Mozart and with Schubert? And in any case, the personality of my harmonic style will become evident.” [Letter 160]

It’s a captivating read. I marked passage after passage and noted works for a listen along the way. On finishing the book, I planned to write a post about Poulenc, but didn’t follow through.

More recently, Kyle Gann also invoked Poulenc:

What composers value in new music differs from what most people would enjoy in it. They’re looking for a new paradigm, a new Moses, and they don’t want something that’s (as I was told at the ISCM conference in Vienna) “too much written for the audience.” They seem to want something mystifying in its aura of objectivity. As a result they exalt composers like Schoenberg above someone like Poulenc, whose music I’d prefer any day . . .

Close on the heels of Gann’s comment, a wonderful compatriot at GCAS, Bert Carter, posted several pieces there to mark the anniversary of Poulenc’s birthday (1/7/1899), three of which have enthralled me ever since. The first was the Concerto for Two Pianos (1932). I had no clue about its irony—I only figured that out later—but I latched on to its energy and tunefulness and never let go. The two chamber works, the Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet (1932) and Oboe Sonata (1962), took me a minute or two longer, but within the first hour of hearing them, these three pieces became my listening list for the best part of several days (and again today).

As I listened, I thought, well, here I am again, sinking back into good old-fashioned nice-to-listen to (some would call that “tonal”) 20th C. music. I’ve mused in these pages about what “great” and “masterpiece” really mean and pondered from time to time whether I’m out of step if I don’t “get” what’s perceived to be the next big thing. As I listen to Poulenc, however, I enjoy it so much that “frankly, . . . I don’t give a damn.”

That’s the raison d’être for this post, nothing more, as I’ve got to get back to listening to Poulenc. Perhaps you’ll join in.

Listening List (Credit goes to Bert Carter for noting these selections and their YouTube performances. The chamber works may be found on a new CD, “Francis Poulenc: Complete Music for Winds and Piano,” performed by the Iowa Ensemble. IPR Classical Music Host Barney Sherman’s review of the CD may be found here, along with a number of other interesting 2015 selections with connections to Iowa, and in another review here. This CD is now on my “to buy” list.)

Concerto for 2 Pianos and Orchestra in D Minor, FP 61 (1932)

(for two pianos, flute, piccolo, two oboes (second doubling cor anglais), two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, snare drum, shallow snare drum, bass drum, castanets, triangle, military drum, suspended cymbal, and strings)

Sextet for Piano and Wind Instruments, FP 100 (1932-1939)

(for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and piano)

Sonata for Oboe and Piano, FP 185 (1962)

In 1931, Poulenc wrote Henri Sauguet, noting the Sextet, among other works:

What’s more, I am feeling very much on form at the moment. I don’t know what the musicians or the public will think, but I don’t give a damn, for I know that I am right. It is more courageous to grow just as one is than to force-feed one’s flowers with the fertilizer of fashion. [Letter 114]

In 1932, Poulenc wrote Paul Collaer:

I am delighted that my Concerto for two pianos is already being talked about in Belgium. I’ll admit quite immodestly that it did in fact stun everyone at the Festival. Even poor old Pruneton in this week’s issue of Les Nouvelle Littéraires had to acknowledge that it got a “triumphant reception.” [Letter 121]

During a trip to New York in 1960, Poulenc wrote Pierre Bernac:

The Sextet is being played EVERYWHERE. Wind instruments are the great vogue here. Fashion is a funny thing—a wind quintet can fill the Town Hall. Not to mention two pianos! [Letter 312, n. 3]

The oboe sonata, Poulenc’s last work, was dedicated to the memory of Sergei Prokofiev.

On Spotify

On YouTube

Concerto for 2 Pianos

Sextet for Piano and Wind Instruments

(In this performance, by Ensemble ACJW, a fun footnote is that the oboist, Stuart Brezcinzki, is currently a core musician with Contemporaneous.)

Sonata for Oboe and Piano

Bonus Track: Stephen Johnson’s excellent discussion of the Concerto for 2 Pianos, with numerous helpful examples, is on BBC Radio 3, here.

Bonus Bonus Track (also added to the Spotify listening list): Concert champêtre, FP 49 (1927-28), 1st Movement below, 2d movement here, 3rd movement here, all performed by the Texas Festival Orchestra, with a thousand thanks to Kyle Gann for noting this piece.


Credits: The letters quoted in the text may be found in Francis Poulenc: Echo and Source: Selected Correspondence 1915-1963. Sources for the remaining quotations may be found at the links in the text. The source for the head photograph may be found here.


17 thoughts on “Three Pieces by Poulenc

  1. larrymuffin

    Poulenc is one of my favourite composers, I do enjoy his music so much. By the way the book you mention Echo and Source, Selected Correspondence 1915-1963 is available on Amazon for $770 dollars, I will pass.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Larrymuffin: His music is pure enchantment, isn’t it (although he has other strands–the Dialogue of the Carmelites is a case in point). If you have a favorite piece you’d like to name, please do. Yes, I was shocked at the price on Amazon, which is why I didn’t link to it. Here’s where a local library comes in very, very handy! I hope you can lay your hands on a copy. I think you would really enjoy it.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Nor I, larrymuffin! In following up to add these Poulenc pieces to my Arkiv “wish list” for purchase, I was reminded that a CD came out last year, “Francis Poulenc: Complete Music for Winds and Piano,” which contains the two chamber works noted in the post. (I’ve added links to reviews of the CD in the post, if of interest.)

  2. kylegann

    Sue, those are great. You should also try Poulenc’s Concerto champetre, his harpsichord concerto, which I think is my favorite Poulenc I’ve found so far.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Kyle, Concert Champêtre is DELIGHTFUL! I hear touches of Stravinsky, among other things, but most of all this wonderful, zany playfulness. I like this piece so much, as you’ll see should you come back this way, that I’ve added it to the post, so now there are three plus one Poulencs, and Concert Champêtre is yet another I’ve been playing over and over again (still am) with total enjoyment. Not only that, but I got out my Taruskin 20th C History & Ross’s TRIN & have generally been trolling around to learn something more about the piece. T. doesn’t discuss this piece, but he offers plenty of interesting commentary that sheds his own inimitable sort of light on what Poulenc might have been up to here.

  3. shoreacres

    Many years ago I was introduced to Poulenc, and I’ve sampled his music over the years. I like it. Your selections are delightful, and I’m pleased to know a bit more about Poulenc himself.

    How I came to Poulenc in the first place was a bit roundabout. It started with the Blood, Sweat and Tears album released in 1969. The first cut was “Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie (1st and 2nd Movements)”. I’d never heard of Erik Satie, so I went looking, and found his Trois Gymnopédies. It was in the process of reading about Satie that I discovered Poulenc and the rest of Les Six.

    I certainly never imagined that, nearly fifty years later, I’d be listening to Poulenc again on something called a “computer,” and talking about him on something called a “blog.” Thanks for stirring up some memories, and for providing some enjoyable new music.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Your story about your own introduction to Poulenc is terrific, a perfect example of how one discovery can lead to so many others just by following the breadcrumbs the first discovery leaves on the trail. And now I am following the trail of breadcrumbs back to their source in Blood, Sweat, and Tears . . . (Have I sufficiently tortured that metaphor? Oy!)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: That oboe sonata is really lovely, isn’t it? On the subject of Poulenc and “reedy instruments,” e has another for oboe, bassoon, and piano that I look forward to listening to, as well, and there are more where that came from, including a sonata for clarinet and piano.

  4. Bert Carter

    Dear Sue,
    Thanks for the kind words. You gave far more credit than was deserved. I am happy you enjoyed the music. I certainly enjoyed your reflections as always.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Bert: How nice of you to drop by. You’ve opened so many musical doors for all of us at GCAS, I truly can’t thank you enough. Here’s to our continued musical explorations in 2016!

  5. David N

    I’ve hung fire commenting here because I simply can’t decide what Poulenc I’d take to the desert island. Dialogues des Carmelites, certainly, for the most shattering/moving of all operatic final scenes, but then there’s the Gloria, the Concerto for Two Pianos, that wonderful cigar-and-smoking-jacket Elegie for two pianos too, and which of the songs? I think most readily of ‘Bleuet’ and ‘Le pont de C’ because of their gravity, but there’s such a range. And I’ve tried my hand at oboist with the Sonata, which I love, but never mastered the more rapid stuff.

    Interesting that when the Cheltenham Festival asked its artists to place one of their anniversary composers, Britten and Poulenc, first, the ineffable Felicity Lott chose Poulenc – and she’s sung the Britten roles too. Impossible choice, because there are things that Britten does that Poulenc doesn’t, and vice versa, but maybe for warmth and heartbreak, Poulenc.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I’m really delighted you’ve come by and weighed in with some Poulenc selections. I can well understand the difficulty of deciding, for, the more I listen, the more difficult it becomes to pick among them too–and that’s the beauty of it, for one can simply keep adding to the list. You can be sure I’ll seek out those you’ve named that I don’t know (Gloria and the Carmelites I do, and oh, indeed, that last scene of the Carmelites is devastating). I’d forgotten you played the oboe. I love that oboe sonata, and even to be able to play a bit of it, what a joy. Fascinating, too, about Felicity Lott. I’m glad I haven’t been asked to choose, for how wonderful to have the gift of the music of each of them.

  6. Steve Schwartzman

    I don’t know much Poulenc, but some years ago I saw a performance here of his opera Dialogue des Carmélites,

    which is famous for its powerful ending in which the nuns start singing in chorus but then one by one each voice drops out as they’re guillotined until none are left.

    On a different score (pun), I was surprised last week near the end of the book How Not to be Wrong: the Power of Mathematical Thinking to find that the author, Jordan Ellenburg, quoted the last ten lines of John Ashbery’s “Soonest Mended”:

    Naturally it reminded me of you, who are Ashbery Central.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: I’ve yet to see Carmelites live, but I won’t ever forget listening to the recording and hearing the guillotine for the first time. We’d been warned, but it was nonetheless startling, to say the least! Here’s that scene on YouTube (again must give thanks to Bert for finding this): Interesting about the Ellenburg book. I can see how those lines from Soonest Mended could well be pertinent, even from reading a review of it: “Ellenberg hooks you from the start with the story of Abraham Wald, asked to analyze bullet-hole data from planes returning from World War II sorties. The military wanted to know whether extra armor should be added to areas of greatest need, i.e., where the most bullets had landed. Wald’s solution was the exact opposite: Put armor where you don’t see the bullet holes. The reason such holes were so infrequent in the data was that planes hit there didn’t return. . . . This is the kind of “mathematical thinking” referred to in the title of the book: “the extension of common sense by other means.”

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