1932 in Paris: Poulenc's Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra

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The history and analysis of Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos, composed at the height of his career.

Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra

Francis Poulenc was a member of the French group of composers referred to as "Les Six." When the group was first formed, they stood in an open rebellion against the overt romanticism of César Franck and the impressionism of Claude Debussy. This group which also included Milhaud and Honnegger, established simplicity of thought and expressions as their program; their music was distinguished by succinctness and a flair for popular idioms. There is in Poulenc's music an ingenuity and freshness that seem always to have an undercurrent of folklore at its base.

Poulenc's catalog includes such diverse genres as ballets, opera, chamber music, sacred music, songs, choral works and piano pieces. The medium in which Poulenc distinguished himself the most was perhaps the concerto - a form which he renewed, broadened and diversified; his concertos indeed hold a very special place among his works. They include: the Concert champêtre (1927-8), for harpsichord and orchestra; Aubade (1929), a choreographic concerto for piano and eighteen instruments; this Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1932); the Concerto in G for Organ, Strings and Timpani (1938); and the Piano Concerto (1949). Each work differs from the others in its spirit, intentions and orchestral complement.

The Two-Piano Concerto was commissioned by the American patroness of the arts, Princess Edmond de Polignac, née Winnareta Singer. The princess - who was a friend to both Poulenc and his childhood friend, the pianist Jacques Février - asked for a piece that the two Frenchmen could play together; in 1932, during a period of two and a half months, Poulenc produced the D minor Concerto, a "gay and straightforward" work, full of fresh, spontaneous and well organized ideas.

With this piece, Poulenc took a new step in his evolution as a composer. Like the Concert champêtre, which harks back to the Baroque era, the Two-Piano Concerto looks back in time, in this case to the Classical era; however, although he used as a model the Double Concertos of Bach, Mozart and Mendelssohn before him, he breaks free of the Baroque and Classical conventions to which the early masters were tied, as he opts to follow the freer spirit of a divertissement. This Concerto is one of Poulenc's most typically inventive compositions.

The first movement, Allegro, ma non troppo, is marked by its sprightly dynamics and irrepresible, buoyant energy. Being thoroughly acquainted with pianistic resources, here the composer provides ingenious dialogue between the two soloists. Woven into the thematic and contrapuntal web are chansonettes and popular Parisian tunes from the café- concert circuit. Of note, as well, are the coloristic effects in the coda, where the composer admittedly evoked the Balinese gamelan music he had heard at the 1931 Colonial Exposition.

In an era of retrospective tributes, where Stravinsky was going back to Bach and Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev would write like a "twentieth century" Haydn, or Poulenc himself would pay tribute to Couperin in his Concert champêtre, it is not surprising that the composer would chose to pay homage to the composer he preferred over all the rest - Mozart. The outlines of the Larghetto are quite classical, as the outer sections employ a theme that brings to mind Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 (of Elvira Madigan fame). The more dramatic middle section, however, is distinctively Poulenc in its unashamed sentimentality.

In the Allegro molto finale, Poulenc's melodic and harmonic gifts really come to the fore. The movement opens very much in the style of a toccata as the two pianos play a rushing figure, after which they announce the main theme, a music-hall march melody. Following a more serene interlude, the café-concert mood returns, and in a fortissimo dash of virtuosity, the concerto ends in an outburst of brilliance and exuberance.

The Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra was first heard on September 5, 1932, at the Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Venice. Regarding the work's premiere, the composer remarked: "Having always played piano duos with my boyhood friend Jacques Février, I must testify without any modesty at all that the first performance was flawless. Désiré Defauw, the Belgian conductor, directed the orchestra of La Scala. It was a smashing success, for the work is gay and uncomplicated."

Author's addendum:

*  The cover image is the Jacques Emile Blanche painting, "Poulenc," from 1920.

*  The embedded files above are a very good recording of the Labeques playing Poulenc.  This sibling-duo is always superb, I had the pleasure of working for them back in the 1990s - and anything they record would be a good investment.  This work is a tremendously fun piece to play, but many do it very badly, so compare pianists carefully before purchasing.  These are only examples.  Please support working artists by purchasing music and art legally.  Thank you. 

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