Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos and an Orchestra
Above all, let not a composer seek to be in the mode. If you are not a la mode today you may not be out of the mode tomorrow.
Francis Poulenc (1899–1963) was a combination of differing personalities: a devout, spiritual Catholic on the one hand; an unabated bon vivant on the other. Ned Rorem in Poulenc a Memoir noted that “He was deeply devout and uncontrollably sensual…” These two sides were reflected in his extensive repertoire: deeply serious religious music and flippant, witty, charming tunes embedded in many genres.
The composer described himself, saying “I was born in Paris on 7 January 1899 and I studied piano under Vines and composition mostly from books because I was feared being influenced by a teacher. [He allowed himself only one lesson with Ravel!] I read a lot of music and greatly pondered musical aesthetics. My four favorite composers, my only masters are Bach, Mozart, Satie and Stravinsky. I don’t like Beethoven at all. I loathe Wagner.
In general I am very eclectic, but while acknowledging that influence is a necessary thing, I hate those artists who dwell in the wake of the masters. Now, a crucial point. I am not a cubist musician, even less a futurist, and of course, not an Impressionist. I am a musician without a label.” (“In Praise of Poulenc”: Fred Flaxman, WFMT 2002)
Poulenc dedicated his Concerto for Two Pianos to Winnaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac, who was the twentieth child of Isaac Singer, inventor of the Singer sewing machine. Although born in Yonkers, New York, she grew up in Paris, and eventually presided over an influential salon, some say the most important avant-garde music salon in Paris between the wars. Poulenc (and the other members of Les Six) was a frequent visitor: along with Faure, Stravinsky, de Falla, Satie, Widor, Nadia Boulanger, Milhaud, Debussy, and many more. It was the crème de la crème. The social and musical power and presence of her salon as well as extraordinary life are well told in Music’s Modern Muse by Sylvia Kahan.
Regarding his presence in Les Six, Stewart Gordon in A History of Keyboard Literature, noted “Poulenc was the most consistent in developing and sustaining a style of directness, simplicity, clarity, and the inclusion of influences from popular music. Poulenc’s music is, in fact, so filled with tuneful, obvious melodies and music-hall clichés that the temptation is ever present to dismiss his work as lacking seriousness of purpose. A remarkable alchemy emerges, however, through Poulenc’s deft use of modulation to create freshness, his ability to craft mundane material into charming gestures, and his penchant for surprising the listener with passages of heartfelt sensitivity.” These elements will be abundantly present in this concerto.
In 1932, the Princesse commissioned his Concerto for Two Pianos, planning that the soloists would be Poulenc and the pianist Jacque Fevrier. The composer completed the work in three months in that summer, announcing “You will see for yourself what an enormous step forward it is from my previous work and that I am really entering my great period.” After the Venetian premier on September 5, 1932, Poulenc summarized “I must testify without any modesty at all that the first performance was flawless…It was a smashing success, for the work is gay and uncomplicated.”
There are three movements.
“Gay and direct”, a description Poulenc often used for his music, describes the first movement, marked Allegro ma non troppo. The pianists are linked in an intricate relationship, a continuous dialogue, filled with references to popular Parisian tunes, and overall joie de vivre. His knowledge of the piano’s capability is remarkable, and pianistic virtuosity is dazzling. The music moves quickly, dramatically, and is endlessly delightful. The coda is especially interesting, with evocations of the Balinese gamelan which the composer first heard at the 1931 Colonial Exposition.
The second movement becomes more serious, written in a Neoclassical style referencing Poulenc’s unending devotion and admiration for Mozart. “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.”
The finale opens with percussion snaps before unleashing the pianists into a display of toccata-like business which becomes mixed with sentimental romantic interludes. There is a delightful irrationality in this movement as he catapults from his fun frenzy to emotional lyricism and back again into unadulterated entertainment. The orchestra is reined in, clearly subservient to the pianos or following their leadership. Poulenc once summed up his concerto as “blithely bravura” and he was right. It has also been transcribed for two pianos four hands.
© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017