Program Notes, ©2012 Lori Newman


Francis Poulenc
Born 1899, Paris, France; died 1963, Paris, France

Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani in g minor (1938)

The sudden death of Poulenc’s good friend and fellow composer, Pierre-Octave Ferroud (1900-1936), took Poulenc on a spiritual journey which can be traced in much of his music, including his Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani.  After Ferroud’s death in 1936, Poulenc took a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Black Virgin at Rocamadour, France where his suspended Catholicism renewed itself.  He wrote of the Organ Concerto, “This is not the happy-go-lucky Poulenc who wrote the Concerto for two pianos, but a Poulenc en route to the cloister—a fifteenth century Poulenc, if you like.”  This began his inclusion of spirituality, both expressly and subtly in his works.  While the Organ Concerto is secular, Poulenc considered it the first of his faith-inspired works.

The Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani was commissioned in 1934 by Princesse Edmond de Polignac (a.k.a Winaretta Singer), heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, and a patron of the arts with considerable wealth.  The Princess was responsible for commissioning works, or had works dedicated to her, by several other now famous composers including Fauré, Ravel, Stravinsky, Satie, Falla, Milhaud, Tailleferre and Weill.  Her most notable dedication came in the form of Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte of 1899.  The commission for the Organ Concerto originally went to Jean Francaix, but he turned it down, paving the way for Poulenc to happily accept.  Composition of the concerto was painstakingly slow and not completed until 1938 when the Princess seemed to grow weary of the constant delays.  It premiered privately in the Princess’s salon in December of 1938 with Maurice Duruflé as soloist and Nadia Boulanger as conductor.  The public premiere was in Paris in June of 1939, also with Duruflé as soloist and conducted by Roger Désormière.  The concerto was met with positive reviews.  After hearing her commission the Princess wrote the following succinct and emotional note to Poulenc, “Its profound beauty haunts me.”

This was Poulenc’s first foray into writing for the organ, and in preparation he studied the masters of the past, Bach and Buxtehude, and of the present, enlisting Duruflé’s help with registration and voicing.  Poulenc’s Organ Concerto is considered neo-Baroque, in the style of Stravinsky’s neo-Baroque works.  The work consists of seven movements, played without pause.

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