Francis Poulenc ‘Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings’: Fantastic Fantasia

Hello readers! Many thanks for coming and reading my day P blog, I cannot believe how quickly this challenge is going! Today’s instalment of classical music comes from a composer who I admittedly do not listen to all that much…until I found this work. Today’s blog is on Poulenc and his absolutely insane Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings. So sit back, relax (if you can with this piece!) and let’s take a look into the musical world of Francis Poulenc!

Francis Poulenc was born in Paris in 1899 into a rather wealthy, musical family. His father owned a pharmaceuticals business, and he had very close ties with Roman Catholicism. His mother, differently, came from a very artistic family. Due to his mother being musical, Poulenc grew up surrounded by classical music, and he often heard the works of Debussy, Stravinsky and Schubert. He began learning piano at the age of 5, and by the age of 8 he was flourishing whilst finding his ‘style’ of music. Unlike many composers I’ve covered, or in general, Poulenc did not attend a music conservatory. Instead, after being directed by his father, studied at a conventional school (most likely being that it offers a wider-range of education than a specialist school).

Sadly, at the tender age of 16, Poulenc’s mother passed away, and so did his father two years later. He was taken under the wing by his piano teacher, Ricardo Viñes, who became his “spiritual mentor” (interpret that how you wish). Viñes encouraged Poulenc to compose and he became a chief figure in his early development as a composer. Poulenc also made a solid friend in composer, Erik Satie, who also helped him along in these early stages.

Poulenc started finding his niche in taking African poems and turning them into musical works. Most notably his 1917 work Rapsodie négre was very popular in its premiere and the likes of Ravel and Stravinsky were impressed. Poulenc became close with Ravel, and the two discussed music in much depth. Although, Poulenc was, at times, unsure about Ravel’s comments on other composers. This seemed to bother Poulenc a fair bit as he confided in Satie about it, who’s reply was “[Ravel] talks a load of rubbish!”. Poulenc continued to compose, although he wasn’t the most talked about composers of the era, although he successfully got his name out into Europe. Due to his lack of specific musical training, Poulenc’s work had been deemed “unsophisticated” by critics of the time. Between the years 1917-1920, Poulenc worked in Montparnasse, Paris, alongside fellow French composers – Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud. These composers came together and called themselves Les Six (inspired by Balakirev’s The Five). The group essentially were aiming to rebel against the works of Wagner, Debussy and Ravel. Poulenc was able to learn from these composers, and began taking composition lessons with Charles Koechlin.

In the 1920’s, Poulenc became much more popular as a composer in Britain as well as France. He met Anton Webern, Arnold Schonberg and Alban Berg on a trio to Vienna, although he did not find their revolutionary twelve-tone system all that influencing. Poulenc then produced his firth ballet score in 1924 entitled Les Biches, which was a huge success and is today still one of the composer’s most popular score. Poulenc later composed a number of different works which emphasised his use of different musical ensembles.

The 1930’s saw Poulenc’s outlook change dramatically, and his works became much more serious. In 1936 his religious faith was tested as his friend and fellow composer, Pierre-Octave Ferroud was killed in a car crash that was so serious, he was decapitated. Poulenc wrote about the accident only a couple of days after it happened saying:

“A few days earlier I’d just heard of the tragic death of my colleague. As I mediated on the fragility of our human frame, I was drawn once more to the life of the spirit.”

Poulenc’s new-found seriousness caused him to compose some of his most complex works. He began composing religious works too, including Mass in G major. However, critics were still resting Poulenc’s reputation on his more lighthearted works, and it wasn’t until much later that his serious music was listened to and celebrated.

1940 saw Poulenc being called to be a soldier in World War II. During this time he, of course, did not compose much new music, but instead he starting re-orchestrating some of his existing works. Whilst the war was happening, Poulenc spent most of his time in Paris giving recitals and writing songs. However, as he was a known homosexual, he was in a vulnerable position within the Nazi rule. In his music in this time he made many gestures of defiance of the Germans. For instance he set music to verses of poetry by poets associated with the French Resistance. Poulenc was very popular with British audiences and he regularly worked with the BBC. He kept on composing until his death in 1963, when he suffered a fatal heart attack.

Poulenc’s music is based heavily on melodic forms and diatonic choral works. He has been described as “simply pleasing” and this is for pretty much all of his work except for some of the works within the serious era. Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings was composed between the years 1934 and 1938, which puts it right in the middle of Poulenc’s serious era. The concerto was commissioned by Princess Edmond de Polignac in 1934, which was intended to be a piece with a chamber orchestra and an easy organ part that the Princess could play herself. It didn’t take long for Poulenc to abandon this concept and instead he wrote a grand and very ambitious work for a string orchestra, timpani and solo organ. With the death of Ferroud in 1936, Poulenc went on pilgrimage to the Black Virgin of Rocamadour. It was here he rediscovered his faith in Christianity, and upon his return he was more inspired to finish the then incomplete organ concerto. Very interestingly, Poulenc, up until this point, had never written for organ before, so to help himself he studied famous baroque composers who avidly wrote for organ (J.S. Bach and Buxtehude being in that mix). The work is about 20 minutes in length, however it is played in one single continuous movement. There are seven different tempo markings within the work which outline the ‘sections’:

Andante

Allegro giocoso

Subito andante moderato

Tempo allegro

Molto agitatio 

Trés calme: Lent 

Tempo de l’allegro initial 

Tempo d’introduction: Largo 

Each of the different sections of the work offers a different style and tone, which makes it very exciting.

The piece starts with a thunderous Gothic G minor chord played by the organ, which creates a flourish of sound. The basses and timpani play tonic-third stabs, whilst the organ establishes a melody in the dark key of G minor. A flourish for the upper strings is heard, which leads back into the initial passage played by the organ. A climax in the strings leads to the next section, which incredibly dream-like and a complete contrast to the dark and pendulous introduction. A crescendo leads into a drastic change in texture as the organ takes over the general idea of the string motif at a very delicate pp. The strings answer this with another delicate passage. The time here fluctuates between 4/4 and 3/4 which gives it a somewhat ‘rocking’ feeling. The strings all pluck a C minor chord, which the organ replies with a dark, mysterious C9 chord. The lower strings take over the slow crotchet movement, which leads to a bold statement by the organ, who plays a selection of wonderfully distinct diminished chords.

The next section is much quicker in tempo and is led in by the strings. The organ answers with a descending scale and the dialogue between the strings and organ keeps this section pacy and exciting. The coarse sound is very powerful. A mixture of semiquaver and dotted quaver rhythms are prominent here. A pedal C from the organ leads us into one of my favourite sections. The dynamic and the texture is so vibrant here. This leads us back into a reprise of the main theme from this section. The strings play in their top registers, whilst the organ holds a C pedal below. The next section is much thinner in texture, and at times is just the organ. The organ plays a solo based on a mode, which definitely radiates his religious spirit. This melody is then taken by the strings and variations are played. The mix between arco and pizzicato strings gives the timbre here a wonderful natural effect. This section is very Poulenc – nice melody that is passed around instruments which is simple, yet effective. The organ takes over again and this leads into a more scherzo-like passage from the upper strings. This jaunty rhythmic passage is a massive contrast to that of earlier sections. A really nice call and response section is played between the strings and organ, which creates a variation of the main theme. A reprise is heard once more, although this time the organ is more prominent. This section is mysterious, yet melancholic.

The dream-like melody returns as a variation in the strings, which is then passed around the orchestra. The minor sixth interval is very much emphasised here as it’s quite an awkward interval to not only play, but to hear. The mood is very much changed again as the work sounds moody and ‘bothered.’ A more aggressive section ensues, with the strings playing a fast demisemiquaver passage. The next section is very animated and the range of the upper strings pushes the boundaries which is very exciting. The organ then plays three stabs which leads onto a transition section depicting the dream-like scene once more. This leads us into a false sense of security as a faster section takes over, dominated by triplets and sextuplets from both the organ and strings. This section reminds of like a ‘mad scientist’ image, the dark organ and the frivolous strings gives it a panicked sound. The fast movements from all instruments makes it a very blurred texture, and this is partly changed when a string melody comes out above a very mad accompaniment. The section leads onto another organ solo, which focuses on tonic chords until a new 7/4 section begins. A variation of the dream theme interrupts this and the mood is brought back down.

The organ plays some dissonant chords, which leads into a typically baroque melody. This is soon accompanied by the strings, who now play a more simple motif. This section is also much slower and the strings further take over the main theme and emphasise the meter and mood of the section. A really bizarre clarinet sound is then played on the organ for 4 bars, and then its never heard again (very strange!). The strings dissolve into pedal chords, whilst the organ plays tonic chords with the aid of the timpani. Another organ transition leads us to the next allegro section. A driving tremolo accompaniment from the strings, allows for the organ to shine through with its melody. I find this section very exciting as it encapsulates a whole new feel for the piece. To me it doesn’t feel dark, nor light and bouncy – it’s somewhere between for me. Strong double stopping from the strings accompany the organs fast-paced scalic work which ranges from the top to the bottom of the instrument. The organ introduces a new motif, which is then shadowed by the strings, which creates a very dark and thunderous sound.

The introduction is then repeated, but only half of it as the dream motif is then played by the organ for two bars. The soloist then plays a delicate solo which is resonant from the beginning of the piece. The atmosphere is now very calm and the viola plays a lovely simple, yet effective solo, whilst the organ and strings accompany with bare chords and plucked notes. The cello then takes this solo over, with the organ ‘bulking out’ the chords below. This section is incredibly slow, mournful and it bares very dark undertones. I find it eerie, but at the same time very beautiful. The organ then enters with a solo which shadows the same movement from the start (and also Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor). The work ends with a strong G minor tonic chord played by the whole of the ensemble, which creates a very bold effect, like that of the start of the piece.

The work fluctuates between a variety of different keys which, in turn, represent the different sections. We go from G minor to G major and then from A minor to A major, and then back to G major (of course crossing keys to get to this conclusion). The concerto works as a one movement fantasia, which takes a lot of twists and turns to get to the end result! This work is intriguing as it’s not so much a piece of a virtuous nature, but more of an exploration of sounds, timbres and tones within an unconventional ensemble. I absolutely love this work, I find it exciting and incredibly sad now I’ve looked into influences within it. I do hope you have enjoyed this incredible work, I wonder what day Q will have in store for us tomorrow?!

Happy Reading!

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