Concerto in G minor for Organ, Strings, and Timpani, S. 93

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        Francis Poulenc will forever be remembered by students as a member of the French group, “Les Six,” of the nineteen twenties--a coterie of close friends who had little in common stylistically. This misleading appellation was given to a group of young French composers with connections to Eric Satie and Jean Cocteau who espoused a musical style that was the very antithesis of the impassioned, heavy style of late Romanticism.   Typical of the country and time, they were a cheeky lot, with a penchant for light, simple, even sarcastic compositions that were heavily influenced by French popular music.   Of the so-called six, only Poulenc, and, of course, Darius Milhaud, went on to significant careers as composers, although Arthur Honegger enjoyed some success.

        Poulenc had a gift for melody, and the evidence is in his many songs; he was a connoisseur of poetry, and his songs are a valuable contribution to the genre.   On the other hand, he evinced little interest in exploring the limits of twentieth-century harmonic style--he famously once said that there was no harm in “using other people’s chords.” He also made significant contributions to the century’s chamber, solo piano music, and orchestral music.   His big operatic success is the dark drama, Dialogues des Carmélites (1956), the story of Carmelite nuns guillotined during the French Revolution.  But, his other side is represented by the delightful and witty satire, Les Mamelles des Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresa, 1944)--an irreverent comment upon feminism and the French government’s encouragement of family growth.  Perhaps his most lasting contribution, however, is in sacred choral music, to which he turned in the late 1930s.  The death of a close friend, as well as the grimmer world situation, led Poulenc to a closer commitment to Catholicism, and the result was a decided change from the earlier roguish style to a much more serious one.  The ensuing works, such as the Mass in G, and the Gloria, are familiar to many.

        His organ concerto was written in 1938, on commission by the Princess Edmond de Polignac, an American-born member of the Singer sewing-machine fortune who played the organ.  It consists of seven sections, played without a break, in the style of a fantasia, with the organ participating, not so much as a contrasting soloist, but more or less taking the place of the absent brass.   The opening flourish alludes to J.S. Bach’s famous G minor Fantasia, which gesture returns from time to time.  Other sections are lighter, some would say “popular” in nature--a very real reflection of the acknowledged ambivalence in Poulenc’s personality between depression and gaiety.  The debt to Baroque composers also extends to the famous North German predecessor to Bach, Dietrich Buxtehude, but, of course, all of this is filtered through the lens of a complex, intellectual Parisian.   All in all, the concerto, while certainly characteristic of the turn toward the serious undergone by Poulenc, nevertheless maintains throughout fleeting evocations of the irreverent rogue of his youth and his gift for lyricism.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan