The Kennedy Center

Aubade, concerto chorégraphique (for piano and 18 instruments)

About the Work

Francis Poulenc Composer: Francis Poulenc
© Richard Freed


In Paris between the two Great Wars, there were still aristocratic families giving lavish f?tes in their palatial homes; in particular, there were two women with American connections who commissioned prominent composers and choreographers to create new works for them. The Princesse de Polignac, whose fabled salon between the 1880s and the outbreak of World War II was populated by such figures as Ravel, Faur?, Strauss, Chabrier, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Milhaud, Satie, Weill, and even Cole Porter, was actually an American, born Wennaretta Singer, the daughter of the sewing-machine tycoon. Widowed shortly after her marriage to the Prince de Polignac, she became a full-time, incredibly productive patron of the arts, and of music in particular. The Vicomtesse de Noailles, nearly forty years her junior, was the granddaughter of an American woman named Mary Paine. From the 1920s the Vicomtesse and her husband made their mansion on the Place des ?tats-Unis into a bustling center for encouragement, support and presentation of works by the likes of Man Ray, Luis Bu?uel, Salvador Dal? and Jean Cocteau. (That great house still stands, but today it is the headquarters of the Baccarat company.) Poulenc had the good fortune to be a beneficiary of both of those remarkable women, and it was for the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles that he composed his Aubade in 1929.

If Stravinsky?s Danses concertantes was a concert piece that became a ballet, Poulenc?s Aubade may be described as a ballet that became a concert piece, regarded now as simply the first of the French composer?s piano concertos. The ballet?s scenario, however, devised by Poulenc himself, not only determined the work?s character and shape but gave it a level of personal expression unsuspected by its audience. Poulenc described the work as being "about women, about feminine solitude," and remarked that he composed it at a time in which he felt deep "melancholy and anguish." While it was not in Poulenc?s nature to bare his soul in his music as Tchaikovsky and Mahler had done, this bit of personal background is pertinent to the contrast evident in this work, as in so many of his subsequent ones, between lightheartedness and profundity, with both elements always held in check by his instinctive sense of balance and tastefulness.

The work?s title refers to a song greeting the dawn, since the action of the ballet begins at dawn on one day and concludes at dawn on the next. The cast was entirely female, with the goddess Diana as heroine. The size of the orchestra was determined by the ensemble provided by the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles, which, as Poulenc noted, as lavish for a private party. The following movement-by-movement description of the action is based on the composer?s own scenario, printed in the piano score

1. TOCCATA. A frisky prelude (for the piano alone, following a brief fanfare. A clearing at dawn. The set is in the style of the Fontainebleau school.
2. RECITATIVE: DIANA?S COMPANIONS awaken one by one, troubled by grim forebodings.
3. RONDEAU. DIANA AND HER COMPANIONS. Diana enters, dissheveled, visibly distressed by a love in conflict with her eternal chastity.
4. PRESTO: DIANA DRESSING . Her companions undertake to dress her, and she complies half-heartedly.
5. RECITATIVE: INTRODUCTION TO DIANA?S VARIATION. The companions give Diana a bow, which she clasps to her heart.
6. ANDANTE: DIANA?S VARIATION. A solo dance of "at once pathetic and resigned"
7. ALLEGRO FEROCE: DIANA?S DESPAIR. Diana throws away her bow, dashes into the forest, and returns in despair.
8. CONCLUSION: DIANA?S FAREWELL AND DEPARTURE. Her companions attempt to comfort her, but she begs them to leave her, and then again flees into the woods, to lose herself in the excitement of the hunt. Her dismayed companions stare after her but see only her hand, waving a final adieu. Exhausted, they sink to the ground and fall asleep, as another dawn arrives.