The Kennedy Center

Organ Concerto in G minor

About the Work

Francis Poulenc Composer: Francis Poulenc
© Peter Laki

Francis Poulenc was born in Paris on January 67, 1899, and died there on January 30, 1963.  He completed his Organ Concerto in August 1938 on a commission from the Princess Edmond de Polignac, to whom it is dedicated.  The concerto was first performed at the Salle Gaveau in Paris on June 21, 1939, with Maurice Duruflé as the soloist and Roger Désormière conducting.  The American premiere took place in a concert at the Germanic Museum at Harvard University under the auspices of Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.  E. Power Biggs was the soloist and Arthur Fiedler conducted.

            The work runs about 20 minutes in performance.  Poulenc scored it for solo organ, timpani and string orchestra.



Une Américaine à Paris (?An American Woman in Paris")-reads the title of a fascinating biography written by Michel de Cossart, published in Paris in 1978.  (The English translation is called The Food of Love.)  Its heroine, the remarkable Princess Edmond de Polignac, née Winnaretta Singer (1865-1943), was the hostess of one of the last great Parisian salons, where the crème de la crème of the aristocracy met the most celebrated artists of the time.  An heiress to the Singer sewing-machine fortune who was first a countess and then a princess by her two marriages, Winnaretta used her exceptional status to play fairy godmother to generations of composers and painters.  Her friendships with composers ranged from Gabriel Fauré in the 1890s to the young Benjamin Britten 50 years later.  She was particularly close to Stravinsky; Ravel dedicated his Pavane for a Dead Princess to her.

            Francis Poulenc started to make a name for himself as a young composer, barely out of his teens, in the years just after World War I.  Having studied piano with Ricardo Viñes, the foremost interpreter of Debussy and Ravel, and having befriended Erik Satie and the poet Jean Cocteau, he was naturally admitted to the Polignac circle.

            Poulenc, who in his early years had focused on songs, ballets and chamber music, turned to concertos as a direct result of his contacts with the Princess.  It was at the Polignacs' that he met Wanda Landowska, who revived the harpsichord as a 20th-century instrument, and wrote a concerto for her in 1929 (Concert champêtre).  In 1932, the Princess commissioned the Concerto for Two Pianos, in which, as Poulenc's biographer Benjamin Ivry remarks, he ?tried to capture the joyous conviviality of the Princess's salon."

            Sadly, times began to change soon after this sparkling piece was written.  Hitler came to power in Germany the very next year; France was experiencing a lot of economic and political turmoil; and Poulenc, who had come from a financially comfortable middle-class background, felt his resources diminishing.  He approached his old friend to see if she would commission another piece, but the Princess, now in her seventies, wrote back:  ?Thanks to Mr. Roosevelt, my musical budget is considerably reduced."  She commissioned Poulenc anyway, for she wanted to feature the spectactular Cavaillé-Coll organ that she owned.  But she could only offer half of what she had paid Poulenc the first time.

            The composer himself had noticeably changed since only a few years earlier.  The difficult times, and several deaths in his immediate environment, caused him to become more introspective than he had been before.  He rediscovered the Catholic religion (in which he had been raised) after a visit to the shrine of the Black Virgin at Rocamadour, and soon afterwards wrote the first of what would become a whole series of sacred choral works.  The Organ Concerto, on which he worked between 1936 and 1938, reflects this shift in Poulenc's outlook.  The neo-classical idiom, which had earlier been a vehicle for carefree and playful feelings, now had to be adapted to carry a much more serious message.

            The Organ Concerto is in one continuous movement, divided into several clearly separated sections.  The opening measures sound for all the world like a fantasy by J.S. Bach.  (It was clearly impossible for Poulenc to write for the organ without thinking of Bach.)  A somewhat tense dialogue unfolds between the organ and the orchestra, eventually making way for an Allegro giocoso section where Bach begins to recede into the distance and a half-playful, half-agitated theme emerges in the strings.  An extended lyrical Andante follows and eventually ends with a huge crescendo that leads into the third section.  This is a varied recapitulation of the first Allegro, more dramatic and less playful than the first time.  After a second Andante episode, the fast tempo resumes, in a more lighthearted vein than before.  Yet the concerto is not allowed to end this way, which would be the expected thing.  Instead, Poulenc brings back the initial Bach-fantasy motif, and appends to it a melancholy theme in which the organ is joined by a solo viola and a solo cello.  The final measures are startling in their stark simplicity and the abruptness with which the concluding unison G arrives.

            The first soloist to perform the Poulenc Organ Concerto was the celebrated composer and virtuoso organist Maurice Duruflé, who also assisted Poulenc with the selection of organ registers for the piece.