Program Notes: Poulenc Organ Concerto

Written by Ronald Comber

Three Studies from Couperin    
Thomas Adès (1971-    )

Composer, pianist, and conductor, Thomas Adès has been a force in British music for almost thirty years. His works have been played around the world to universal acclaim, and he has conducted many of the great orchestras on a regular basis. As a pianist, he is widely known both for new music, and for his deep and abiding love and understanding of the works of Baroque master François Couperin ‘Le Grand’. As Adès has said, “My ideal day would be staying home and playing the harpsichord works of Couperin – new inspiration on every page.”

In the course of a long and illustrious career, François Couperin ‘Le Grand’ published four books of harpsichord music, featuring over 230 titles, all of real merit and exquisitely crafted. Adès, long familiar with them all, had an inspiration upon receiving a commission from the Basel Chamber Orchestra in 2006 – perhaps he could take Couperin’s music and look deep into its heart to create a new work that both expanded on the original and looked at it from several different perspectives at the same time. He chose three pieces, Les Amusemens (Amusements), Les Tours de Passe-Passe (Sleight of Hand), and L’âme-en-peine (The Soul in Pain) and created a work that unfolds like a house of mirrors.

Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani in G minor     
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

By 1930, Fraincis Poulenc had reached his full maturity as a composer and had built a solid reputation, both for his instrumental works and for his songs. He was soon to blossom in a new, religious way. This Concerto subtly marks the beginning of his journey.

In 1934, the Princess Edmond de Polignac wanted  to commission an Organ Concerto that she could play herself at her salon. She had already had a Cavalée-Coll organ installed, and she knew that the salon could hold a small orchestra and her friends as well. Ideally, the work would be fairly easy, and it would serve to entertain her friends. She had a young composer in mind, too. The young Jean Françaix was obviously on his way up, and this could give him some exposure.

Françaix was grateful, but also doubtful. 22 years old and a rising star both as soloist and composer, he in the end passed the commission on to the older Poulenc, who was wise in the ways of the salonistes.

Poulenc was an excellent pianist, but he knew little of the workings of an organ,. Luckily he had a good organist friend in Maurice Duruflé, who was to guide him through the years until the Concerto was complete. As work began, he wrote to Françaix, “The Concerto…is not the amusing Poulenc of the Concerto for Two Pianos, but more like a Poulenc on route for the cloister.”

Poulenc soon determined that to get to really know the instrument, he needed to deeply study the works of Bach and Buxtehude, which gave him an insight into the tonal qualities available to him and was to subtly inform the new work throughout its length. The Concerto was starting to take shape in 1936, when a friend and colleague, Pierre-Octave Ferroud died suddenly. Poulenc had to get away – he travelled in what would turn out to be a pilgrimage to the Black Virgin of Rocamadour, where he re-discovered his Catholic faith. When he returned, his new, more introspective attitude coloured the gentler parts of the work. He always later referred to the organ concerto as being on the fringe of his religious works.

The completed work is in one movement, made up of many cells. The shifting passages of light and shade range from hectic gaiety to deep reverence as can be readily expressed by the instructions — Andante, Allegro giocoso, Subito andante moderato, Tempo allegro, Molto agitato, Très calme, Lent, Tempo de l’allegro initial, Tempo D’introduction: Largo.

Poulenc finally completed the work in the autumn of 1938. Sadly for the princess, it was much too hard for her, so she hired Maurice Duruflé to play it for her friends on December 16th, 1938. The public premiere had to wait until June of 1939, when it was performed to great acclaim at the Salle Gaveau.

The Victoria Symphony performs on the traditional lands of the Lekwungen peoples and acknowledges with respect the Songhees, Esquimalt and WSÁNEĆ peoples whose historical relationships with the land continues to this day. We extend our appreciation for the opportunity to live, create, and perform on this territory.