Francis Poulenc: Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings
Francis Poulenc was born in Paris in 1899 into a wealthy, musical family. His father owned a pharmaceuticals business, and he had very close ties with Roman Catholicism. His mother came from a very artistic family. As his mother was 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.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Poulenc did not attend a music conservatory. Instead, he attended a conventional school, meaning he received a broad curriculum education.
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 1934 and 1938, which puts it 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 a 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 – namely J. S. Bach and Buxtehude. 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’:
Subito andante moderato
Trés calme: Lent
Tempo de l’allegro initial
Tempo d’introduction: Largo
The piece starts with a thunderous Gothic-inspired G minor chord played by the organ, which creates a rumble of sound. The basses and timpani play tonic-third stabs, whilst the organ establishes the first theme. 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 metre here fluctuates between 4/4 and 3/4 which gives it a 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. A mixture of semiquaver and dotted quaver rhythms are prominent here. The dynamics and the textures are 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 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 unique effect.
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 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 emphasised throughout this section. 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. The fast movements from all instruments makes 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.
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. 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 bears very dark undertones. The organ then enters with a solo which shadows the same movement from the start. 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. The concerto works as a one-movement Fantasia, which takes a lot of twists and turns to get to the end result.