The setting was German-occupied Paris, July 10th, 1941, for the premiere of Francis Poulenc’s “Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani,” with the great French organist Maurice Durufle as the soloist.
It’s easy to assume that the dark emotional tone of the piece was due to the Occupation, but the Concerto actually dates from the pre-War years: It was a 1936 commission from the American-born Princess Edmond de Polignac, heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune. In 1936, Poulenc had lost a close friend in a particularly gruesome car crash, prompting the composer, a lapsed Catholic, to turn to his childhood faith for solace. Poulenc may have been in a serious frame, but even so hadn’t lost his sense of humor. Here’s what he wrote the Princess, warning her not to expect a giddy, light-hearted piece like his previous Concerto for Two Pianos:
“Your Organ Concerto has given me a lot of trouble, but I hope that you will like it. It is not the amusing Poulenc, but more like Poulenc en route to the cloisters, very 15th century, as it were. I have grown into a stoutish monk, somewhat dissolute, but tended by an excellent cook.”
For his part, Poulenc cooked up a minor-key Concerto with echoes of ancient and contemporary music. Perhaps because of its ambiguous emotional tone, it was rather coolly received at it initial performances. Over time, however, Poulenc’s Organ Concerto has come to be regarded as one of his finest works.
Music Played in Today's Program
Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963)Organ ConcertoMaurice Durufle, organ; French Radio Orchestra; Georges PretreEMI 47723