06 May 2011

Poulenc – Concerto for Organ

Written by Jeff Counts

THE COMPOSER – FRANCIS POULENC – Poulenc the man had an experience in 1936 that had a profound influence on Poulenc the composer. The sudden death of his colleague Pierre-Octave Ferroud affected him intensely and after a subsequent visit to Notre Dame de Rocamadour, Poulenc’s dormant Catholicism was reawakened. Much of his work thereafter was liturgical in nature but even his secular works moved away from the irreverence of his youth toward greater depth and meaning.      

THE MUSIC – The commission for the Organ Concerto actually came two years before this life-changing moment, but it was the new, more serious Poulenc who completed the piece in 1938. He was initially asked to create music that featured a small orchestra and an “easy” organ part that presumably could be played by the amateur commissioner, one Princess Edmond de Polignac. “Easy” was abandoned, however, during the four years it took to finish the piece – another likely indication of Poulenc’s personal transformation. His correspondence during this time alludes to this inner journey and the resultant musical renewal by stating, “This is not the amusing Poulenc of the Concerto for Two Pianos, but more like a Poulenc en route to the cloister…” Music was his idea of a self portrait, and (despite the above comment) the Concerto included bits of both the newly religious and older carefree versions of himself. As a composer, Poulenc was not constrained by any prideful avoidance of imitation. In addition to his own melodic gifts, he was a highly imaginative synthesizer. Bach can be heard in the Organ Concerto. So can Mozart and maybe even a bit of the great Romantics. All of these sounds, the borrowed and the entirely new, enjoy fruition in the hands of a truly masterful architect and sincere artist. It is the music of a man reborn, both guileless and spontaneous in its heartfelt directness. The Princess herself captures the total impact of the piece in her simple thank you note to Poulenc, written in exile during the war. “Its profound beauty haunts me.”                                              

THE WORLD – In 1938 was the premiere of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the nationwide release of the film Snow White and the comic book debut of Superman. In Europe, it was also the year of the Anschluss, Hitler’s annexation of Austria.  

THE CONNECTION – Utah Symphony’s most recent performance of the Organ Concerto was in 2003. Tabernacle organist John Longhurst appeared with Assistant Conductor Scott O’Neill.

by Jeff Counts