Poulenc, organ and quarantine
The harsh years go by
Fighting for the freedom of the country
In their footsteps others come
They will be difficult too ...
[Choir of Activists from the movie «Canine Heart» after M. Bulgakov]
I keep sitting at my computer (unfortunately not at the organL!) because not only people, but all the authoritative bodies, and even organs have been quarantined since today. Feeling somehow down at heart. Maybe because of this somewhere in the subconsciousness flashed an acoustic image: Choir of Activists from the movie “Canine Heart”. Yes, really tough years ... Harsh, because one doesn’t want to see spring (like never before!) “THE green”. Strictly not because the oil barrel went down to $ 10 US, but because buckwheat went up by 10 UAH and the antiseptic spray – tripled in price. Nobody knows whether these harsh years will really stretch from the two once promised weeks for the completion of the Anti-Terrorist Operation to 7 or more years of war…
But quarantine… Quarantine in Lviv, quarantine in Ukraine and in many countries of the world! Some "black" (from Turkic) as KARA is an unusual and scary word. But – in its own right – this is also a good time. After all, life goes on, and life is a wonderful “thing” (sztuka!). I mean not only the Ukrainian meaning of the word, but also the Polish meaning “ART”. It is time for me to listen to my own recordings, to get acquainted with new repertoire offers. At the same time, while remembering some forgotten works from their own large repertoire, there was a very tempting task to analyze and evaluate those achievements of friends, acquaintances and current events, for which it was simply impossible to find time without quarantine.
The last major achievement in my concert life was performing the Piano Concerto for organ, timpani and strings by Francis Poulenc. For me, but perhaps not only for me – this is one of the best works of the 20th century of those written for the organ. Performing such a significant piece of music requires a great deal of training not only for the organ, but also for the immersion into the inner world of the composer through a biographical portrait, through listening to records of his music, which is full of special humaneness and French spirituality.
I never fail to emphasize that my favorite composer is Johann Sebastian Bach. I'm just physically suffering from a lack of time to study all his organ works. Therefore, the subject of my greatest envy was the genius of Marcel Dupré (1886 – 1971), who learnt all of Bach's organ works by heart and recorded it for two seasons and presented the full cycle of works by this Baroque Genius in his concert performances. It was a hundred years ago – in 1920 – 1921.
But what's worth mentioning?! Organ music by Dupré, Messiaen themselve, and a whole generation of French composers whose creations were based on the possibilities of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll’s invention of symphonic organ, was not so much an alternative to, or an addition to, the work of J. S. Bach, one more after the Baroque national masterpiece of organ art. The list of significant names alone would take up too much space. It is impossible to imagine this kaleidoscope of impressions and a world of emotions that is almost unknown to those music lovers who have been trained on European classical and romantic vocal, piano, symphonic and chamber music without repeated listening!
But I will return to Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963). He was the youngest child of a very successful Parisian pharmacist with deep religious Catholic convictions and a capable pianist who passed his love of music to his only son. The first strong musical impression for Frances was the music of Claude-Achille Debussy, followed by the Romances of Franz Schubert and “Le Sacre du printemps” by Igor Stravinsky. However, the father insisted on his son's initial education not in a music conservatory, but in one of the most prestigious schools in Paris for the children of the local elite.
At that time, the artistic tastes of Francis, alongside the school, were formed by systematic visits to the bookstore, where avant-garde poets met, including Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Éluard, and Louis Aragon. Later, many poems by these poets formed the basis of Poulenc's vocal lyrics because he did not leave music. His private piano teacher was Ricardo Vines – a bizarre hippo with huge Spanish sharp mustache, in sombrero with flat edges and in buttoned boots: “These boots of Hidalgo Vines warmed my shins when I misused the pedal ...but he was the only virtuoso who played Achille-Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, and meeting him was the most important in my life” [quoted by F. Poulenc's documentary biography].
Francis' first friends on the path to writing music were: the peer-age composer Georges Auric, whom Poulenc had for a lifetime as the "most trusted guide," and the extravagantly-eccentric youth mentor Eric Satie. Poulenc dedicated his first significant piece to the latter. It was the Negro Rhapsody (Rapsodie nègre, 1917) for baritone and chamber ensemble. Due to the original interpretation of the African art at the time, the Negro Rhapsody in Africa made a good impression on the musical gurus – Ravel and Stravinsky.
The tastes of the society at that time were saturated with late-romantic pride. Despite his youth and lack of training (and maybe thanks to these two components?!) Poulenc has captured a public request for a "new type" musical expression. It was jazz that came to Paris from the American continent at the end of the last century. And it was only 7 years after Poulenc wrote "Negro Rhapsody" that Europe's concert stages were by a lucky chance filled with George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue".
Oddly enough, Frances' lack of professional composer education and even in conjunction with original, fresh thinking formed the image of a 20-year-old magic lucky man. Even the conscription and service on the Franco-German front did not hinder its popularity not only in France but also in Britain and Austria. London music criticism delights in the "deliciously absurd" song cycle of “Cocardes” by Poulenc for three poems by Jean Cocteau for voice, cornet, trombone, violin and percussion. Russian entreprise by Sergei Diaghilev orders him the ballet “Les Biches”, which with a mad success in 1924 was staged in Monte Carlo. Les Biches in the style of fête galante (gallant party) is another example of the incredible sense of public inquiry now available to 25-year-old Poulenc. The aristocratic holiday fête galante of the Rococo era – in contrast to the pompous Baroque traditions of Versailles of the time of King Louis XIV – was filled with the sophistication of intimate relationships. History is likely to repeat ...
And yet, success did not cloud his eyes. Poulenc was aware of the need for professional education for further creative work. At this time, on the advice of Maurice Ravel, for 4 years, he studied composition with Charles Koechlin. Life makes unexpected adjustments at the peak of glory. The first of many periods of depression came to Francis with the death of his friend Raymonde Linossier (1897 – 1930). And then there was the next crisis: the breakup of friendships with the baritone who performed the song cycles of Poulenc. A few more years later, a new blow: in a car accident, the head of his friend, composer Pierre-Auguste Ferro, was cut off. All these tragic events literally turned the inner world of the composer and quite unexpectedly awakened long-forgotten sine childhood his deep-rooted interest in religion.
Under other circumstances, I might not attach much importance to the impact of the loss of friends on the composer's appeal to the sacred and religious type of expression. But during the current quarantine, I had the opportunity not only to purposely work on my doctoral dissertation titled: "The Sacred and Profane in Organ Music", but also once again to pay attention to those sacred places in the area of European civilization that have a direct connection with the deepest manifestations of the Christian faith. One of these shrines in France is the medieval city of Rocamadour. Here is the miraculous image of "Black Madonna". The religious procession, or symbolic pilgrimage to the Cross of Jerusalem, in Rockamadour is performed by believers walking down the steps to the top of the shrine.
Poulenc's visit to Rock of St. Amadour (Ròc Amadori) and a prayer before the image of the Black Madonna guided his further creative journey in the religious vein of musical expression. Depth of thought and seriousness of sacred intentions are for the composer the basic tenets of the following compositions: “As I reflected on the fragility of our human existence, my focus was on the life of the Spirit. Rocamadour brought me back to my childhood faith. This shrine, undoubtedly the oldest in France, fascinated me, and immediately after her visit I began work on "Litanies à la Vierge noire" for a female or children's choir and organ or string orchestra, 1936” – in these words the editor Nicholas Sauton conveys the composer's experience of the "peasant devotion" that so impressed Poulenc in Rocamadour [collection of articles and interviews: "Francis Poulenc. Notes from the Heart", 2014].
A visit to the shrine was an impetus to writing, alongside Litany, a number of other religious compositions, and later the Great Service of God – Mass for soprano and mixed choir a capella. At the same time, in 1936, Poulenc began work on Concerto for organ, timpani and strings. Of course, he did not leave to write music in the usual easy courtesy style, which enchanted all French in its quaint simplicity.
Such was the sheer number of songs for baritone singer Pierre Bernac (1899 – 1979), with whom Poulenc toured the European continent for many years as an accompanist. Next to the songs was music for the La Reine Margot theatrical performance. It was compiled into the French Suite(Suite française).
The fame of the rare melodist gift, the simplicity and accessibility of Francis Poulenc's music spread all the way across the Atlantic. Unlike many other artists who lived in Paris in poor conditions, but with the hope of recognition and success, Poulenc already had it all. At that time, Father Francis died. He left his son a wonderful home and a decent fortune. Therefore, the composer was troubled by no financial problems. He was one of the Parisian elites and at the same time became a fashion composer.
Elite and fashion – these whipped cream of society for centuries have been ideologically formed in the salons of Paris. At the end of the 19th – in the first third of the 20th century the most authoritative one was founded in 1894 Salon Polignac by the aristocrat-composer Prince Edmond de Polignac and his wife, the artist Prince Edmond de Polignac (1834 – 1901) & Princesse Winnaretta Singer-Polignac (1865 – 1943). After the death of her husband, the Fondation Singer-Polignac, run by Princess de Polignac, became the model of French philanthropy. Through her Foundation, the princess supported science and the army, medicine and culture. In the artistic environment, the patronage area of Vinnaretta Singer-Polignac was simply boundless: from ballerina Isadora Duncan – to the Orchestra symphonique de Paris, active in the 1930s; from architect Le Corbusier to pianist Vladimir Horovitz; from artist Claude Monet to composer Igor Stravinsky ...
Princess de Polignac was not only an aristocrat, but also an artist and pianist. She has hosted a small Cavaille-Colle organ in her Salon Polignac. It was the first salon organ of the organ building company. For her own performance as an organist, the Princess commissioned Poulenc a Concert for organ, timpani and orchestra. The party of the organ was not to be too complex and saturated, and the Princess planned to perform music not so philosophical as gallant and entertaining. So, after all, she turned to Francis Poulenc.
Artists are the most vulnerable category of citizens. The emotionally heightened sense of time and social contradiction makes them almost visionaries. Composers expressed their anticipation of the approaching catastrophe in their music. The end of the 1930s in the history of Europe was the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, which in 1937 led to the devastating bombing of Guernica; political repression in Ukraine – turned into Great Terror; Hitler's occupation of Austria, Bohemia, Moravia and Germany's joint attack on Poland with Stalin marked the beginning of World War II.
On the eve of this catastrophe in the works of 20th century composer-coryphaeus. in different angles there were bright reflections on the problems of human being and the universe, earthly-mundane and sublime-heavenly. Unlike the cholera pandemic of 1913, which preceded World War I, the outbreak of World War II was not accompanied by any epidemic or quarantine. There was only a sense of terrible danger that relentlessly comes to humanity.
The sacrament of sacredness always magnetizes the human spirit. But it is of particular importance in times of heightened sense of dread. Quarantined by the quarantine now, on the eve of the Second World War, the composers' premonitions were marked by the emergence of a number of unique by their semantics compositions: “La Nativité du Seigneur”(1935) and “Les Corps Glorieux” (1939) by Olivier Messiaen – his “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (1941); Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) by Béla Bartók; 1st and 2nd Sonatas for Organ (1937) by Paul Hindemith; in the spirit of Gustav Mahler, written by Benjamin Britten “The Company of Heaven” for speakers, soloists, choir and orchestra (1937); Concerto for organ, timpani and orchestra of Francis Poulenc ...
Why these works today, during quarantine, I wanted to listen to again and again? For it is a profound mental shift to which I would like to involve the reader of this REVIEW. This is especially true of the works for the organ of Olivier Messiaen and the Concert by Poulenc… If the first in his organ compositions shakes the depths of sacredness, the second – in the Concerto for organ, timpani and orchestra strikes the natural ease of transition from celestial to terrestrial, from the sacral to profane. The cross-cutting leitmotif of this work is the basis for a detailed analysis of semantics. The uniqueness of the Concert by Poulenc was created by the development of musical thought. Its content is so saturated with imagery and concentrated emotions that it leads to a thriller-like perception.
We are discovering another facet of Poulenc's music already at the stage of comparing the interpretations of the Concert by various organists, conductors and orchestras. It is these two very important perspectives on the evaluative nature of musical art that I want to draw the reader's attention to. Music is a temporary art that carries information and is therefore perhaps the most sophisticated language. But in order to make sure once again, the notes and any other marks by which the composer captures his or her musical thought must be voiced. If it is a solo piece, then there is the possibility of combining the author and artist of the work in one person. But often the performance of a musical composition, as well as the recording of its sound – is the result of collective work. As for voicing orchestral scores, there is no other way than a commonly agreed interpretation.
Francis Poulenc was a superb performing pianist, but he only became acquainted with the organ and its expressive and technical abilities at the time of writing his Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Orchestra, commissioned by Princess Edmond de Polignac. One of the most prominent recent representatives of the French Organ School – composer and organist Maurice Duruflé (1902 – 1986), helped Poulenc with this. He literally created the entire register palette of the Concert, and also became its first performer.
In 1961, Maurice Duruflé, together with the French National Radio Orchestra led by Conductor: Georges Prêtre, at the Past Classics recording studio, 32 years after the premiere of the work at Salon Polignac, demonstrated his profound penetration, his filigree technique of performance and perfect in terms of artistic and aesthetic plan of recording the Concerto for organ, timpani and orchestra. All the numerical interpretations of more or less famous organists, conductors and orchestras can only be compared to the maestro Duruflé reference record.
Let us also try to demonstrate this process briefly. Some analysts suggest squeezing the overall form of the concert into a 4-part sonata-symphonic cycle. However, most researchers are inclined to the 7-part construction, which has the features and inherent symphonic thematic development, and contrasting combinations that resemble the shape of the Concert to a suite. At the same time, the constant return to the menacingly powerful chords of the organ, which plays the role of cadence, creates the impression of rondo type.
I. Andante.It begins with a densely saturated chord of the organ, after which the graceful melody goes unaccompanied in dotted rhythms. The relation between the organ and the timpani is perceived as a duet. This calmness is suddenly invaded by a flicker of trembling strings, which introduces an element of anxiety. This is the appearance of another participant in the whole action. The first section of the Concerto ends with a piercing blow.
To compare the interpretation of the work I offer a selection of organists from different countries of the world who are representatives of different traditions. Among them, in addition to Maurice Duruflé: Spaniard Daniel Oyarzabal and Englishman Jonathan Scott, as well as three organists representing different organ schools: Frenchwoman – Marie-Claire Alain, American – Diana Bish and a Latvian organist living in Germany – Iveta Apkalna. Each of the soloists coped with the imaginative exposition in the introductory Andante concert.
II. Allegro giocoso.The tension of long melodic phrases is revealed in the following Allegro. Here, strings and organ take on the role of a leader with a fleeting melody that breaks through the ever-changing harmonious accompaniment. Thematic work begins on the development of the 1st expository element: the juxtaposition between the chord and the dotted rhythm of the melody. The pace and nature of the theme requires perfect coordination between the organist and the orchestra. Only the conductor can perform this role. The wonderful American organist Diana Bish has taken on this responsibility for unknown reasons. The result was far from perfect.
Instead, all the other soloists who worked with the conductor did not raise any reservations about the coordination in the ensemble.
III. Subito andante moderato.The Andante section suddenly begins the solo organ with a theme of miserable coloration that evokes lyrical response in the strings. This colloquial passage is accompanied by a more somber mood, evoked by disturbing melodies and an unwavering pulse. Poulenc again builds dramatic tension through the thickening of the harmonic vertical. The melody accompanies to the top a number of strict chords of the organ. The main feature of this section is the lyrical dialogue that builds on the juxtaposition of different types of texture in high and low registers.
The development of one melodic line smoothly gives rise to the next – even more sophisticated in character. This process completes the image of the alarm, which comprehensively covers the entire texture with stringed voices for tremolo in the middle register. The organ and the orchestra come together. The image is complemented by desperate upper-register violins.
The aesthetic essence of the content of this part of the concert is laid in carefully verified registration of the organ party. This is not a very simple matter for every organist because there are no two identical organs. And in each case, in particular, the construction of the register picture starts from the lapidary constants. It is interesting to note that the best timbre palette laid by Maurice Duruflé has received its continuation in two opposite directions – in Spanish and Latvian schools. Filigree sophistication of timbre by Daniel Oyarzabal
and Iveta Apkalna
– created their extremely organic unity between soloists and orchestras. This section concludes with a series of dreamy interludes, which prevents the more dynamic development of the subject of the Second Section.
IV. Tempo allegro – Molto agitato. The short Allegro melodic line is penetrated with a French type of thinking, which at the same time carries a clear ripple of tension. The organ chords are now playing the role of a refrain, not just a signal before the start of a new chapter. The solo section of the Concert, which contains all the themes of the work, concludes section 4 of the Concert. Here, listening to the recordings of various artists, the artistry of young English organist Jonathan Scott is particularly striking. His brilliant technique made it possible to fully unravel the semantics of this rich content.
V. Très calme – Lent.The concentrated melody gift was embodied in the fifth Lent tempo movement. The section begins after Tchaikovsky's bright downward melodic passage. This part of the piece is emotionally driven by French Chanson-style motifs. The end of the section is a measured progression of condensed anxiety that results in a cadence on the organ chords in the form of a refrain. This episode is far from being the easiest one in terms of achieving unity between the soloist and the orchestra. However, in this case, Diana Bish was able to masterfully infect the entire orchestra with her incredible energy. Particularly striking here is the solo viola with the support of the organ and the Miami Symphony Orchestra.
VI. Tempo de l'Allegro initial.This episode is full of tension as the throbbing dynamics of the theme itself are not interrupted by any contrasting thematic formations. The tension does not subside, but seems to hang on one level. In this way, Poulenc reveals his own attitude to events in the world that have not left him indifferent for a moment.
Even with the greatest desire of critics to find a flaw or inaccuracy in the interpretation of Marie-Claire Alaine is simply impossible. It impresses the listener in a holistic way, with a wonderful register, perfect phrasing and a innate sense of gallant French stylistics, which is an organic component of the semantics of the Concert for organ, timpani and orchestra by Francis Poulenc.
VII. Tempo introduction – Largo.The literal repetition of a chord with a pulsating line carries all the events of the work to the very beginning. Suddenly it is changed by the image of celestial purity: the flute registers 8 'and 4' in consonant-diatonic sound introduce the listener to a sacral-unearthly state, from which the composer gradually transitions to the full illusion of human voices. This impression is achieved by combining the viola melody with the organ registers: gamba, vox celesta and 8 'burdon. Subsequently, the melody goes to the cello, which also sounds in parallel with the organ in the same organ timbre. The whole episode is accompanied by a measured progress of strings and organ that transforms the image of anxiety into doom and powerlessness. It is a powerlessness in the face of fate.
In my opinion, this episode can be interpreted as one of the most perfect examples in the history of music as the almost conspicuous transition from sacred to profane, from the sphere of conflict-free celestial sounds to our reality, in which Humanity faces cataclysms, struggles, hopes and disappointments.
At this time of relative calm, whether before the storm (and one does shun cataclysms!), or in a nostalgic desire to return to regular working days, I had the opportunity to express my own thoughts and emotions about the events that are important to me personally, to share with former and possibly future concert attendees the experience of my own preparation for performing masterpieces of organ art. And also to evaluate the truly great achievements of both composers and performers – fans of organ art.
Organist soloist Lviv National Philharmonic, Master's degree – Olena Matselyukh
Among the incredible number of organists who consider themselves a part of the honor of performing one of the finest works of the 20th century Concerto for organ, timpani and orchestra of Francis Poulenc, I selected only those who, in my opinion, coped with this task impeccably. Because I do think that not only professionals, but also lovers of organ art should focus on perfection.