About this Recording
8.573170 - POULENC, F.: Ballet Suites for Piano - Les animaux modèles / Les Biches / Aubade (Armengaud)
English  French 

Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
Ballet Suites: Les Biches • Aubade • Les Animaux modèles


Poulenc was born in Paris on 7 January 1899 into a well-known family of industrialists. A Parisian musician, but one with close links to the regions of Burgundy and the Touraine, he followed in the French tradition of Chabrier, his writing brimming with subtlety, humour and genuine emotion, piquant harmonies and a rhythmic lightness. He first encountered Stravinsky’s music in 1910, and between 1914 and 1917 studied piano with Ricardo Viñes. In 1915 he met Milhaud and then, through Viñes, got to know Auric and Satie as well. By 1917 he was a regular at Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop near the Odéon theatre, and there came into contact with the poets Apollinaire, Fargue, Éluard and Aragon. In the same year he also met Radiguet, Honegger, Durey, Germaine Tailleferre and Cocteau, who was to become the promoter of the group known as ‘Les Six’. Between 1921 and 1924 Poulenc studied composition with Koechlin. Unlike Milhaud, with whom he travelled to Rome in 1921 and Central Europe the following year, he was no globe-trotter, although between 1935 and 1959, as pianist with his duo partner baritone Pierre Bernac, he did undertake a number of foreign tours, notably to the United States from 1948 onwards. He never held any official academic or administrative position.

Poulenc’s most accomplished works, despite all his operatic, concerto and chamber successes, are his songs and his sacred and secular choral music, both with and without orchestra. He happily admitted in 1942 to André Schaeffner: “I know very well that I am not an innovative musician like Stravinsky, Debussy or Ravel, but I think there’s a place for new music that is happy to use the chords created by others.”

Poulenc wrote three ballets to commission. On the subject of dance, he said, “For me, dance of course means nothing but classical dance, because I’m a sworn enemy of any kind of rhythmic dance or rhythmic pseudo-dance; I owe my love of classical dance to the years I spent working closely with Dyaghilev.” He himself wrote the scenario for each of his own ballets, explaining his personal approach to choreographic creation as follows: “I write my own libretto, and I cannot imagine creating a ballet in any other way; for the tale of the ballet is born at the same time as the movement of the music.”

It is unusual to hear these ballet scores performed on the piano. It was the nature of the beast that the original form a dance composition took was the “piano score”—the music had to be made available as quickly as possible to enable the choreography to be developed and rehearsals to begin. The contract for the Aubade commission, for example, which came from the Viscount and Viscountess of Noailles, clearly stipulated that the solo piano score had to be delivered by March 1929—two months before the orchestral version.

Poulenc was also well aware that, for him, the piano played an indispensable rôle in the compositional process, and he certainly never concealed the fact that these piano versions came first. They reflect the original creative impulses behind the ballets, and it is therefore debatable whether they should be thought of as “reductions”.

Dyaghilev first singled out the young Poulenc as early as 1918, probably on the wise advice of Stravinsky. A letter from Poulenc to the impresario dated 15 November 1921 mentions that he would supply the piano score of Les Biches (The Coquettes) by October 1922, before the orchestral version. In fact, he seems not to have begun work on the composition until July 1922, once he, Dyaghilev and designer Marie Laurencin had agreed on the setting for the ballet, and the orchestration was only done a year later, between July and September 1923. The music for the ballet comprises nine numbers, three of which also feature a chorus. The suite performed here comprises the six piano pieces from the vocal score. Four of them (here Nos. I, II, III and V) seem to have been published separately as early as 1924, under the generic title Morceaux détachés. In 1928, Poulenc recorded two of them (II and III) for Columbia. The length of the Rag-Mazurka and perhaps also the rich complexity of its piano writing may explain why it was not selected for publication, despite its obvious musical attractions.

Poulenc noted, “There is no plot, as such, for Les Biches. Dyaghilev’s idea was to stage a kind of modernized Sylphides, in other words, a ballet of atmosphere.” The ballet is an updated version of the fêtes galantes, in which “twenty or so beautiful and coquettish women frolic with three athletic fellows in rowing costumes”.

Stylistically, the work draws on French eighteenth-century song (Rondeau), makes exotic reference to ragtime (Rag-Mazurka) and reveals influences both classical (Mozart and Schubert) and modern (Stravinsky and Prokofiev), while the composer told Claude Rostand that the Adagietto was inspired by a variation from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty.

Aubade (Dawn Song) is subtitled “choreographic concerto for piano and eighteen instruments”, indicating both a synthesis of means of expression and the dual destinations of stage and concert hall. Imbued throughout with a “general sorrow”, it was written at a time when Poulenc was deeply depressed, following a rejection in his personal life. “At a time when I was experiencing great sadness, I found that my pain was at its worst at dawn, because it meant I was going to have to get through another awful day. Wanting to convey this impression with some sense of distance, I chose Diana as my symbolic heroine. This goddess, this magnificent woman, was condemned to eternal chastity in the company of other women, with no distraction other than hunting.”

Initially conceived in July 1928 and almost abandoned the following February when the composer’s depression was at its worst, Aubade was then quickly completed in May and June 1929. Poulenc emphasized how much the initial scenario had influenced its form. A virtuoso Toccata opens a succession of pieces of varying character—dramatic (the recitatives), folk song-like (Rondeau), a blend of incisive “Scarlattian” liveliness and wonderfully affable Schubertian harmonies (Presto), sincere Mozartian innocence (Andante) and harsh, almost Bartókian dissonances (Allegro feroce). In the solo piano score the Conclusion includes a supplementary line with the unusual marking “3rd hand”, in which an A minor motif is repeated twenty-eight times. This has been incorporated here, using overdubbing techniques.

The piano suite from Les Animaux modèles (The Model Animals) was excerpted, with the composer’s approval, by American pianist Grant Johannesen (1921–2005), who had studied with Robert Casadesus and Egon Petri. In 1950 Johannesen was invited to play at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. On 24 July of the same year, Poulenc was due to give the European première of his Piano Concerto, first heard a few months earlier in Boston, and was meticulously preparing with daily rehearsals. He asked Johannesen to play the second, orchestral piano part. Between rehearsals, Johannesen told the composer how much he admired the music of Les Animaux modèles and the qualities of its piano score. He expressed a desire to create a suite from the ballet which would enable the best sections of the score to be more easily included in a concert programme. Poulenc agreed, acknowledging that there was a lot of music well suited to the piano within the score, which he had composed between August 1940 and September 1941. Johannesen’s initial arrangement was written in 1951; this was more concise than his final version, which he revised in 1975, and which was only published in 1984.

Orchestrated between October 1941 and June 1942, the ballet received its première during the Occupation, at the Paris Opéra on 8 August 1942, directed by Roger Désormière and with choreography by Serge Lifar. Its plot was inspired by six of La Fontaine’s fables, freely mixed and matched. In Poulenc’s words: “The grasshopper has become an ageing ballerina, the ant an old provincial housemaid, the amorous lion a pimp, Death an elegant woman—a kind of duchess with a mask”. The opening and closing pieces are similar in terms of their musical content, and act as a framing device for the action of the ballet, which unfolds in a rural setting over the space of a single morning. Here again, different musical styles are brought together in delightful fashion—passionate “grand piano” writing set against the “bad boy’s” waltz-java in Le Lion amoureux, the verve of the Offenbachian can-can in L’Homme entre deux âges et ses deux maîtresses, Mussorgskyan turns of phrase in La Mort et le Bûcheron and a deliberate borrowing from Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 in Les Deux Coqs. All these musical traces, filtered through the composer’s sophisticated personality, illustrate to perfection the diversity and sheer inventiveness of his expressive palette.

© 2014 Gérald Hugon
English translation by Susannah Howe

Close the window