Concerto for two pianos (Poulenc)

Concerto for two pianos (Poulenc)

Francis Poulenc's Concerto for two pianos in D minor, FP 61, was commissioned by and dedicated to the Princess Edmond de Polignac and composed over the period of three months in the summer of 1932. The work has three movements: Allegro ma non troppo, Larghetto, and Allegro molto. The premiere was given on September 5, 1932, at the International Society for Contemporary Music in Venice. Poulenc and his childhood friend Jacques Février were concerto soloists with the La Scala Orchestra, with Désiré Defauw (later conductor of the Chicago Symphony) conducting. Poulenc was gratified by the warm acclaim his work received, and later performed the concerto with Benjamin Britten in England in 1945. The Concerto for Two Pianos often described as the last work of Poulenc’s early period. The composer himself wrote to the Belgian musicologist Paul Collaer: "You will see for yourself what an enormous step forward it is from my previous work and that I am really entering my great period." [1]

The concerto's recurring moto perpetuo, modally inflected figurations are clearly inspired by Poulenc's encounter with a Balinese gamelan at the 1931 Exposition Coloniale de Paris.[2] Additionally, the work's instrumentation and "jazzy" effects are reminiscent of Ravel's G major Concerto, which was premiered at Paris in January 1932. Inevitably, comparisons have been drawn with Mozart’s Concerto in E-flat for two pianos, K. 365, but the slow movement Larghetto's graceful, classically simple melody and gentle, regular accompaniment have reminded some writers of the slow movement of Mozart's C major Piano Concerto, K. 467. Poulenc wrote in a letter to Igor Markevitch, "Would you like to know what I had on my piano during the two months gestation of the Concerto? The concertos of Mozart, those of Liszt, that of Ravel, and your Partita".[3]



The orchestra for this concerto is made up of the following instruments: violins, violas, violoncellos, double bass, flute, piccolo, two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, two French horns, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, shallow snare drum, snare drum, bass drum, castanets, triangle, military drum, suspended cymbal, and two solo pianos.


1. Allegro ma non troppo. Poulenc chooses to bypass the conventions of sonata allegro in the opening movement in favor of ternary form, with a slower middle section. If this first movement is meant to evoke Mozart, it is the blithe composer of the delightful Divertimenti and Serenades. The general affect is “gay and direct,” words Poulenc often used to describe his own music. The concerto features simple ABA form in the first and second movements, but suggests a more complex rondo form with intervening episodes in the finale.

2. Larghetto. In the gently rocking, consciously naive Larghetto, Poulenc evokes the famous Andante from Mozart’s C Major Concerto, K. 467 (known as the "Elvira Madigan" movement). The increasingly sonorous, steadily building middle section echoes the spirit of Camille Saint-Saëns, who, though indefatigably French, could in his serious moments be among the most Mozartean of 19th-century composers. Poulenc commented, "In the Larghetto of this Concerto I permitted myself, for the first theme, to return to Mozart, because I have a fondness for the melodic line and I prefer Mozart to all other musicians. If the movement begins alla Mozart, it quickly diverges at the entrance of the second piano, toward a style that was familiar to me at the time." [4]

3. Allegro molto. Poulenc’s finale is a syncretic Rondo that merges the insouciance of a Parisian music hall and the mesmerizing sonorities of a gamelan orchestra. Its scintillating patter and energetic rhythms produce a vivacious, effervescent effect. As did his idol Mozart, Poulenc favors us with profligate melodious invention, featuring a new theme for nearly each succeeding section. His biographer Henri Hell has observed, "the finale flirts with one of those deliberately vulgar themes never far from the composer’s heart." [5]

As brilliant as it sounds, the Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos demands of its piano soloists more skills of ensemble than of technique. Although the pianos intersperse conversational interludes, conventional cadenzas are absent. Throughout the concerto, the pianists play nearly continuously, sometimes unaccompanied by the orchestra. Poulenc creates a dramatic yet charming dialogue between the two keyboards and the supporting orchestra ensemble. Unusually, his orchestration foregrounds the woodwinds, brass and percussion, relegating the strings to an unfamiliar secondary role.


Poulenc’s generally light style is marked by a range of traits: simple, tuneful melodic ideas of narrow range and short duration; lively rhythmic content often using ostinatos and a fluidity of changing meters; clear, transparent textures with little contrapuntal writing; an essentially diatonic tonal language spiced by some dissonance; and clear forms, occasionally involving cyclical recall of thematic material.

—Musicologist Michael Thomas Roeder [6]

The opening has a sonata-form exposition and recapitulation along with bits of once-popular chansons (like croutons in salad) that complement the composer's own jaunty first and second subjects. The slow, sighing central section replaces a development group before Poulenc returns to the boulevards and boites.

The Larghetto pays homage to Mozart throughout... at one point Piano I leads in effect a musette, as if on a toy piano. The middle section becomes more impassioned, building to a sonorous climax before calm is restored.

Returning to the mood of the first movement, the finale begins with percussive flourishes before it takes off like an Alfa-Romeo in a Grand prix through the avenues and allées of day-and-night Paris, past marching bands and music halls. There is, however, an interlude lyrique et romantique when the Alfa stops for a bedroom tryst, where perfume and perspiration mix with the smoke from Gauloises, after which the race resumes, even more racily.

—Roger Dettmer,[7]


  1. ^ 1 October 1832 letter in Francis Poulenc, Correspondance 1910-1963, Myriam Chimènes, ed. (Paris: Fayard 1994) p. 32, note 19 (Poulenc 1991, no. 121)
  2. ^ Carl B. Schmidt, Entrancing muse: a documented biography of Francis Poulenc, Pendragon Press (November 2001), p. 196.
  3. ^ Fragment of Poulenc’s Sept. 1932 letter to Markevitch in Poulenc (1994) p. 368, note 1.
  4. ^ Claude Rostand, Entretiens avec Claude Rostand (Paris: Rene Juillard 1954) p. 83.
  5. ^ Henri Hell, Francis Poulenc (trans. from the French and introduced by Edward Lockspeiser, 1959), p. 61.
  6. ^ Michael Thomas Roeder. A History of the Concerto (New York: Amadeus Press 2003) p. 362.
  7. ^ Chris Woodstra, Gerald Brennan, Allen Schrott, eds. All music guide to classical music: the definitive guide to classical music (New York: Backbeat Books 2005), p. 1020.

External links

  • Pianopedia page [1]
  • San Francisco Symphony program notes [2]
  • CSO program notes [3]
  • Classical Archives page [4]
  • New World Symphony program notes [5]

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