Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc (1899-1963) was a French composer and pianist. Poulenc grew up in a musical household; he started learning the piano with his mother at the age of 5. At his father's insistence, Poulenc followed a conventional school system, studying at the Lycée Condorcet in Paris rather than at a music conservatory. Largely self-educated musically, Poulenc studied piano with Ricardo Viñes from 1914-1917, during which time Viñes acted as piano teacher, mentor and performer of Poulenc’s early compositions. His principal teacher was the eccentric Charles Koechlin, a former pupil of Gabriel Fauré. Poulenc's musical heroes were Stravinsky and Satie. Their neo-classicism, sophistication, and sense of irony are reflected in his music. Poulenc divided most of his life between concertizing in Paris and retreating to compose in Noizay. He gave his first concert tour through the United States in 1948 and continued to return regularly through 1960.
During my time in Paris, I had the opportunity to work with Gabriel Tacchino, who was Francis Poulenc’s only student. With the knowledge and traditions passed on to me, I sincerely hope my humble interpretation will serve as a good reference for future piano instructors and students.
- Congyu Wang
Trois Mouvements perpétuels (1918), FP 14
The "Trois Mouvements perpétuels" were first premiered in Paris in December 1918 by Ricardo Viñes. From 1918 to 1921 Poulenc was serving in the French army, but his duties allowed him time for composition. Cortot described the three movements as "reflections of the ironical outlook of Satie"
Three Novelettes (1927-1928, 1959), FP 47 / 173
The first two were written in 1927 and 1928, the third much later in 1959. Featuring a neo-classical song-like melody in the first and a spontaneous scherzo in the second, the set concludes with a quasi-improvisational reflection on a theme from Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo.
Three Intermezzi (1934, 1943), FP 71 / 118
The first Intermezzo is full of sarcasm; the intentional memory slips are trickier than they sound. Elegantly themed, the second is dedicated to the Countess of Polignac. Undoubtedly the most charming in the set, the third Intermezzo was composed nearly a decade after the first two.
"As for the use of pedals, that is the great secret behind my piano music. One can never use enough pedal, Never enough! Never enough!" – Francis Poulenc
Fifteen Improvisations for piano (1932-1959), FP 63, 113, 170, 176
Poulenc chose to begin the set with a virtuoso flourish, introducing the imaginary figure of an "extemporizing magician". The second is a lyrical waltz; one can easily detect mysterious harmonies that blend major and minor thirds. The third is a rugged march, and in the fourth we hear Poulenc, the great bravura pianist. In the fifth, many complicated harmonies emerge from the juxtaposition of several chromatic notes within one sole rhythmic idea. The sixth sounds like Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos, but played on one piano alone. The seventh is full of warmth and sincerity, like a painting with many smudged colors in the background and the illusion of an object slowly taking form in the foreground. The eighth is an "impish presto"; the ninth is a perpetuum mobile. Meanwhile, the tenth – subtitled "Éloge des Gammes" (‘In Praise of Scales’) – sounds like a warm-up session. The eleventh, lasting only twenty-one measures, is the shortest improvisation in the set. In the twelfth, subtitled "Hommage à Schubert" we hear a fusion of both composers: Schubert and Poulenc. The thirteenth, full of tenderness and regret, is answered by the comforting fourteenth.
The last of the series is "Hommage à Edith Piaf". Perhaps the plane crash on 28 Oct 1949 that claimed the life of boxer Marcel Cerdan, Piaf’s lover, prompted Poulenc’s tribute. Poulenc improvises on the theme "c’est une chanson qui te ressemble.." and left a piano piece as a legacy in her memory, to perpetuate the elegance and charm of a great musical personality.
Mélancolie (1940), FP 105
Although Poulenc’s piano pieces are generally reputed to lie easily under the hand, one needs to acquire a good sense of pedaling and well-balanced color palettes to fully grasp the composer’s intentions and requirements. Composed in 1940, Mélancolie is Poulenc's longest piano solo piece.
Les Chemins de l’amour (1940), FP 106
Especially dedicated to the French actress Yvonne Printemps, this tune was first premiered in Léocadia, a theater play, in December 1940. Here I would like to propose my personal interpretation of what is undeniably one of the most beautiful melodies Poulenc ever wrote.