Mozart in Paris
Francis Poulenc 1899-1963
Francis Poulenc
1899-1963
Francis Poulenc
Les biches (The Does), Orchestral Suite

Francis Poulenc was one of the youngest members of the six young French composers of the 1920s, disciples of the iconoclastic Erik Satie, known as Le groupe des six. Their only uniting credo was the right to express themselves in their own way. On the one hand they resisted what they considered the “phony sublimity” of the Romantic style, especially the legacy of Wagner, which Satie called “sauerkraut music.” On the other, they rejected the “vagueness” of Debussy’s Impressionism. Their goal was, as Poulenc wrote, to create music that was “clear, healthy and robust – music as overtly French in spirit as Stravinsky’s Petrushka is Russian.”

Poulenc came from a wealthy family of pharmaceuticals manufacturers (the forerunners of France’s giant chemical conglomerate Rhône-Poulenc SA). He was regarded as the black sheep of the family, although his artistic tendencies were supported by his mother, if not his industrialist father. At least the family fortune allowed him to follow his muse. Urbane, sophisticated, witty and easy-going, the model of the Paris boulevardier whose idea of a day in the country was a stroll down the Champs Élysées, he reflected his public persona in his music. His style owed much to Ravel’s impressionism and to neoclassicism, always with a clear sense of melody and a sense of humor. He never participated in the musical experimentation with atonality and serialism so popular among his colleagues in Paris between the world wars and after. In the 1930s his music became more serious as he turned increasingly to religious subjects, the first the Litanies à la vierge noire (Litanies to the Black Madonna) composed in 1936.

Les biches, composed on commission from Sergey Diaghilev and the Ballets russes in 1923, was Poulenc’s first work to achieve international recognition. Inspired by the paintings of Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) depicting Louis XV and various young women frolicking in his Parc aux biches, choreographer Bronislava Nijinska explored the sexual mores of the roaring 20s in a house party. The cast of characters included the hostess, three “athletes,” an innocent “girl in blue,” a couple of lesbians and a Greek chorus. Poulenc described the scene as, “a contemporary drawing room party suffused with an atmosphere of wantonness, which you sense if you are corrupted, but of which an innocent-minded girl would not be conscious.”

In 1939 Poulenc re-orchestrated the ballet and extracted the orchestral suite of five movements by omitting the overture and the three movements with chorus.
1. Rondeau: Party guests flirt and chatter. Three athletes enter the scene. Example 1

2. Adagietto: The Girl in Blue attracts one of the athletes. Example 2

3. Rag-Mazurka: The Hostess, sporting ropes of pearls and a cigarette holder, dances to this music that is neither quite a true rag nor a true mazurka. Example 3 & Example 4

4. Andantino: Two pas de deux, one for one of the athletes and the Girl in Blue harks back to a minuet of the time of Louis XV; the other for the two “Sapphists.” Example 5

5. Presto: The party starts to swing. Example 6

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
1756-1791
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-flat major, K. 450

Mozart composed a total of 28 solo keyboard concertos, most of them for his own use in subscription concerts in Vienna. Consequently, the timing of their composition was influenced by the artistic climate and the economic well being of the city. In the short period between 1782 and 1786, with a booming economy, aristocratic families vied with one another to underwrite and sponsor concerts of the latest music in fashion. During those flush years, Mozart was in great demand both as a composer and performer at the keyboard, composing 17 concertos, including this one in E-flat major. “Concertos,” Mozart wrote his father, “are a happy medium between what is too hard and too easy...pleasing to the ear...without being vapid.”

Nevertheless, however successful a composer of instrumental music might be, the prestige and the money were in opera. Although Mozart had been composing operas since childhood, after 1786, he was eager to be seen more as an opera composer than a performer. He began to devote his efforts and his genius to that more lavish and lucrative genre. The fruits of his labor were his three great comic operas with libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosí fan tutte, as well as more traditional opera seria, La clemenza di Tito and, of course, The Magic Flute.

Mozart’s new operatic goals may also have been forced by the changing social, economic and political environment. Opera was staged under royal patronage and supported with royal money, while concerts in aristocratic homes were greatly affected by the economic climate. By the late 1780s the Austro-Hungarian Empire was experiencing a severe economic decline, the result of internal rebellions and a war with Turkey, a continual menace on its Eastern frontier. Moreover, the revolutionary events in France terrified the Austrian Emperor, who rescinded his earlier liberal reforms and reintroduced various repressive measures. The resulting atmosphere led to a stifling of cultural life and a decline in patronage and public concerts. Consequently, Mozart composed only two piano concertos in the last five years of his life.

Mozart described the Concerto in B-flat Major, K. 450, together with its companion in D Major, K.451, as concertos “…to make the performer sweat.” They are virtuoso works composed specifically for his own use. He premiered the B-flat Concerto at the Burgtheater in March 1784.

The Concerto is so sparsely orchestrated that it almost qualifies as chamber music. Mozart dedicates a hefty percentage of the opening movement to the rapid runs and arpeggios that he may have been referring to when he talked about the “sweating” performer. These flourishes and embellishments result in a relatively long movement, including an unnotated (improvised) cadenza. The double exposition Example 1 comprises two different subsidiary themes for orchestra and soloist. Example 2 Example 3 The piano’s exposition also opens with a mini-cadenza before it settles down to the main theme. Example 4 The development is also extensive.

The Andante is a set of variations, but a very subtle one, relying less on showy pianistic display than on subtle changes in orchestration that set up a constant dialogue with the piano. Example 5

The Rondo/sonata finale in 6/8 includes a post horn motive. Example 6 The episodes feature the soloist with more sweat-inducing passagework plus another improvised cadenza.
Francis Poulenc
Concert champêtre (pastoral) for Harpsichord and Orchestra

Francis Poulenc was one of the youngest members of the six young French rebel composers of the 1920s, disciples of the iconoclastic Erik Satie, known as Le groupe des six. Their only uniting credo was the right to express themselves in their own personal way. They resisted what they considered the “phony sublimity” of the Romantic style, especially the legacy of Wagner, which Satie called “sauerkraut music.” Their goal was, as Poulenc wrote, to create music that was “clear, healthy and robust – music as overtly French in spirit as Stravinsky’s Petrushka is Russian.”

Poulenc came from an affluent family of pharmaceuticals manufacturers (the forerunners of France’s giant chemical conglomerate Rhône-Poulenc SA) and was considered the black sheep of the family. Urbane, sophisticated, witty and easy-going, the model of the Paris boulevardier whose idea of a day in the country was a stroll down the Champs Élysées, his public persona was reflected in his music. But in his late 30s, his music became more serious as he turned increasingly to religious subjects. His style owed much to Ravel’s impressionism and to neoclassicism, always with a clear sense of melody. He never participated in atonal or serial music so popular among his colleagues in Paris between the wars and after.

Composed in 1927-28, the Concert champêtre was Poulenc’s first concerto. It was inspired by famed harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, whom Poulenc had met in the salon of Princess Edmond de Polignac (née Singer, as in sewing machines). “It was an event of major importance in my career,” Poulenc wrote. The “pastoral” in the title referred to the ‘rustic suburbs, especially to the music room in Landowska’s garden.

To say that the Concerto is eccentric is putting it mildly. To begin with, Poulenc pitted the gentle sound of the harpsichord against a commensurate orchestra with a large percussion section. It adheres to no recognizable structure or musical style, weaving in and out of dissonant and tuneful passages; in fact, the first movement seems more a stream of consciousness, perhaps reflecting the moods evoked by the garden itself. It opens with a slow “introduction,” Example 1 leading into an Allegro molto theme and sounds as if it will proceed with a standard sonata form. Example 2 Instead, Poulenc introduces a string of melodies, some sounding as if they are extracted from French folk songs. Example 3 In the middle, the pace slows to a crawl and the dissonances increase, but there is a slightly humorous quality as the blaring brass is echoed by an understated instrument that cannot control its dynamics, Example 4 Example 5 until he returns at the conclusion to the folksy Allegro theme.

The Andante settles down considerably into a lilting cantilena, Example 6 a subdued cadenza occurs about halfway through. Example 7 At the end, Poulenc returns to the original melody, varying n so that it builds to an emotive climax. Example 8

You can’t have a French harpsichord piece without paying tribute to the French Baroque masters, François Couperin (Le grand) and Jean Philippe Rameau. In the rondo Finale, Poulenc goes for Baroque. Within the first few measures, he captured the essence of his forebears, including a few mini-quotes. Example 9 But Poulenc in this piece can’t seem to stay on message. True, he has used the rondo as a baroque ritornello, but the episodes sound more like Stravinsky’s Petrushka than Rameau. Example 10 Add to that all the changes in tempo and style, the mood swings including a surprisingly wistful cadenza at the end, and we’re in for a wild ride.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Symphony No. 31 in D major, K.297, “Paris”

In 1777 Mozart set out with his mother on a grand tour of Germany and France, ending up in Paris where his mother suddenly died. The trip turned into a financial disaster as well: no court appointments; few substantive commissions; and, because of his long absence, dismissal from his post with the Salzburg court orchestra. As for the Parisians, they mostly ignored him, while he repaid them in kind. Scathing letters home show how he despised the Parisians and their musical culture.

Compared to his usual pace, Mozart also composed few major works during that time. One of the most significant was the Symphony in D major. It was commissioned by Joseph Le Gros, the impresario of the foremost orchestral concert series in Paris, the Concerts spirituels, whose large orchestra was the pride of the city. The orchestra had a large and well-disciplined wind section, including clarinets, and this is the first symphony in which Mozart used this relatively new instrument. On the other hand, he found the strings sounded abominable, claiming to fear for the life of his symphony.

Nevertheless, the premiere went well with repeated applause. To conform to Parisian taste, the Symphony has only three movements. Considering that fact that most composers of this period were writing rather standard sonata form first movements, ABA slow movements, and rondo finales, the Symphony is amazingly innovative, particularly in its proliferation of melodies,

In the first movement alone, Mozart trots out a composite theme that cycles through with six separate and distinct melodies, leading one to question "what is a theme anyway?" Example 1 & Example 2 The six short tunes can best be though of as a "theme group," which belongs together because all the separate entitities are in the same key. But the pompous opening melody is the musical glue that Mozart uses as a refrain between many of the new musical ideas and with which he concludes the movement. A second theme group consisting of six more melodies is in the expected dominant key (A major) which is maintained through the exposition. Example 3 The opening motive opens the brief development, which then sets off on a new melody entirely. Example 4 The recapitulation begins back all the melodies from the exposition, this time in the tonic key.

The graceful Andante heard today is a replacement for the original one, which did not please Le Gros, who found it too long and with too many modulations. Mozart seldom wrote straightforward ternary (ABA) slow movements, and this one abounds with musical ideas, which like the first movement consists mostly of short motives strung together into longer themes. The little opening motive operates in a similar fashion to the opening idea in the first movement. Example 5 It returns after a "B" section of new music Example 6 & Example 7 and before a "C" section of still more new music. Example 8 Naturally, it also closes the movement. Notice that in this movement, the mood and nature of the themes is constant, the variations created by changes in melody, key and mode. Other of the composer's symphonic slow movements, especially in the later symphonies, create more operatic drama in the middle sections.

The finale contains one of those surprises that Joseph Haydn so gleefully inserted into his own symphonies. It opens with whispering strings, but suddenly bursts forth with a grand tutti Example 9 that elicited surprise and thunderous applause at the premiere. It is a stormy sonata allegro movement with spiky leaps. Example 10 The second theme is a canon, combined later in the development with a fugue so that the two play simultaneously. Example 11
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017