Analysis of Francis Poulenc’s Concerto en Sol Mineur

By Isaac Drewes


Francis Poulenc’s Concerto en Sol Mineur for strings, timpani, and organ uses neoclassical[1] techniques prominently, and although not explicitly sacred, it is a piece with religious significance. Many scholars and primary sources have written extensively on these two important elements of Poulenc’s concerto, but few have sought to connect them. However, this connection is critical to understanding the piece as it functions within the broader context of Poulenc’s output. Often, for French composers, neoclassicism operates in a nationalist context. However, in this case, Poulenc uses neoclassical techniques as an expression of religious piety in a work that pays homage to other great composers of religious music.

Poulenc wrote this concerto as a commission for the Princesse de Polignac, Winnaretta Singer-Polignac.[2] Singer had a love for the music of J. S. Bach, and this showed up in many of the works she commissioned, including the Poulenc concerto. Poulenc, not knowing the specifics of organ technique, and in particular, how to register, turned to Maurice Duruflé for help. However, Duruflé did not choose the registrations – instead, Poulenc would suggest a certain timbre, Duruflé would suggest the appropriate registration, and Poulenc would accept or reject it.[3] In this way, the registrations in the score can be seen as Poulenc’s work. Winnaretta Singer’s salon had and organ built by Cavaillé-Coll in 1892, and altered by Victor Gonzales in 1933. The specification is similar to that of a French church with a Cavaillé-Coll, only smaller.[4]

In April, 1936, Poulenc wrote to Singer that the concerto was almost finished.[5] This turned out not to be the case, however. Singer wanted the work to be premiered on June 20, 1938, on a concert alongside a work of Jean Françaix, with Nadia Boulanger directing both works. However, Poulenc objected to this[6] and it was not until December 16, 1938 Duruflé performed the private premier in Singer’s Salon, under the baton of Nadia Boulanger.[7] Six months later, the first public performance took place, again with Duruflé at the organ, but with Roger Désormièr conducting, at the Salle Gaveau. The premier was well received by critics, though it was not performed very often in France thereafter.[8] Poulenc, looking back at his own works, saw this as a good example of his “serious” side, and expressed dismay that it was not performed more often in France for that reason.[9]

The form of Poulenc’s concerto is modeled after Dietrich Buxtehude’s extended organ works.[10] These works were usually through-composed and sectionalized, combining stylus fantasticus and stylus gravis. As an example, his Praeludium in D Major, BuxWV 139[11] begins and ends with sections of fairly free writing, open to interpretation, creative registration, and tempo fluctuation, and has a fugue and adagio between them that is in a more strict style. Poulenc’s concerto,[12] though it does not follow the same formal scheme as Buxtehude’s work, does follow the same spirit. Between the opening and closing sections (beginning-3, and 45-48 respectively[13]), there are four sections (4-12, 13-22, 27-36, 37-44), with transitional material in between sections 2 and 3 (23-26). Like the Buxtehude, the content of the sections does not fit neatly within prescriptive archetypes, such as prelude and fugue, theme and variations, etc, but is more free-form.

Poulenc also draws inspiration from J. S. Bach. As Keith Daniel points out,[14] the opening of the concerto (beginning-3), and the closing section (45-end) utilize a theme very similar to the opening of J.S. Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542.[15] Given that both pieces are in G minor, this is likely intentional, especially given Winaretta Singer’s love of Bach. Poulenc draws on some French baroque idioms as well. At rehearsal figure 13, Poulenc places the melody in the tenor register on the clarinette stop. This is similar to the french récit de cromorne en taille in which the cromorne (a short resonator reed stop similar in timbre to the clarinette) is placed in the tenor with the melody.[16] This, combined with the usage of notes inégales (written out as dotted 8th – 16th) points to the French classical (baroque) organ tradition. There is also a sense of medieval modality five bars after rehearsal figure 45.[17]

An element of neoclassicism was guaranteed, to a certain extent, by the patronage of Winnaretta Singer, since she loved Bach. However, the amount and specificity of neoclassical techniques demands a broader explanation than Singer’s personal tastes. The concerto does not seem to be an example of musical “Frenchness” or nationalism, as is the case for Ravel’s Toumbeau de Couperin in which each movement is dedicated to a fallen French soldier from World War I. There is no research or correspondence connecting Poulenc’s concerto to a nationalist agenda.[18] Additionally, Poulenc used a string orchestra, which, through the lens of nationalism, which would seem too sentimental and too German.

Instead, the neoclassical element is more of a manifestation of religiosity.        In August of 1936, Poulenc returned to Catholicism,[19] after a period from 1920-1935 when he was “very little concerned” with matters of faith. This was caused by the tragic death of his colleague Pierre-Octave Ferroud. Poulenc states that he began composing his Litanies à la Vierge noire that very evening.[20] It was only the spring before when he was likely to have started composing his concerto.[21] Given that the composition of the concerto took two years, it is likely that the events of August 1936 had an impact on his composition. Additionally, while there is nothing explicitly sacred about this work, and its premiers were all in secular venues, Poulenc said in an interview that “by confining my concerto to strings and three timpani, I’ve made it possible to perform in church.” In the same interview, he categorizes the concerto “on the margins” of his sacred music.[22]

Since Poulenc uses neoclassicism in a work which is religiously oriented, to a certain extent, this neoclassicism is an expression of religious piety and devotion. Poulenc’s emulation of composers who wrote chiefly for the church (Bach and Buxtehude), the timing of its composition which coincides with his religious awakening, and his own remarks on the piece and the place it holds in his œvre support this conclusion. Through his use of baroque techniques and styles, Poulenc creates a piece of music which straddles the line between sacred and secular, and holds significance in both spheres.


[1] Neoclassicism is a vague and often problematic term. In the context of this paper, it will refer to the use of techniques associated with baroque and pre-baroque composers within the context of 20th century works.

[2] Hell, Henri. Francis Poulenc. London: J. Calder, 1959, 56.

[3] Duruflé, Maurice. “Poulenc’s Organ Concerto,” Music 22, Vol. 8 No. 7, 1974.

[4] Ebrecht, Ronald. “Poulenc and Duruflé ‘premiers’ in Woolsey Hall at Yale University and the Polignac organ.” The Diapason 19-20, January 2010.

[5] Poulenc, Francis, and Myriam Chimènes. Correspondance, 1910-1963. [France]: Fayard, 1994, 414.

[6] Poulenc and Chimènes 462-63.

[7] Kahan 353

[8] Duruflé

[9] Poulenc, Francis, Nicolas Southon, and Roger Nichols. Francis Poulenc, Articles and Interviews: Notes From the Heart. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014, 236.

[10] Hell 64. Though the author uses the word “fantasias” to describe the subset of Buxtehude’s works after which Poulenc’s concerto is modeled, Buxtehude actually never wrote any organ works entitled “fantasia.” Here, I am inferring that hell is referring to Buxtehude’s major organ works, most often called “Praeludium” or “Toccata.” As an umbrella term for this which excludes Buxtehude’s chorale based works, I use “extended organ works.”

[11] Buxtehude, Dietrich. Praeludium, BuxWV139. Breitkopf & Härtel, Wiesbaden, Leipzig, Paris, 1997. Vol. 1, 25.

[12] Poulenc, Francis. Concerto En Sol Mineur, Pour Orgue, Orchestre à Cordes Et Timbales. Paris: Editions Salabert, 1939.

[13] Refers to rehearsal figures in the score. Sections are inclusive of the material in the last figure.

[14] Daniel, Keith W. Francis Poulenc, His Artistic Development and Musical Style. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1982, 156.

[15] Bach, Johann Sebastian. Orgelwerke. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1958, vol. 5, 167.

[16] “Appendix C.: Instructions for Registration (1636–1770), in English Translation”. 1969. “Appendix C.: Instructions for Registration (1636–1770), in English Translation”. In The Language of the Classical French Organ: A Musical Tradition Before 1800, New and Expanded Edition, 197. Yale University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt32bwbb.16.

[17] Mellers, Wilfrid. Francis Poulenc. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

[18] This is not meant to be an absolute statement – I simply have not come across any such research or evidence.

[19] Daniel 156

[20] Poulenc et al 233-234.

[21] Daniel 156

[22] Poulenc et al 236.