Poulenc – Self Quotation and the Melodic Minor Scale

6 Jun

Those who are accustomed with the genre of the Nocturne might be familiar with Chopin’s eminent pieces, twenty-one solo piano compositions that have become a timeless component of modern piano repertoire.  Though I find them to be quite beautiful, several other composers have produced interesting and provocative nocturnes that shy away from Chopin’s standard of rich and moody arrangements.  Francis Poulenc’s set is by no means as cultivated as the respected romantic composer’s work, but his nocturnes with their stylistic diversity and sensitive craft, warrant their own artistic merit.  Poulenc wrote only eight, yet each holds such distinctive sound that as a whole, they encapsulate his transition from late romantic harmony to early modernistic meddling.  The pieces rarely go beyond 2 minutes in length and are often comprised of one or two themes that are often presented in A – B – A form.

My favorite, Nocturne No. 7 in E-Flat major, opens with a beautiful descending c melodic-minor scale:

Francis Poulenc – Nocturne No. 7 in E-Flat Major

In the first measures of this nocturne, Poulenc begins with a descending line of sixteenth notes from the c melodic-minor scale before slowly ascending up and lingering on a high G (this movement marked by the red, blue, and orange note heads).  We will see that Poulenc not only uses this descending melodic-minor scale in other pieces, but also recycles the same rhythmic values of the opening phrase in this nocturne.

One of his more familiar and certainly virtuosic pieces, the Presto in B-flat major, replicates the phrase from measure 2 of the nocturne in E-flat major almost exactly:

Francis Poulenc – Presto in B-Flat Major

The rhythmic values (with the relative ratio of 4:2:1) are consistent in both the nocturne and presto:  beginning with the case of the nocturne, descending sixteenth notes (in red) lead to ascending eighth notes (in blue) and rest on a final quarter (we can combine the dotted eighth and pick-up sixteenth note to the next measure to get a quarter note value) (in orange).  In the case of the presto, descending eighth notes (embellished a bit) (in red), lead to ascending quarter notes (in blue), and rest on a final half note (in orange).  Thus the organization of both phrase and rhythm with the sixteenth:eighth:quarter notes of the nocturne and the eighth:quarter:half notes of the presto, prescribes a  rhythmic congruency between the two pieces in the given ratio of 4:2:1.

What is peculiar about Poulenc’s  quotation in the presto, is that the nocturne theme is not exactly replicated.  Though the rhythmic values appear uniform, the melodic shape in the presto is a variant of the nocturne.  As previously mentioned, Poulenc begins his seventh nocturne by descending down a c melodic-minor scale.  In the presto, it is indeed a minor scale, but this time Poulenc uses a f melodic-minor scale!  Thus, the theme has been transposed to fit the harmonic demands of the presto.

As Poulenc has a tendency to repeat phrase structure in a serial manner (which I will write about at a later date), it is surprising that the citation in the presto is not immediately reproduced or reconstructed elsewhere in the piece.  It merely comes and goes for a single measure, and those unfamiliar with his seventh nocturne might miss the opportunity to contextualize this quotation.  Therefore, it appears Poulenc is expectant of his audience to be familiar with his repertoire in order to achieve a complete understanding of this work.  I offer three explanations on how or why the presto contains a only single instance of the nocturne theme:

1. It is a quotation of the nocturne theme

As explicitly stated, I believe Poulenc drew upon previous material from the nocturne to embellish the presto and entertain his audience in an “intellectual” way.  Self-Quotation is not uncommon practice in classical music!

2. It is a earmark of Poulenc’s composition

Poulenc might not have deliberately connected the two pieces through self-quotation , but unconsciously incorporated material from one piece into the other.  It is these habits, these subtle liasons between different musics, that comprise a composer’s “style” or “voice.”  It is what we would say when we hear a musical idea that “sounds like something Beethoven” or “seems reminiscent of Mozart.”

3. The nocturne could have been derived from that single measure in the presto

Though I have argued that the presto contains ideas from the nocturne, perhaps the reverse occurred:  Poulenc might haven taken the one measure of the presto and expanded on the idea to write his Nocturne No. 7.  Checking the publications dates of the pieces might be useful in determining which piece may have been written first.

Shortly after I  wrote this analysis, I found a similar use of the melodic-minor scale in Poulenc’s Suite for Piano.  As soon as I acquire the sheet music, I will post my thoughts.

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