Poulenc – Self Quotation in Toccata and Improvisation

19 Jun

As I previously analyzed one instance of self-quotation in Poulenc’s piano works, I would like continue the discussion with another example.  In his Toccata from Trois Pieces, Poulenc references a melody from his Improvisation No. 13 in A- Minor.  To begin this analysis, let’s examine the melody from the Improvisation:

Francis Poulenc – Improvisation No. 13 in A-Minor

A sweet and poignant melody stirs up the beginning bars of Poulenc’s thirteenth Improvisation in A Minor.  This theme, outlined in red note heads, reappears in his Toccata in two separate instances:

Francis Poulenc – Toccata from Trois Pieces

example 1:

Although the Improvisation and Toccata share some similar traits (such as containing no sharps or flats signs in the key signature) there are unique differences between the two pieces:

Some noticeable dissimilarities include a) distinct meter and b) melodic resolution of the Improvisation theme.  The Improvisation is in 3/4 time while the toccata changes from 4/4 to 6/4 time.   Thus in order to fill the extra beats in the toccata, Poulenc extended the rhythm of the Improvisation theme.  In the third measure of this toccata excerpt, the note time is doubled to reach the third note of the Improvisation theme (the C an octave above middle C).  Instead of two eighth (1 beat) notes of equal value as presented in the Improvisation, Poulenc uses a half-quarter +  an eighth note (2 beats) to reach that C.  Examining the two themes reveals other rhythmic variations.

Melodically, the theme in the Toccata differs slightly than in the Improvisation: in the Improvisation we see that the theme resolves to a half-cadence on scale-degree five, E (in the key of A minor).  This occurs in measure two on the half note.  In the Toccata however, the theme never reaches an E (scale-degree five) but rather flutters around A (the blue note-heads show movement up to the A [G-A] while the orange note-heads show movement down to the A [B-A]).  Furthermore, the transition to the Improvisation theme is not “prepared” in a sense: rather, it appears after almost out of thin air, after a fast running line of sixteenth notes.  This brief instance of the theme however, foreshadows another appearance  of the Improvisation theme near the end of the Toccata:

example 2:

Much like it’s first appearance, the melody consists of several segments approaching the A with upward and downward movement (again, outlined by the blue and orange note-heads), never reaching the E from the Improvisation theme.  The rich harmony, adds a greater foundation to the melody that is non-exist in both the Improvisation and the earlier reference in the Toccata.  The effect is quite compelling and Poulenc draws these two pieces together in way that is recognizable to the listener, emphasizing the similar keys (A-minor) and scales used (A – Aeolian).

A thought occurred to me that perhaps Poulenc cited the Improvisation theme in his Toccata because both pieces share a similar function: an Improvisation is the synthesis of new material during performance, that is cultivated by drawing upon familiar scales, motives, techniques, etc. that the performer of composer may have at his or her disposal.  In a similar manner, a Toccata involves fast passages of music that are mainly centered around scales.  If Poulenc was drawing upon the same scales, in the same key, perhaps it seemed appropriate to use the same theme.


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