Poulenc – Self Quotation in Piano Concerto No. 1 in C# Minor and Piano Sonata for Two Pianos

28 Aug

Poulenc was a master of self-quotation, the compositional practice of taking one idea and recycling it within another work.  His piano works are full of these quotations (1, 2), each carefully embedded in a way that transcends form and gives new meaning to an old idea.  In his first piano concerto, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C-Minor (1949), the main theme is used in one of his later piano works, the Piano Sonata for Two Pianos (FP 156).

Francis Poulenc – Piano Concerto No. 1 in C-Minor – Movement I

The theme of the work  begins in the opening measures of the concerto’s first movement (the opening theme of the concerto sounds explicitly “Russian” to me.  I’ve often mistaken the piece for Rachmaninoff concerto).  It starts by climbing a C#-minor scale to scale degree three (E) and continues to hover around the note, approaching in both great leaps and step-wise motion.  The rhythm in measures 2 & 4 of the E note (2:1:1), is particularly important as we will witness the same rhythm in Poulenc’s Piano Sonata for 2 Pianos.  Finally, we should note the neighboring movement around scale degree 3 in measure 4, as the melody moves from E – F# – E – D Natural before landing on scale degree one, C#.

Francis Poulenc – Piano Sonata For 2 Pianos – Movement II

Click to skip to quotation (Will open another tab/window).

While listening to Poulenc’s Piano Sonata for 2 Pianos, I noticed the second movement contains the theme of his concerto but in a different harmonic context.  The excerpts from this part of the sonata, contain a prolonged A major chord that progresses to an F#-minor chord in Measure 4.  It is in this measure, that we hear the familiar concerto theme in minor delicately placed amongst the major harmony in the previous measures of the sonata.  When the left hand switches to bass clef at the end of the measure 3, Poulenc prepares to move from A major to its relative minor, F# minor. Measure 4 bears the same rhythmic ratios as the concerto theme (2:1:1) , again hovering around scale degree 3 (in A major this is C#).  While that C# pedals for three notes, we then move in stepwise motion just like the concerto theme (C# – D – C# – B – A) before crashing on a massive F# minor chord.

While this theme is not exactly that of the concerto, I believe Poulenc deliberately injected specific components (rhythm and the melodic contour of the concerto theme) into this section of his sonata.  I suppose this means “quotation,” is a misnomer, as it specifies that the reference is intrinsically exact.  As we have seen through other examples, Poulenc’s references are not exact, but rather aesopianon in nature, often taking a hand-full of notes from a theme and implanting them elsewhere.  Ravel claimed Poulenc could write  “his own folk songs,” an observation that I believe reflects a self-nurtured mysticism.  The concert pianist Pascal Rogé who recorded all of Poulenc’s piano work for CD release writes:  “It [Poulenc’s music] is “popular” music in the best sense of the word. The writing is sophisticated, but the language is simple, accessible to all.  Poulenc is neither revolutionary nor academic.  He is Poulenc and that’s all.  He has his own language and he stays faithful to it from his first to his last works.”  Undoubtedly Roge is referring to the melodic sensibility that permeates the composer’s works but I believe Roge’s observation can also be applied to the transparency of these “quotes.”  Poulenc created his own legacy, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for the listener to find and string together.


One Response to “Poulenc – Self Quotation in Piano Concerto No. 1 in C# Minor and Piano Sonata for Two Pianos”

  1. Max June 8, 2013 at 2:34 am #

    The rendition of Piano Sonata for 2 Pianos in the above video is *atrocious.* However, they’re a marketer’s dream.

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