Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: strings, timpani, and solo organ
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 31, 1980, Myung-Whun Chung conducting, with soloist Ladd Thomas
By the time he came to write his Organ Concerto in 1938, Poulenc was no longer much of a joker. His world view had darkened with the political situation in Europe: World War II was only a year off. Also, he had become immersed in the Catholic faith in which he had been brought up, but to which he had paid little more than lip service as a practitioner, despite having composed several religious works.
This religious transformation took place, in Poulenc's own account, in 1936, with the death of his best friend, the young composer and critic Pierre-Octave Ferroud. Poulenc would subsequently make pilgrimages to holy sites and create such magnificent testaments to his faith as the Sept chansons of 1936, and the Mass in G of 1937. Yet he could still find inspiration in the poems of Paul Eluard, which mixed earthly and divine love, rollicking wit, and sentimentality to a degree that Poulenc found irresistible and resulted in some of his finest songs, often introduced with the composer at the piano and the baritone Pierre Bernac, who would be his life's companion, the vocalist.
The year ended, however, with the Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani, commissioned by the Princess Edmond de Polignac, née Winaretta Singer, of the sewing-machine fortune. Henri Hell, Poulenc's biographer, notes that the Baroque associations of the work came as a surprise: Poulenc's backward glances tended to be in the direction of Renaissance music. "It is conceived in the spirit of the organ fantasies of Buxtehude," according to Hell, its seven sections played without a break.
The Concerto opens with a thunderously Gothic, Bach-like andante flourish, followed by an allegro giocoso recalling the impish Poulenc of younger days, leading to a lyrical slow section - a quasi-lamentoso tune of the sort not uncommon in some of the composer's earlier chamber music, where it seems to serve a satirical purpose, which is hardly the case here. "Four alternating quick and slow sections form the remainder of the work" (Hell), with touches of Stravinsky-like ostinato. A wonderful moment is the beatific viola solo, encircled by organ and timpani, near the end of the work.
The first performance of the Concerto was given in the Polignac mansion in Paris early in 1939 (sources vary as to a precise date); the soloist was Maurice Duruflé, a noted composer himself, with Roger Desormière conducting.
— Herbert Glass