FRANCIS POULENC, a member of the Paris circle of composers known as Les Six together with Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Louis Durey and Germaine Tailleferre, rejected the extremes of music composition, which were intrinsic to Wagner’s “Romantic boundlessness” (Ger. Unendlichkeit), Schoenberg’s „austere asceticism“ and Debussy’s impresionistic „formlessness“. He defended his ideals of spontaneous and natural art both in his vocal music, comprising hundreds of songs, choral opuses and three operas, and in his instrumental output, intended mostly for private perfomances in the narrow circle of his good friends. The composer has repeatedly confessed that symphonic music was not his forte, but in return he was usually successful with the human voice.
Originating from a noble affluent family, Poulenc was the typical Parisian, a witty and intelligent communicator within the circles of the tfrench aristocracy. Having written in 1932 a double piano concerto upon a commission from his admirer and friend Princess Edmond de Polignac, he also responded to her request for another work to be performed in her private, organ-equipped parlour. Poulenc worked for years on end on his Concerto for organ, strings and timpani in G minor, but he never found it sufficiently effective. He eventually produced an opus that adheres to the generic form of the German organ fantasy, with freely alternated sections in various tempos, texture, timbre incorporated into the overall structure. He had Bach, Handel and Mozart as his examples. Two hundred and fifty years after Handel, Poulenc’s concerto was the first work of this kind to find its way into the organ concert repertoire. Although this is a twentieth-century work, it conveys the sensitivity of Romanticism and renders comparisons with the style of Tchaikovsky fully justified.
The premiere took place on 16 December 1938, performed by Maurice Duruflé – organist in the church of St- Étienne-du-Mont in Paris and professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire, and with Nadia Boulanger conducting. Roger Désormière conducted the public perfromance in June 1939 in the Salle Gaveau in Paris. In a letter to Boulanger Poulenc expressed his regret for her absence: „I have missed you so much at the premiere of the concerto. Désormière showed great competemce, but beside that, you possess a heart and a sense of lyricism, and God alone knows how much my music needs that.“
Poulenc himself perceived the concerto had certain emotional ambiguity, stemming from his own personality – bringing together the „gentle, chaste artist“ and the „extravagant bon vivant“.
After the composer’s death it was Benjamin Britten that accentuated Poulenc’s most important character trait – his openness and the frankness of his music: „To the average Englishman, Francis Poulenc‘s music may have appeared that of the typical French composer: witty, daring, sentimental, naughty. In fact Francis was very easily depressed, shockable, unsure, and liable to panic. […] He put a high value on sincerity: he was himself too innocent to be insincere“.