CONCERTO FOR TWO PIANOS AND ORCHESTRA was composed over the period of three months in the summer of 1932 and is often described as the climax of Poulenc’s early period. The composer wrote to the Belgian musicologist Paul Collaer: “You will see for yourself what an enormous step forward it is from my previous work and that I am really entering my great period.”“. The concerto was commissioned by and dedicated to the Princess Edmond de Polignac, an American-born arts patron to whom many early XXth-century masterpieces are dedicated, including Stravinsky’s Renard, Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, Kurt Weill’s Second Symphony, and Satie’s Socrate. Her Paris salon was a gathering place for the musical avant-garde.
The premiere was given on September 5, 1932, at the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in Venice, Poulenc and his childhood friend Jacques Février were concerto soloists with the La Scala Orchestra, with Désiré Defauw (later conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) conducting. The composer later performed the concerto with Benjamin Britten in England in 1945.
The concerto’s recurring moto perpetuo, modally inflected figurations are clearly inspired by Poulenc’s encounter with a Balinese gamelan at the 1931 Exposition Coloniale de Paris. The work’s instrumentation and “jazzy” effects are reminiscent of Ravel’s G major Concerto, which was premiered at Paris in January 1932. Inevitably, comparisons have been drawn with Mozart’s Concerto in E-flat for two pianos, K. 365, but the Larghetto’s graceful, classically simple melody and gentle, regular accompaniment is reminiscent of the Andante of Mozart’s D minor Piano Concerto, K. 466. The composer admitted that he chose for the opening theme to go back to Mozart because “I have a veneration for the melodic line and because I prefer Mozart to all other composers”. Poulenc wrote in a letter to Igor Markevitch, “Would you like to know what I had on my piano during the two months gestation of the Concerto? The concertos of Mozart, those of Liszt, that of Ravel, and your Partita”.