Nocturnes, by Francis Poulenc

August 29, 2013

This project started as part of my doctoral research at the University of Oregon. After I worked for at least a year on "Les Soirees de Nazelles" for one of my recitals, I could not get enough of Poulenc. I devoured his chamber works, concertos, solo pieces and songs in endless sight-reading sessions. I got his books, interviews and letters. His music and exquisite writing fascinated me. The only logical path to follow was to produce a lecture-document on Poulenc.  On the other side, my extensive background in vocal collaboration induced me to sing for real. I noticed how expressive Poulenc's language is in his songs. However, his piano repertoire was filled with enigmatic indications, and it was somehow more difficult to grasp. Long story short, I decided to focus on the ways to transplant the vocal ideal in Poulenc's music to his piano works. And you know? It worked magic. Suddenly the piano music acquired wings, begun to sing, become airborne. The secret was in making justice to the breath marks (yes, the pianists need to learn how to breathe!), in the direction of phrasing (listen to the spoken French), in the characteristic agogic accents, in the importance to take into account that Poulenc loved the music of chansoniers, and the flexibility of tempos (not the rubatos).  After all this detailed investigation on the subject, I found that I neede to record both vocal and piano music, in order to illustrate my discoveries. I hope that this performance will make you feel differently about Poulenc's piano music. I also hope to transport you to a different dimention - the dimention of dreams, finest and strongest emotions, tender love, trascendent devotion, melancholy, nostalgia, and the witty humor.

Recording Date: March 16, 2013
Recording Location: University of Oregon Beall Concert Hall
Ensemble Type: Piano solo
Duration: 00:18:35
Performer: Svetlana Kotova

About the Music

Composer: Francis Poulenc
Instrumentation: Piano Solo
Date Composed: 1929-1938
Music Styles: Aleatory, Melodic, Thematic, Neo-tonal, Tonal/modal

The set of eight nocturnes as we know it today is a result of long years of work. The first Nocturne was finished in 1929. The Nocturne No. 2 was composed in 1933, Nocturnes No. 3 to No. 6 were finished by 1934, No.7 in 1935, and the concluding piece was added in 1938. The Nocturnes were not intended to form a cycle until 1938, when Poulenc decided to include them in one collection. The entire set was published in 1939. Given the kaleidoscopic nature of Poulenc’s writing, his Nocturnes do not obey the classic laws of musical structure where the English-language scholarship tries to make them fit. The interest of these pieces lays in the superposition of the layers of sound, in the extraordinary experiments with the piano resonance, very intimate sensitivity, and subtle, witty, and fine humor. 

Nocturne No.1 in C major features a simple singing melody and harp-like arpeggios in the accompaniment. There are three instances in which the theme returns, and three contrasting sections, giving the impression of a rondo. Poulenc adds a little coda, which rather than resuming the action occurred during the piece, offers a new shed of light and a new emotion.

While writing his Nocturne No.2 Poulenc must have had in mind the young Janine Salles, to whom the piece is dedicated. We only can imagine how beautifully she danced, since this piece has a flavor to certain numbers of ballets by P. Tchaikovsky.

Les cloches des Malines (No.3) brings to the pallet the foggy colors of distant bells in the dusk. The faraway resonances give place for an instant to closer ones, returning soon to the surreal sounds of the beginning.

The fourth Nocturne, preceded by a quote from Julien Green’s “Le Visionnaire”, pictures an old man in his sick bed remembering the pleasures of his youth. It is a nostalgic mix of a waltz and a mazurka. 

Nocturne No.5 depicts night bugs (Phalènes – Moths), randomly flying around the lanterns and swiftly changing directions.

Nocturne No.6, contrary to the suggestions of the scholars, represents in my opinion a beautiful eulogy to Poulenc’s dear friend and intended wife, Raymonde Linossier, who tragically passed away in 1930. The strong emotional charge of the piece and the use of traditional eastern musical means support the theory of a musical homage to the late Raymonde Linossier, who specialized in Eastern cultures and before her tragic death had organized an exposition of Indian and Tibetan art at The Guimet Museum in Paris.

As is usual for Poulenc, in Nocturne No.7 he changes completely the mood and turns to a light-hearted almost popular tune.

However, the last Nocturne, added much later, in a way summarizes the cycle and brings the ends together. The simplicity of the harmony, the diatonic harmonization, and a coda that quotes the coda from the first nocturne blend beautifully in a nostalgic closure to the cycle.

Nocture No. 1




Nocture No. 2




Nocture No. 3




Nocture No. 4




Nocture No. 5




Nocture No. 6




Nocture No. 7




Nocture No. 8

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