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Poulenc’s Organ Concerto: a guide to the piece and its best recordings

Commissioned by a princess, Poulenc’s Organ Concerto grew into one of his most famous pieces of music. Here is a guide to the piece and some recommended recordings

Francis Poulenc

When did Poulenc compose his Organ Concerto?

Springing from Poulenc’s ‘serious’ period, this Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani was completed in 1938. Though called a concerto, it’s actually more like a fantasia in a single movement. It’s a dynamic piece, the key of which fluctuates from minor to major and back as Poulenc traverses light and shade. It was also a bit of a leap for the composer, who hadn’t had much experience with the organ; so he looked to the works of Buxtehude and JS Bach for inspiration.

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Who commissioned Poulenc to compose an organ concerto?

The piece was commissioned by Princess Edmond de Polignac as an ‘easy organ’ item she could tackle herself at home with a chamber orchestra (as you do). Poulenc soon realised its potential as something grander and more impactful. Fun fact: the Princess was part of the ‘Singer’ sewing machine family (her name before she married was Winaretta Singer).

What inspired Poulenc’s Organ Concerto and why is it serious?

Poulenc lost a dear friend (fellow composer Pierre-OctaveFerroud) while he was composing this work in 1936. The period also saw him re-acquaint himself with his Catholic faith, in which he was raised but had strayed. Things in Europe, talk of war and the rise of Nazism, were also a cause for worry and introspection. He completed the piece after embarking on a pilgrimage and it went through a number of changes.

When was Poulenc’s Organ Concerto first performed?

Despite the lofty changes, the concerto was still premiered at the Polignac residence in Paris, sometime in 1939. At the keyboard was none other than composer Maurice Duruflé!

What are the best recordings of Poulenc’s  Organ Concerto?

Olivier Latry’s performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2006 is pretty special.

Peter Hurford’s 1980s recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Charles Dutoit is well worth seeking out, too.

Organist Cameron Carpenter did a fine job back in 2019 with the Konzerthausorchester Berlin and Christoph Eschenbach.

Read our reviews of the latest Poulenc recordings

Find out more about Poulenc and his works

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Top image credit: Getty Images