ELEGIE by Francis Poulenc
INSTRUMENTATION: Horn and Piano
PUBLISHER: 1957, 1958, 1989 CHester Music Limited, 8/9 Firth Street, London W1V 5TZ
LENGTH: 188 measures, approx. 8m00s
CAN BE FOUND ON IMSLP: Not in the US
YOUTUBE: Alan Civil
SPOTIFY: Hervé Joulain, Poulenc Complete Chamber Music Vol. 4
iTUNES: David Jolley, French Masterworks for Horn
GRADE/DIFFICULTY (1 easy, 6 very difficult): 5
EXTENDED TECHNIQUES: Hand Stopping (+)
RANGE (horn pitch):
Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963) was a member of a rich industrialist family; ‘Poulenc Brothers Company’ was and is now part of one of the biggest chemical and pharmaceutical corporations in the world, Rhône-Poulenc. Musically, Francis Poulenc was brought up in a family appreciative of music but he was largely self educated due to his family’s insistence he attend Lycée Condorcet rather than a music conservatory. He congruently pursued music by studying with Ricardo Viñes and Erik Satie. Poulenc eventually became popular enough to become a leading composer joining his French contemporaries who later came to be known as Les Six. Some writers consider Poulenc one of the first openly gay composers.
He was particularly fond of woodwinds, and planned a set of sonatas for all of them, yet only lived to complete four: sonatas for flute, oboe, clarinet, and the Elégie for horn. All four works have memorial dedications. The Elégie was written in 1957 in memory of Dennis Brain – the contemporary pioneer of the horn, who was killed in a car accident that year. The sense of loss it distils is palpable, and makes it one of Poulenc’s least comfortable works. Full of harsh intervals and dramatic gestures, it is as though he was determined to get as far away as possible from the dreamy, poetic horn of the 19th century.
To take the piece deeper one could hear that the composer described the 7 stages of grief throughout this piece. It opens with an uncomfortable 12 tone row which could indicate his first hearing of the death of his respected friend which then moves into the first stage of grief – shock and denial – portrayed by very aggressive articulations in both the piano and horn, no real sense of direction just incessant ambiguity. The second stage of grief appears at rehearsal (4) as an expressionless demonstration of pain and guilt – continuous downward motions with the occasional “sob” like downward slur in the horn, constant sadness. The piece then suddenly enters the third stage of grief at rehearsal (9) portraying sudden shouts of anger and the inability to understand the moment by the constant pounding of accents in the piano followed by the horn. Loneliness at rehearsal (12) then creeps into the picture as the composer displays the sudden loss, not only personally, but he also portrays the loss of the 20th century’s iconic horn player and the sudden hole created in the world of the horn. Feelings demonstrated during this time are instantaneous and Poulenc suddenly moves from loneliness to acceptance through a beautiful melody using stopped horn to portray the upward turn at rehearsal (17). Reconstruction (7 bars after (17)) then immediately begins as the horn repeats an open fifth pattern while the piano continues the idea of acceptance. The seventh stage of grief – hope – at rehearsal (19) is reluctantly displayed towards the end of the piece and finally comes to rest on the very last chord.