Describing his beloved home town, Poulenc once wrote, “Paris takes me out of myself...,” qualified a little later by, “I can only walk about in the quarters that I love." That idea— the need to be “taken out of himself” and "located” in “the quarters that he loved”— rather neatly defines his creative position. Poulenc, perhaps more than any other composer, had the most extraordinary ability to express a unique personality and sensibility through a multiplicity of allusions, pastiches, found objects, and musical models of all ages. That brings him very close to us, making him seem very modern (very postmodern?).
His likes and dislikes were established early on. He loved the music his mother used to play on the piano—Mozart, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Scarlatti, some Grieg, Rubinstein’s Melody in F and other light salon pieces; “it’s from her, no doubt, that I got the taste for what I christened ‘adorable bad music.”’ The “pleasure principle" was also negatively reinforced by the baleful presence of a friend of his mother whom he called “la raseuse" (the bore). She was a follower of the dictates of Vincent d’Indy’s Schola Cantorum and hence hated all his mother’s favourites and indeed all idea of virtuosity or brilliance. One day, seeing the Grieg Concerto, some Schoenberg, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre and Le Rossignol on Poulenc's piano, she said to his mother, “my dear, it’s really time to make him work seriously." The fourteen-year-old Poulenc retorted, “not at your [expletive deleted] composers, that’s for sure," and fled the room.
Surprisingly, particularly in a piano pupil of the great Ricardo Vines (the champion of Debussy and Ravel), Poulenc’s piano music more or less ignores the Debussy/Ravel pia- nistic revolution, but, as he admitted, that was largely a compositional self-defence mechanism. Possibly the profoundest spiritual influence on him was that of Erik Satie whom he met in 1917 and who, as he said many years later, "...so well divined my true personality. Even today, I often ask myself, ‘what would Satie have thought of such and such a piece?”’ Satie gave him confidence in his "simpler talk" as opposed to the many complex modernisms then in full spate (Poulenc obviously had some hang-ups about this—the Promenades of 1921 showed some very uncharacteristic and generally ill-advised excursions into other men’s “modernist" territories); he encouraged the blurring of distinctions between classical and popular styles; he applauded Poulenc’s visits to the music-hall.
The delicious irreverences of Mouvements perpétuels (1918) or the Valse in C (1919) or the Suite in C (1920) speak for themselves, but how was he to develop his art for the piano? The experiments of the Impromptus (1920-1921) and the Promenades (1921) show that the mature piano style took time and patience to evolve. What, of course, undoubtedly pointed the way aesthetically for Poulenc’s music was Stravinsky’s work from Pulcinella onwards. ‘‘It’s in Pulcinella, Mavra, Apollo, and Le Baiser de la fée that I collected my honey,” he readily confessed.
It was Poulenc’s three years of lessons with Ricardo Vines, from the age of sixteen onwards, that led to his emergence both as a remarkable pianist and as a composer for the piano: “I owe him everything,” he often said. From Vines he learned how to produce a wonderful and expressive range of colour from the instrument and the knack of playing distinctly in a flood of pedal: baigné de pédales (swimming in pedal) is one of Poulenc’s most frequent musical instructions. “In a fast tempo, I more or less have to rely on the pedal to realise the harmonic design,” he confessed. Railing against bad performances of his music, Poulenc once said, ‘‘as to the use of the pedals, it is the great secret of my piano music (and often its real drama!). You can never use enough pedal, you hear me! never enough! never enough! Sometimes when I hear certain pianists interpreting me, I want to shout out ‘Put some butter in the sauce! None of this dietary regime!”’ He also criticized rubato (though he used it liberally and to marvellous effect in his own recorded performances) and, in particular, ‘‘over-articulation of certain chordal or arpeggio figurations which should, on the contrary, be played very blurred.”
This is all indicative of what, at least for me, is special and elusive about Poulenc’s piano music. There is, almost always, a flickering, restless, iridescent texture; nothing is ever “rooted” in a particular harmony. The oft-repeated musical instructions doucement effacée (gently in the background), doucement effleurée (lightly grazed), très estompée (very blurred) point to the creative tension between “presence" and "absence” that gives so much of the music its unique quality-an endless suggestiveness, momentary glimmers of other “worlds,” other realms of experience.
Badinage of 1934 carries an inscription by Raymond Radiguet: “Dans les verres tiédit l’orangeade/Un soir d’août/N’importe lequel” (Orangeade growing warm in glasses some August evening or other). Orangeade— so redolent of parties, festivals, carnivals—but the party’s over; for all its surface gaiety and charm (to use a rather devalued word), that bitter-sweet element pervades the majority of the pieces, and, as the middle section of Caprice italien shows, it was there from the start. In the few piano pieces written after the mid-1930s a deep melancholy takes over almost entirely and produces some of the best pieces—Mélancolie, Intermezzo in A-flat, Novelette No. 3.