for horn and piano was composed in 1957 in memory of the famous English horn-player, Dennis Brain. It represents the briefest of a dyed-in-the-wool tonal composer’s flirtation with the 12-tone system. Poulenc had met Schoenberg in the days of Les Six and followed his music with avid interest – as he did that of all his contemporaries – without ever being tempted to emulate him. He was fascinated by Schoenberg’s work and could admire it, but it remained totally foreign to his own musical formation and personality. The years following the Second World War saw a recrudescence of 12-tone activity, and ‘serialism’ became the fashionable musical byword. Poulenc remained an observer. The nearest he allowed his own music to approach it was in this Élegie
which begins with the clear enunciation of a 12-note theme by the solo horn. A short and strongly accented ‘Agitato molto’ divides it from the piano’s different arrangement of the disjunct 12-note monody and a transposed return of the agitation. This is all preludial. The Elegy proper maintains a gentle accompanimental pulse of quavers in 3/4 time. Above it, the solo horn’s wide-ranging melisma falls into clearly defined phrases without ever suggesting the initial tone-row. After a momentary reminder of the agitation, the Elegy rises with occasional and unexpected harmonic asperity to a climax from which it gradually recedes. The horn’s final utterance is another unrelated 12-tone sequence ending on the leading-note of the C major harmony on which it is cushioned. Poulenc’s Élégie
, qualifying him no more a member of the 12-tone school than Rameau, in whose music, too, a 12-note series may be found, remains essentially tonal.
from notes by Felix Aprahamian © 1999