About this work
One day during World War II, while Francis Poulenc was visiting some relatives in Bordeaux, his four-year-old niece expressed displeasure with what the composer was playing on the piano. With the certainty of youth, she removed Poulenc's hands from the keyboard and said "Oh, that is so ugly. Play this," placing one of Jean de Brunhoff's Babar books on the music stand. Poulenc improvised an accompaniment as he read the story. Word must have spread through the neighborhood, for the composer soon found himself surrounded by neighborhood children; their names, in fact, appear in the dedication to the work inspired by the occasion, L' histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant.
Poulenc's work is a melodrama which combines de Brunhoff's narrative with evocative musical interludes. The story follows the life of the anthropomorphic elephant Babar from his birth and youth in the jungle to to his life in Paris (where he learns to drive a car) to his marriage to Celeste, his childhood sweetheart. In lending a musical element to the story, Poulenc relies on a number of pictorial devices as well as the kind of stylized forms in which he excelled: a nocturne, a grand march, a lullaby, a waltz, a schottische. Composer Jean Françaix, whose style was greatly in sympathy with Poulenc's own, made an orchestration of the work that is as well known as the original version. Another version, for chamber orchestra, has been made by British composer David Matthews.