About this work
The Three Pieces for Piano, although not completed until 1928, began with the composition, ten years earlier, of a trio of Pastorales. He later discarded one and virtually all of another, replacing them with new compositions. Written when Poulenc was not yet 20, the Pastorales showed the influence of both his teacher, Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes, and the composer Erik Satie. The Hymne and Toccata that replaced the discarded pieces, like the surviving Pastorale, were dedicated to Viñes, whose influence -- in both piano and composition -- Poulenc continually recognized throughout his life. "At first," Poulenc once recalled of his early days under Viñes' tutelage, "it was decided that I would have a half-hour lesson each week, but this lesson soon lasted an hour, then two, and, imperceptibly, I began to spend my life with this Hidalgo with the face of a kind inquisitor."
The Pastorale that initiates the trio of works begins with a floridly meandering melody above a simple accompaniment. Its mood is an odd mixture of tranquillity and melancholy, with lush, indulgent harmonies underscoring a generally lyrical but occasionally angular melody. The tumbling jumbles of grace notes that gently ornament the otherwise stark lines lend the piece a distinctively impressionistic flavor (one thinks here of the most obvious comparison: the languorous flute line in Afternoon of a Faun). This should come as no surprise, since Viñes's prominent position in the Parisian musical scene put him at the keyboard for several of Debussy's and Ravel's premieres. Ornamentation is all but absent in the middle of the work, however, as a dotted melody takes over with quiet determination, its rhythmic consistency governed by a steady chordal accompaniment. The florid melody then returns to close the piece with blurry harmonic ambiguity.
When the Trois pièces were first published in 1928, the composer followed the Pastorale with the Toccata. The 1953 revision moved the Hymne to the middle position, perhaps to end the work on a flashier note. Nonetheless, the Hymne is quite striking in its effect. Throughout, we are confronted with a looming, triumphant cadential figure that acts as a refrain. In between its appearances are episodes of pianistic introspection. Virtually all the figuration has a neo-galant flair, but the familiar dotted figures, turns, and trills are placed within fresh harmonic and melodic contexts. The piece turns out to be a kind of stoic anti-progression: throughout, the initial chordal figure reiterates its tonic focus, but at the end the lingering notes prepare for a cadence that never arrives.
Made famous as a frequently performed piece in the repertoire of Vladimir Horowitz, the Toccata that ends the Trois pièces is at once virtuosic and frivolous -- making it a prime candidate for encore performance. In composing it, Poulenc salvaged the first four measures and the ending of one of the original three Pastorales from 1918. Its rather schizophrenic character comes from the busy figuration that, beginning after the quaint introduction in parallel fifths, hardly subsides until the end of the work. That figuration changes character by stepping to the forefront to become a frazzled melody, then fading into a fuzzy backdrop while a simpler, more lyrical line takes the helm. A quirky and perfunctory cadential move brings the piece, and the set, to a close.