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Poulenc piano work a mysterious paean to Piaf

Francis Poulenc’s Improvisation No. 15 pays homage to Edith Piaf.

Tonight, pianist Gila Goldstein performs a recital at Boston University including Francis Poulenc’s Improvisation No. 15. The 1959 piece, last in a series of Improvisations spanning Poulenc’s career, is a little mysterious. Unusually for Poulenc, he never mentioned the piece in his correspondence. Also unusually, he dedicated it to someone he apparently never met, subtitling it “Hommage à Édith Piaf.”

If Poulenc and “The Little Sparrow” ever crossed paths, no record survives. It is a little surprising. Poulenc proudly suffused his music with the cabaret’s aura; both Poulenc and Piaf collaborated with the era’s indefatigable artistic matchmaker, Jean Cocteau. Certainly Poulenc appreciated Piaf’s art. In 1950, Poulenc, visiting New York, encountered Piaf’s signature song during a radio show of American pop. “In the middle of all that, what do I hear: ‘La Vie en Rose,’” Poulenc diarized. “It’s the only sensual song in the programme.”


But there are hints that Poulenc preferred to admire Piaf’s style from afar. In Poulenc’s 1958 one-woman opera “La Voix Humaine” (adapted from a Cocteau monologue), a woman pleads with her ex-lover over the telephone, divulging that she has attempted suicide, a revelation Poulenc set as a sad, ironic waltz — an effect Poulenc worried “would be too Piaf.” For Poulenc, balancing sentiment and elegance was paramount.

The Improvisation — in the same key and meter as that “La Voix Humaine” scene — bears similarities to one of Piaf’s hits, “Les feuilles mortes” (known in America as “Autumn Leaves”). But where the original’s opening, rising phrase resolves into the underlying chord, comfortably emphasizing its doleful minor, Poulenc leaves the melody suspended on a dissonance, a more keen, more complicated twinge of pain.

This week also marks an unusually pertinent anniversary: that of the Oct. 28, 1949 plane crash that claimed the life of boxer Marcel Cerdan, Piaf’s lover; the affair’s dramatic end helped make the singer, as American composer Ned Rorem astutely put it, “her country’s official widow.” Perhaps that tragic air prompted Poulenc’s tribute. Death was on Poulenc’s mind in the summer of 1959: alongside the Improvisation, Poulenc also completed a two-piano “Élégie” in memory of his longtime friend and patron, Marie-Blanche de Polignac.


Poulenc, Piaf, and Cocteau all died in 1963, the latter two within a few hours of each other; hearing of Piaf’s death, Cocteau remarked, “The boat is going down.” Poulenc’s portrait of Piaf preserves something of the milieu Cocteau eulogized, a virtual meeting of luminaries.

Gila Goldstein performs music by Bach-Busoni, Brahms, Schubert-Liszt, Navok, Poulenc, Mompou and Falla, Oct. 26 at 8 p.m. at the Boston University College of Fine Arts Concert Hall, 855 Commonwealth Ave. (admission is free; www.bu.edu/cfa/music).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.