Poulenc’s Novelette No. 1 Played by Shirley Gruenhut

Shirley Gruenhut plays Poulenc Novelette No. 1 and discusses the composer's use of harmony, the underrated key of C major, and the imagery the music evokes.

by | Jan 27, 2014

Shirley Gruenhut plays Francis Poulenc’s Novelette No. 1.

On Discovering Poulenc

About 20 years ago I established my own chamber ensemble called The Urban Stress Trio, and a clarinet and flute player named Lawrence Feldman became my wind player. We did both the Poulenc flute and piano sonata and the clarinet and piano sonata. And I just got so turned on by Poulenc that I started investigating his piano repertoire. I think he’s very underrated. His music is very melodic, and it looks deceivingly easy on the page, but it’s not. He must have had very large hands because there are a lot of intervals of tens, which should be played simultaneously, but many times you can’t, so you break them up.

The Appeal of the Poulenc Novelette No. 1

What I like about it is that you can do it without tearing all your hair out. It has a lot of contrast, a lot of melody, and I think it’s very appealing musically and emotionally to audiences. It fits well, both emotionally and musically, and you play it, and everyone, I mean everyone, says, oh you turned me on, I had never heard of him, I’d never heard this piece, it’s great. It’s one of my standards in my repertoire.

Poulenc’s Use of Harmony

I think his harmonies are intricate and complex. They’re modern, yet they’re classical and neoclassical, and it’s little reminiscent of French movie music. He has very old, Baroque things, it’s almost like four-part harmony, like Bach chorales, where the inner voices are more important, or as important, as the melody supported by the bass.

The C Major Key in the Poulenc Novelette No. 1

I think the key of C major is so underrated and pooh-poohed that I wanted to demonstrate and be the medium for how great the C major can sound in the hands of a master, Poulenc. I wonder whether he also had the idea of C major being underrated. No sharps, no flats. But all of a sudden in the music, he muddles into E-flat major when you least expect it, and the French 6th, so you never know where C major can take you.

The Feelings from the Music

The message is just to enjoy. I picture myself somewhere in the south of France with a big bottle of wine, some brie, and just looking out at the gorgeous meadows and flowers, and just enjoying nature’s beauty. Looking at the sky. Hopefully it’s not going to be a rainy day. It’s the kind of music that I think transports you.

Guest Writer Shirley Gruenhut graduated from Brooklyn College, as the first-time recipient of the prestigious Charles Ives Award for Excellence in Musical Performance, and studied piano accompanying on the graduate level at the Manhattan School of Music. She assisted at the Metropolitan Opera House studios and has performed in Europe, Israel, and here in New York. She was founder and co-founder of several chamber music ensembles, including The Soiree Sisters, The Urban Stress Trio, and co-founder and Musical Director of Handel With Care. She is an avid chamber music player and continues to perform regularly in New York.


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    Lovely! Shirley, great! But it is rather strange to realize that the Urban Stress Trio is that old. You haven’t changed much from those days, which is also great and amazing. But I do hope we get a better recording of the sound…. I feel it is not doing justice to the piano and your performance. And, yes, you should ask someone to turn notes for you. I wish I were there to do that for you!

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    My dear Ayumi: Yes, time does fly – it was over 20 years ago that Urban Stress Trio was in its “heyday”, and getting someone to turn pages for me on that particular day was nigh impossible, but hopefully I will have the opportunity of being videoed once again for this wonderful website – I shall ensure that either I have a pageturner (have had miserable “luck”, so to speak with pageturners – music always falls off the piano, despite my repeated warnings), or I shall have the music bound differently so that page turning will be at a minimum. Yes, the recording studio was not an ideal setting, but it’s better than nothing, she smiled. Beggers can’t be choosers, as the trite but true adage goes.


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