Unlike most nocturnes, Poulenc’s set of eight nocturnes forms a cycle, with the final one serving as a coda (Nocturne pour servir de coda au cycle). They were composed at intervals between 1929 and 1938, and published separately at first. Below, Poulenc performs number one.
The fourth Nocturne, Bal fantôme, is prefaced by a quotation from Le Visionnaire by Julien Green: Pas une note des valses ou des scottisches ne se perdait dans toute la maison, si bien que le malade eut sa part de la fête et put rêver sur son grabat aux bonnes années de sa jeunesse (Not a note of the waltzes or the schottisches was lost in the whole house, so that the sick man shared in the festival/had his share of the party and could dream on his death-bed of the good years of his youth). I love this slow waltz, with its rich harmonies, evoking a vision of bygone nocturnal dances – and dancers – in Poulenc’s characteristically bittersweet musical language.
And here is Poulenc playing it –
The other Poulenc Nocturnes are worth exploring, too; number 2, Bal des jeunes filles, is charming and innocent. Number 3, Les cloches de Malines ( pictured below: Malines Cathedral ) has different layers of bell motives; Phalènes, number 5, is bi-tonal and over in a flash. Number 6 grows to a passionate climax in spite of it beginning Très calme mais sans traîner; number 7 brings back the sunny mood of number 2, and number 8 gives a calm sense of completion to the set.
For further listening, here is the recording by Gabriel Tacchino.