"It is paradoxical, but true," said Francis Poulenc, "that my piano music is the least representative genre in my output." Paradoxical, in that Poulenc had proved early on his extreme pianistic proficiency, and had studied with the noted Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes, whose membership in the circles of the Parisian musical elite had frequently resulted in his performance of premieres by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. In fact, Poulenc identified his virtuosity at the instrument as his downfall: "Many of my pieces have failed because I know too well how to write for the piano...as soon as I begin writing piano accompaniments for my songs, I begin to be innovative. Similarly, my piano writing with orchestra or chamber ensemble is of a different order. It is the solo piano that somehow escapes me. With it I am a victim of false pretenses." All quotes as cited in Keith W. Daniel, Francis Poulenc: His Artistic Development and Musical Style (Ann Arbor: UMI), p. 163 ff.) Perhaps with Les Soirées de Nazelles the composer thought he had succumbed to his virtuosic weakness, for while he liked a few of his own piano works, tolerated a handful, and had decidedly mixed feelings about several, Les Soirées was one of the pieces that he "condemn[ed] without reprieve. "
The work takes its title from the site of a country home that Poulenc would visit in times of leisure. He recalls in the preface to the score how the work originally came about: "The author improvised the variations contained in this work during long evenings in the country at Nazelles, where the author would play musical "portraits" for the group of friends gathered around the piano. It is hoped that these variations ... will aptly evoke this recreation and its Touraine surroundings."
The work seems to be made mostly of surface features, virtuosic indulgences, and charming entertainments. (In this regard, the piano caricatures of Schumann come to mind.) The work consists of eight variations or sketches, introduced by a "Préambule" and concluding with a "Final," the latter of which the composer described as a "sort of self-portrait." The Préambule begins with a gruff melody stated in octaves, followed by a stout but lyrical waltz in a moderately fast tempo. It is followed a transitory passage identified by the composer as a "Cadence," full of flowery fantasia-like runs, trills, and dramatic pauses. Another Cadence precedes the Final, though it is markedly less baroque in its improvisatory ruminations. It consists of a series of heraldic melodies given in octaves, alternated with planed chords, romantic sweeps, and flashy figures. The Final begins with a lively march feel, punctuated by octaves in the lower register. It soon grows rhapsodically nostalgic, full of virtuosic fingerwork.
The first of the intervening variations ("Le Comble de la distinction") is nimble and birdlike in its angular melodies, while the second ("Le Coeur sur la main") is sedately syrupy. Variation three, titled "La Désinvoluture et la discrétion," begins with a bold triadic theme and its scurrying response, followed by an incongruously lyrical passage. "La Suite dans idées" begins with a stark call-and-response figure, which is gradually developed and ornamented, leading directly into the fifth variation, "Le Charme enjôleur," whose occasional warmth is countered by its nineteenth-century ostentation. In fact, Poulenc cut variations four and five from a subsequent printing, along with the somewhat endearingly sappy sixth variation, "Le Contentement de soi." No. 7, "Le Goût du malheur," seems the most earnest in its melodic deliberation and its harmonic inconclusiveness, while the eighth and final variation takes on a lighter tone.