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Babar the Elephant


Francis Poulenc (1899-1963): The Story of Babar the Elephant, for piano and narrator (1940) with words by Jean de Brunhof.

In 1940, Francis Poulenc was living in the countryside outside Paris, composing less tonal music that veered toward atonality. This style challenged what was considered appropriate for French concert halls. One day, his three-year-old cousin Sophie, who did not appreciate this musical style, placed her copy of “Babar the Elephant” upside down on the piano’s music stand and said, “Play this.”

Poulenc improvised an accompaniment to each scene and Sophie was thrilled. Before long, everyone in the neighborhood came by to hear the new piece. Poulenc wrote the music down and dedicated it to his young cousins and neighbors.

The beloved character “Babar the Elephant” was created by Jean de Brunhof and his wife Cecile in 1931. The Story of Babar is the first of six Babar books that de Brunhof wrote and illustrated. Paul de Brunhof continued his father’s work after Jean’s death in 1937. Paul created a complete elephant world with Babar as king of the elephant nation. More recently there have been a Babar movie, a television series, and various Babar merchandise.

Poulenc uses various devices to paint the scenes of Babar’s life. Slow, low piano tones suggest lumbering beasts. High staccato notes suggest the call of birds. An extended use of the sustain pedal blurs the scene, creating the mists of the jungle or the warmth of sleepy elephant dreams.
Poulenc’s approach thus uses mostly color, rather than melody to illustrate the story. This contrasts with Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” a better-known children’s story that Jack and I performed in a previous concert, and which is already on this site. In that piece, every animal had a distinctive, sing-able theme.

Even though the Poulenc’s themes are more challenging to hear than Prokofiev’s, there are some to listen for. Babar’s opening theme, so joyful and warm, will re-appear sadly when he remembers his mother. And the lullaby she sings as he rides on her back will reappear in loud urgency when the elephant mothers search and call for their children.

 -- Dan Goodman (more on the author...)



Babar the Elephant
26:22
Goodman, D. (with McCreless, J.)