Concerto for Two Pianos | Mélancolie | Interview

Francis Poulenc




Wilfred Mellers


From Wilfred Mellers, Francis Poulenc (Oxford University Press, 1993) pp. 48-51

In the year in which he started the Sextet, 1932, Poulenc also composed a Concerto for two pianos and orchestra: a work intended for the concert-hall, though it is sociably entertaining and was originally played by the composer and his friend, Jacques Février. In a letter to Paul Collaer, Poulenc refers to the work’s ‘bigness, energy, and violence’ which, he believed, accounted for the impact it made on audiences. Although a bravura piece, it was central to Poulenc’s development, a successor to the crucial Concert champêtre and Aubade. Despite and because of its high spirits, the concerto ‘grows up’.

Raoul Dufy, Port au voilier, hommage à Claude Lorrain, 1935

It opens with irresistible brio. After two brusque D minor chords, the first piano chatters in parallel fourths while the second piano oscillates, xylophone-like, between semiquaver As and B flats. The rapid, patterned ostinatos recall the ‘paradise of archetypes and repetition’ beloved by Poulenc in adolescence, though in this case increased momentum generates recognizable ‘themes’. Scales spurting in both directions induce a shift from basic D minor to remote C sharp minor: in which key the soloists bounce a ‘très sec’ arpeggiated theme, which intermittently jets skyward, to cascade in chromatic scales. A second tune, beginning in F major (relative of D minor) is bandied around without establishing identity as a second subject, though its ‘enfantine’ character contrasts with the fiery brilliance of the main material and generates, instead of a development, a middle section at around half speed. This begins over an ostinato of a G major chord with added minor second and flat seventh, the cantabile tune being based on repeated notes in dotted rhythm. The pianos garland the tune with whirling scales, though the toccata-figuration does not return in its pristine shape.

Raoul Dufy, Honfleur, la jetée ou le phare, 1935

Instead, there is an abrupt climax and a long silence, followed by a curious coda, suddenly slow and ‘très calme’. The orchestra murmurs in quaver triads derived from the bassoon ‘organum’; first piano weaves ostinato figures in the Phrygian mode on D; second piano returns to the oscillations between high As and B flats, as heard in the first bars of the concerto. Now, being ‘lent’ and ‘très egal’ as well as ‘mysterieux et clair tout a la fois’, the effect is not so much that of xylophones as of a celestial gamelan, though the more direct source is probably Satie’s acrobats and jugglers (see example below).

Francis Poulenc, Concerto for two pianos: first movement, p. 18, last line

The glassy texture, in the context of the music’s previous energy, is not synonymous with the ‘green paradise of childish loves’ that Poulenc had cultivated in his youthful pieces about growing up, especially Les Biches and Aubade; but it casts a spell, and the movement, still unruffled, flickers out in a pianissimo dissonance and a ‘très sec’ cadence to a quiet D minor triad.

Raoul Dufy, La jetée de Honfleur, 1928

The larghetto, although at first sweet and gentle, doesn’t thus discount our ‘Western’ world. Its theme, in B flat major over an Alberti accompaniment, is overtly Mozartian, but changes when the first piano modulates in chromatics to the subdominant, and leads into a middle section, ‘beaucoup plus allant’, with a dotted-rhythmed theme in A flat. Here we are closer to Saint-Saëns than to Mozart; and the dotted rhythm stays consistent as modulations range in modest agitation, until we reach a cadenza over a dominant pedal in B flat. As so often with Poulenc (and with his friend Milhaud), the da capo is much curtailed. The final bars telescope tonics and dominants of B flat; only here does the sonority relate this ‘European’ movement to the quasi-Balinese coda to the first movement.

Raoul Dufy, Voiliers dans le port du Havre, 1925

But the finale suggests that West and East may have achieved some rapprochement. It opens as a whirlwind toccata with a D major key signature, though tonality is chromaticized and textures are sparse. The first theme is a very fast gigue in quaver triplets in 2/2; the second theme drops the key signature to become a dotted-rhythmed march, initially in B flat minor. The sizzling triplets generate a third tune, flowing spaciously in A major, and freely modulating to find its way back to the quasi-military tune, now rather grand in B flat major. There is no orthodox development and little recapitulation. Tunes and figurations meld blithely in collage, in sociably Saint-Saëns-like charm and Chabrier-like effervescence. Suddenly, the chattering breaks off; after a 5/2 silent bar, the ‘gamelan’ itself, now loud and clattery, no longer induces a childish trance but rather encourages us to accept the brusque procession of ninth chords that introduces the ultimate, unambiguously minor triad of D. Poulenc’s sun often casts shadows; here he welcomes them and finds, in his synthesis of East and West, another metaphor for growing up. In our barbarous century occident and orient needed one another if they were to survive.

 Raoul Dufy, Baigneuse, cargo, voiliers et papillons, 1926

Francis Poulenc




Benjamin Ivry


From Benjamin Ivry, Francis Poulenc (London: Phaidon, 1996) pp. 80-83

The singer Jeanne, Comtesse Charles de Polignac, a member of Nadia Boulanger’s madrigal group, and her sister-in-law Marie-Blanche de Polignac, also an accomplished singer, influenced their aunt by marriage, Winnaretta Singer, the Princesse de Polignac, to commission a work from Poulenc, which became the Concerto for Two Pianos. Poulenc tried to capture the joyous conviviality of the Princesse’s salon in his new work. To prepare his task, he played through concertos by Mozart, Liszt, Ravel, and a piano work by Igor Markevich, Partita.

Raoul Dufy, La fée électricité, 1937 (detail)

Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos is in three movements — Allegro ma non troppo, Larghetto and Finale: Allegro molto. Apparently in classical sonata form, the Concerto for Two Pianos was not really in the strict formal tradition based on classical models, it was more in the nature of a ‘fantaisie’. In this Poulenc had been greatly influenced by the two piano concertos by Ravel, in the form of fantasies: the Piano Concerto in G, which had its première in January 1932 at Paris’s Salle Pleyel, and the Concerto pour la main gauche, from the following year. Poulenc found Ravel’s new works ‘marvellous’ and gave an informal performance of the Concerto in G with Jacques Février at the home of Marie-Blanche de Polignac.

Raoul Dufy, La fée électricité, 1937 (detail)

With the example given by Ravel, Poulenc permitted himself all liberties: although the first movement of the Concerto for Two Pianos is formally speaking divided into an introduction, development, and coda, digressions and surprises almost hide the classical structure. Poulenc takes the listener on a silent-film adventure, in which a symphonic storm is whipped up while the two pianists pluckily continue playing. As a further splash of exotica at the end of the first movement, Poulenc added a bizarre tinkly passage, which he said was inspired by Balinese gamelan music which he had heard at the 1931 Colonial Exhibition at the Palais de Chaillot. Among other composers influenced by visits to the same gamelan concerts were Igor Markevich and Olivier Messiaen.

Raoul Dufy, La fée électricité, 1937 (detail)

The Concerto for Two Pianos assumed classical form only to stretch it almost beyond recognition: the guiding rule was not tradition, but laughter and an appetite for sensual experience. There is gratification for the pianist in rapid climaxes and rhythmic pounding. The exchange between the two players of four notes, struck at the beginning of the work, is the sort of climax which Beethoven placed at the end of his Fourth Piano Concerto. The composer interwove this dynamic music with string pizzicatos that Brahms reserved for the end of the first movement of his Double Concerto for violin and cello. Poulenc did not make the audience wait for these winning effects, but served them up right away. The second movement begins with a close replica of a Mozart andante, made a trifle more precious than Wolfgang Amadeus would have written it. In contrast, the third movement seems to have been influenced by George Gershwin. The Concerto for Two Pianos, in its first movement, contains catchy jungle-boogie drums that hearkened back to Poulenc’s brief early flirtation with African music in Rapsodie négre.

Raoul Dufy, La fée électricité, 1937 (detail)

For Poulenc, music meant fellowship and collaboration, accompaniment in every sense of the term. His 1918 Sonata for piano duet suggested a single four-handed identity, but the Concerto for Two Pianos, and the later Sonata for two pianos, could be described as conversations between two separate entities. Playful communication and one-upmanship can be sensed in the two-piano concerto, a work which gives one an idea of a humorous evening spent in the company of Poulenc.

Raoul Dufy, La fée électricité, 1937 (detail)

Musical styles of other composers are often quoted: some rhythms recall Stravinsky and sentimental melodies, Rachmaninov; there are also folkloric castanets out of Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. The American composer Elliott Carter, writing in Modern Music in January 1938, called the concerto ‘a pastiche of music ranging from Scarlatti, Mozart, Schumann, Chabrier, to Stravinsky and popular songs.’ Yet he also found it convincing ‘because of its great verve, which, with Poulenc’s remarkable sensitivity to harmonic and orchestral sonorities, ends by captivating the most stubborn listener.’  At the Venice première in 1932, Poulenc and Février performed the Concerto for Two Pianos with the La Scala orchestra, then run by Arturo Toscanini. Although Toscanini did not conduct that night, Poulenc was impressed by the quality of the musicians, calling the violins ‘seraphic’, the clarinets ‘amorous’ and oboes ‘sweet and gay: Admirable!’ Toscanini evoked from his players a combination of virtuosity and emotion that was Poulenc’s instrumental ideal and which he realized in such works as the Sextet. The admiration was not reciprocal — Toscanini never conducted anything by Poulenc.

Raoul Dufy, La fée électricité, 1937 (detail)

Francis Poulenc




Martha Argerich & Shin-Heae Kang | Andrew Manze, NDR Radiophilharmonie

Francis Poulenc




Five Commentaries


From Wilfred Mellers, Francis Poulenc (Oxford University Press, 1993) pp. 46-47

At the end of his ‘piano years’ Poulenc composed, in 1940, a substantial piano piece called ‘Mélancolie’. If Suite française is a climax to his first phase’s rediscovery of ‘old’ France, ‘Mélancolie’ sets the seal on his affiliations with his immediate predecessors. Perhaps the advent of war conditioned its deep nostalgia and high romanticism, for its melancholy has nothing to do with the Renaissance notion of the melancholic ‘temperament’, but rather inculcates dreams which, even or especially if they are beautiful, are of their nature illusory. The melody, in sensuous D flat major, aspires from yearningly repeated notes into rising fourths, while the accompanying figures, lying graciously beneath the fingers, are ‘très envelope de pédales’. The dreaminess of the piece lies in its often enharmonic modulations, floating from D flat to C to D majors, and thence to B minor. A figure of repeated notes in the bass carries the music forward, releasing impassioned, triple-rhythmed permutations of the theme, and climaxing in celestial E major, only to dissolve in sequential modulations and chains of trills that might be warbling birds. Middle-period Fauré is the closest musical parallel, but Poulenc, later in date, sounds more unreal, his dreams that much more elusive. The piece may be compared to the luminous domestic paintings of Bonnard, Vuillard, and Dufy. This is epitomized in the magic coda, a melancholy melodic descent, provoking a tonal declension into double-flatted mystery — B double flat against D flat major, a device possibly remembered from Ravel’s ‘Ondine’. The melancholy is not, however, despair; the final major triads gleam lucently, with only one, very high, ‘wrong’ note to add edge to euphony.

Raoul Dufy, Atelier au torse, 1942


From Renaud Machart (tr. Mary Pardoe), liner notes to Alexandre Tharaud, Francis Poulenc, Piéces pour Piano (Paris: Disques Arion, 1996)

One of the summits of Poulenc’s pianistic catalogue is surely Mélancolie (FP 105, 1940), a magnificent bitter-sweet elegy written during the War as a tribute to Raymond Destouches, Poulenc’s faithful companion. Affectively, Raymond Destouches played as strong a role in Poulenc’s life as his childhood friend Raymonde Linossier, who died prematurely in 1930. (The curious homonymy, seemingly playing, in a very Proustian manner, on male-female ambivalence, could give rise to endless comment.) There was no love relationship between Poulenc and Raymonde, despite Poulenc’s desire to the contrary, but the musician was indeed Raymond’s lover, before the affair turned into a more fraternal, or even paternal, association during the 1950s. In his letters, the composer readily qualified his music as ‘très Raymond’ or ‘très Raymonde’, ‘très Raymond’ indicating a rather melancholy character and ‘très Raymonde’ relating to his early works, full of clarity and brightness, such as the Sonata for horn, trumpet and trombone (FP 33, 1922). The melancholy tenderness of this extremely sensitive elegy, written during the first troubled and uncertain months of the Second World War, must certainly be seen as a moving tribute to the relationship between Raymond Destouches and Poulenc. This is one of the few cases in Poulenc’s works in which the piano writing is as rich as that of his great mélodies (songs), which the composer readily admitted as being what he had done best where pianistic writing was concerned.

Raoul Dufy, La Console jaune aux deux fenêtres, 1948


From Keith Daniel, Francis Poulenc: His Artistic Development and Musical Style (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982) pp. 188-89

Mélancolie, written in 1940 and dedicated to Poulenc’s dear friend Raymond Destouches, stands as his longest single- movement piano work at 5’ 10”. The style throughout, except for several short passages in the B section of the ABA’ coda structure, consists of right-hand theme, plus bass and arpeggiated accompaniment. Gone are the bravura posturings and facile figurations of the second period. What makes this sound more like Poulenc than like Fauré or Saint-Saëns is the frequent use of seventh chords, the inventive means of arriving at cadences, and the variety and fluidity of modulation.

Raoul Dufy, Coupe de fruits, 1948


From Roger Nichols, Poulenc: A Biography (Yale University Press, 2020) p. 147

Mélancolie is, by any computation, one of Poulenc’s most touching piano pieces, so it is surprising that commentators have tended to bypass it. One obvious question is, why the title? Wilfrid Mellers offers this observation: ‘Rather than melancholy as it is usually understood, the mood is rather of resignation, of a happiness that recognizes its fragility, immanent in the continual modulations.’ Poulenc might almost be saying, ‘France is at peace for the moment. But for how long?’ And what about those spiritual values that had to be defended?

Raoul Dufy, Nature morte à la tour blanche, n.d.


From Hervé Lacombe, Francis Poulenc (Paris: Fayard, 2013). Translated here by Richard Jonathan.

Essentially Chopin-like in colour, but also, at times, echoing Fauré’s nocturnes, ‘Mélancolie’ immediately establishes a climate of wistful tenderness and sensuousness—but certainly not the ‘humour’ of Ancient Greek physicians that some critics see in it. Occasional élans and a few enigmatic digressions run through it; it is a reverie on a feeling that has evolved, a feeling that no longer exists yet persists in another form.

Raoul Dufy, Compotier de poires et console, 1913



Richard Jonathan

Part One Chapter 3

How shall I relate that magical evening, Marietta? How shall I convey the glory of your concert? Why, by casting my gaze with the eye of the heart, by cocking my ear to the silence in the sound. Look! You walk out from the wings with decided step, violin and bow in hand; the pianist, tall and equine, smiles as he mirrors your stride. What a handsome couple! The two of you stand in front of the acclaim, you ravishing in the red gown that hugs your body, he chic in his black jacket and open-neck shirt. A puffed-up handkerchief adorns his breast pocket; his abundant hair, a mop of dark curls, tumbles over the side of his head in a throwback to some other time. Who is this Matteo Balestieri? Look! Your hair tumbles off your shoulders as you bow into the applause. How is it, I wonder as you straighten up, your strapless gown doesn’t fall down?

Raoul Dufy, Vence, 1920 (detail)

Now shall I speak of how effortlessly your fingertips found the pitches of anxiety and fervour, how confidently your bow found a voice for the unpredictable, in Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano and Violin? No, I’ll simply observe that at the end, facing the ovation, there was a look on your face that seemed to say, ‘I came here to play, not for your applause’. Shall I speak now of the art of indirection, subtle and discreet, in Matteo’s solo turn? Shall I convey the elegant intimacy of Poulenc’s Mélancolie? No, I’ll simply say that when you returned from the shadows, you were immediately into the music, making a melody of the bare bones of a tune that Matteo offered you.

Raoul Dufy, La jetée-promenade de Nice, 1925 (detail)


A literary novel by Richard Jonathan






A literary novel by Richard Jonathan

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Francis Poulenc




Albert Guinovart

Francis Poulenc




Interview with Claude Rostand conducted in 1953-54

Posted by kind permission of Nicolas Southon

From Nicolas Southon (ed.) & Roger Nichols (tr.), Francis Poulenc: Articles and Interviews (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2014)  pp. 191-94

CR: You’re a composer, and we’ve spoken about the origins of that. But you’re also a pianist. These days you display a certain stylishness as a pianist – more than stylishness, maybe! Composers often play or conduct their own works badly or very badly: Ravel, Schmitt and so on. Prokofiev, Hindemith and Britten are the only exceptions to the rule. You’re a composer for the piano. Your pianistic output is not, I know, the music of yours you like best. But you’re always at the piano, and probably always will be. You’ve written a lot for the instrument. And yet you don’t often play your piano works, apart from the concertos. So you have had a ‘piano problem’ right from the start, from the famous Mouvements perpétuels.

FP: Yes, my dear Claude, I do have a ‘piano problem’, but I’m sorry we should be coming to it already, before sorting out certain points of…

CR: … your general aesthetic?

FP: If you like… It does mean jumping rather rapidly from the anecdotal style of our previous interviews to the more technical approach demanded by your question, but after all there is perhaps a certain logic to this, since the piano is obviously at the heart of my musical vocation.

Raoul Dufy, Paysage du Midi au figuier de Barbarie, 1920

At the age of five, it was my mother who placed my fingers on the keyboard, and then enlisted the help of an excellent lady who impressed me more by her strange straw hats and her plum-coloured, mouse-coloured dresses than by her easy-going teaching. At the age of eight, thank God, I was given daily lessons by an assistant to Mlle Boutet de Monvel, one of César Franck’s nieces, who was excellent on the technical front. Every evening, after school, I’d spend an hour of serious work under her tuition, and whenever I had five free minutes during the day, I’d rush off to the piano and do some sightreading. I have to say I was quite a good at getting through the notes (‘getting through’ is the only phrase to describe my lack of technique at the time). That’s how I was able, in 1913 at the age of 14, to enjoy Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. At 15, as I wanted to study seriously, a friend of my family, Mme Sienkiewicz, introduced me to Ricardo Viñes, for whom I had a passionate admiration. At that time, in 1916, he was one of the rare professional pianists to play modern music, together with Marguerite Long, the incomparable interpreter of Fauré and Ravel, and Blanche Selva, the champion of d’Indy, Séverac and Albéniz. That meeting with Viñes was crucial for me. I owe him everything.1


1 – Poulenc was a pupil of the Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes (1875–1943) between 1914 and 1917.

Raoul Dufy, Anémones et tulipes, 1942

CR: Which is why we always see a photo of Viñes on your piano. Would you like to tell us something about him?

FP: Dear Viñes! I could talk about him for hours, I loved him so much and was so proud of the affection he lavished on me. Just think, the first time I returned to Barcelona after the Second World War, I was asked to play the Mouvements perpétuels as an encore in his memory. As I announced them, I burst into tears. Viñes was a delightful man; a strange hidalgo with large moustaches, wearing a brown sombrero in true Barcelona fashion, and delicate button boots with which he would kick my ankle when I made a clumsy pedal change. Pedalling is an essential ingredient of modern music, and nobody taught it better than Viñes. His technique allowed him to play clearly amid a welter of pedal, which seems like a paradox. And what control of staccato! The great pianist Marcelle Meyer, who was his most brilliant pupil, said to me one day after she’d played the Three Movements from Petrushka, ‘Thanks to Viñes, that’s not as hard as you think’.

CR: Do you remember, by any chance, what you played at your first lesson?

FP: I think so. First, Schumann’s Faschingschwank aus Wien, which I’ve always adored (I adore Schumann), then some Debussy Preludes, including ‘Minstrels’.

Raoul Dufy, Bouquet d’iris et de coquelicots, 1948 (detail)

CR: Was it your studies with Viñes that inspired you to write piano music?

FP: Undoubtedly. At the time of my first lessons, I composed some preludes of unbelievable complexity, which would amaze you today. They were sub-Debussy, written on three or four staves. These preludes from 1916 have never been played. Auric was the only person to see them. Then I dedicated to Viñes three pastorales in 1918. They remained unpublished for some time, but in 1928 Casella wrote to me: ‘What happened to your pastorales? I liked them a lot,’ so I had the idea of going back to them. They were published as Trois pièces pour piano. The first of them is almost identical with the original version; I kept the opening four bars and the conclusion of the second and turned it into a ‘Toccata’, well known now thanks to Horowitz; finally I replaced the last one with a ‘Hymne’, in the style of my Concert champêtre. In fact, my first published piano work was the Mouvements perpétuels, premiered by Viñes in 1919 at one of the Lyre et Palette concerts.

Raoul Dufy, Bouquet d’iris et de coquelicots, 1948

CR: I’d like you to give me an overall view of the evolution of your piano music from the Mouvements perpétuels of 1918 to the Thème varié of 1952. You’ve told me so often that you have no high regard for your piano music, despite its success with professional pianists, that I’d like you now to give some explanation of this.

FP: No doubt you’ll find me paradoxical when I say that it’s because I’m too familiar with writing for the piano that I’ve failed with many of my pieces. Facility, dodges, knowing the ropes—these often, I’m sorry to say, take the place of true musical interest. I think in all honesty that my piano music is neither as good as pianists claim nor as bad as some of your fellow critics have said. The truth lies in between. What’s strange is that when the piano is accompanying singers, then I innovate. My piano writing is also quite different with orchestra or in chamber music. It’s only the solo piano that eludes me. There I’m the victim of pretence.

Raoul Dufy, Fleurs des champs, 1950 (detail)

CR: Even so, you’ve created gradually, following your instinct, an individual style whose demands mean that when a pianist plays one of your Improvisations as if it were Bach, or some other piece like a Chopin nocturne, you’re furious.

FP: Clearly, it’s with my piano music that I suffer the greatest disappointments on the interpretative front, deriving from the fact that I have a very precise conception of how the instrument should be deployed. The serious technical errors that disfigure my piano music, to the point of making it unrecognisable, are these: rubato, stingy pedalling, and over-articulation of certain repeated chordal or arpeggiated patterns which should, on the contrary, be played very blurred. Let me explain: I hate rubato (as far as my own music’s concerned, that is). Once a tempo is set, it must on no account be changed until I indicate the fact. Never extend or shorten a note value. That drives me mad. I prefer all the wrong notes in the world.

Raoul Dufy, Fleurs des champs, 1950

As for the use of the pedals, it’s the great secret of my piano music (and often its real drama!). The pedal can never be used enough, do you hear! Never enough! Never enough! Sometimes when I hear certain pianists playing my music, I want to shout at them: ‘Put some butter in the sauce! What’s this diet you’re on!’ As I’ve said, Viñes had such a fine pedal technique that maybe he taught me to put too much confidence in the pedal. In fast music, I’ve sometimes relied on the pedal to produce, in a virtual sense, the harmony of a passage that it would be impossible to notate, exactly, at that tempo. In saying this I think especially of the last variation of my Thème varié. As for the repeated chords and arpeggios, they should for the most part be damped down to allow the tune to come out. Do you find it attractive if a pianist plays the beginning of my seventh Improvisation like this? (Poulenc makes fun of a well-known pianist.)

Raoul Dufy, Bouquet champêtre, 1953

The German school of piano playing is, of course, the one furthest from my pianistic aesthetic, as it is from those of Debussy and Ravel (the wonderful Gieseking being excepted, naturally). The Russian school, on the other hand, suits me perfectly. Nobody plays me better than Horowitz and how well Rubinstein does! To be honest, I must add to the technical influence of Viñes that of Alfredo Casella. This marvellous musician played the piano in a way I found enchanting: with what precision his long hands moved over the keys, what an ideal staccato he had, and what ingenuity in dividing up passages between the two hands! Without him I would probably never have written the opening of my Concerto for two pianos the way I did.

Raoul Dufy, Les Marguerites, 1943

CR: To conclude, may one ask you which of your piano pieces find approval in your eyes, and which are your bêtes noires?

FP: That’s very simple. I tolerate the Mouvements perpétuels, my old Suite in C and the Trois Pièces (originally pastorales). I’m very fond of my two volumes of Improvisations, an Intermezzo in A flat and certain Nocturnes. I condemn beyond redemption Napoli and the Soirées de Nazelles. As for the rest, they don’t interest me.

CR: That makes a tidy ending.

FP: May I say one more thing?

CR: Of course!

FP: If pianists trusted my metronome markings, which have been calibrated very carefully, then many calamities would be avoided.

Raoul Dufy, Église et cyprès, 1927
















Ravel I

Ravel II





Mara Marietta