Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes (Updated 08/05/2006)


                    [Bullet6] Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon (1926)

                    [Bullet6] Sonata for Flute and Piano (1956)


Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon (1926)

Poulenc with a happy grin"Above all, let not a composer seek to be in the mode. If you are not a la mode today, you may not be out of the mode tomorrow."

Poulenc was born in Paris on January 7, 1899. He studied piano with Ricardo Vines and composition with Charles Koechlin. Poulenc attained both a distinct musical voice and success at an early age. During the 1920’s, he was one of the leading spirits of the group of young French composers known as "Les Six" (the six). Their music was often light, witty, satirical and urbane. They were in sympathy with and influenced by Stravinsky and "Neo-Classicism," and in opposition to the cerebral music of Schoenberg and of what they considered to be the religio-musical excesses of their countryman Olivier Messiaen. Poulenc, in particular, often juxtaposes passages of wit and irony with lush, sentimental outpourings; his beloved "Mauvaise Music."

Poulenc composed orchestral, chamber music, ballets, concertos, film scores, and opera, as well as powerful choral and sacred music. In the field of French art songs he is an acknowledged master, with over 130 songs to his credit. Indeed, melody was the most important element to him. Norbert DuFourcq writes: "...he found his way to a vast treasury of undiscovered tunes within an area that had, according to the most up-to-date musical maps, been surveyed, worked and exhausted." Of his own work, he wrote, "I know perfectly well that I’m not one of those composers who have made harmonic innovations like Igor (Stravinsky), Ravel, or Debussy, but I think there’s room for "New" music which doesn’t mind using other people’s chords. Wasn’t that the case with Mozart-Schubert?"

The Trio is one of Poulenc’s most popular chamber works. It is in the spirit of an eighteenth century divertissement, light and witty, yet spiced with dissonances. Though the combination of instruments is unusual, it is eminently logical, combining and contrasting the two members of the double reed family with the percussive quality of the piano. While composing the Trio in Cannes in 1926, Poulenc took the advice of Ravel (with whom he had been studying) and based the opening Presto on a Haydn Allegro, and the closing Rondo on a movement by Saint-Saens. The Andante is gracefully Mozartean, though any suggestion of parody is dispelled by alluring shifts of tonality and chromaticism. The work is dedicated to Manuel de Falla, whom Poulenc had met at the house of his teacher Ricardo Vines in 1918. David Ewen writes, "Pictorially one is sometimes reminded of a chase, sometimes a dialogue. Normally, however, the main musical discourse is entrusted to the piano, while the bassoon is relegated to the role of a discreet commentator and the oboe is allowed to intensify the more lyrical flights. The very heart of Poulenc is in this adroit little work."

1991-92 Season, Program II, Sunday December 15, 1991

1997-98 Season, Program II, Sunday December 14, 1997

"If you are not à la mode today, you may not be out of the mode tomorrow"

Francis Poulenc

Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963)

Sonata for Flute and Piano (1956)

"Poulenc began by being fashionable with the chic audience that desires above all to be amused. But the underlying honesty of his music, its melodic distinction and refinement, caused it to make its way with the larger public. He has the wisdom to attempt only what lies within his reach. The result is music with a style and sound of its own. You will never mistake it for anyone else’s."

Joseph Machlis

The Sonata for Flute and Piano is the first of three sonatas for piano and a wind instrument, inspired by Debussy’s late instrumental sonatas, and each dedicated to the memory of a friend. The Clarinet Sonata, Poulenc’s last composition, was dedicated to composer Arthur Honegger, the Oboe Sonata, to Serge Prokofiev, and the Flute Sonata dedicated to the great patroness of chamber music Elisabeth Sprague Coolidge. The work was actually commissioned by the Elisabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation. Though the work’s genesis went back to sketches for a sonata from 1952,the composer, by his own admission, imbued it with the musical spirit of Soeur Constance, one of the doomed nuns from what was to become his masterpiece, the opera Dialogues des Carmélites (1957).

This brief work, described by the composer as "simple but subtle", contains all the hallmarks of his style; abrupt shifts of mood from malicious to melancholy, incisive rhythms, spicy harmonies, "wrong note" melodies, juxtaposed with those schmaltzy tunes that he called his "mauvaise musique". Particularly noteworthy in this piece is the lovely second movement Cantelena, which I daresay Mozart would have envied.

Though the clarity, simplicity, and grace of his music might lead one to believe that Poulenc was a composer of great facility, on the contrary, he labored mightily over his compositions. And he was fortunate in life that it was only over his music that he had to labor. Before the name Poulenc became associated with music, it was associated with the chemical industry in France. Indeed, if you head north up I-680, in Martinez, just before you cross the Benicia Bridge, there to the right at the foot of the bridge is one of those industrial places that look like a rock concert in progress; lights, towers, smoke and fire, and a great din. It is a facility of Rhone-Poulenc of North America. There was once a huge banner that proclaimed it so, though after a fire some years ago, the banner was removed; "community relations" dept. at work, no doubt.

The renowned flutist Jean- Paul Rampal gave the premiere performance of the Sonata during the Strasbourg Festival in 1956.

 1 Machlis, Joseph: Introduction to Contemporary Music. W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., N.Y. 1961

2000-2001 Season, Program III, Sunday April 1, 2001

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