Francis Poulenc / Sonate pour Flûte et Piano (1957)

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was unafraid to acknowledge his compositional weaknesses. Never having attended the fabled Paris Conservatoire (indeed, having been rejected in 1917), the composer often grappled with perceived deficiencies in his musical training. [1] Lessons with Charles Koechlin (1867-1950), begun in 1921, were aimed at rectifying such issues – initially, at least, in the art of counterpoint. It soon became evident, however, that ‘like many Latins’, the young Frenchman was a much more gifted harmonist. [2] The weakness rejected, Poulenc’s flare for harmonic flavour flourished under Koechlin’s guidance - heavy exposure to Bach chorales ensured a strong grasp of both harmonic and choral technique. While it is true that his vocal and choral works often rake in the greatest praise, his consummate harmonic skill is evident everywhere from the famous Huit Nocturnes for Piano (compiled 1939) to his ballets in Les Biches (1924) and Les Animaux Modèles (1942). In a broadly similar manner, the composer exhibited a strong predilection for woodwind writing over and above any such for strings, even in orchestral settings. As Keith Daniels writes:

Only three of thirteen [chamber] works include solo strings. The writing for them, moreover, is astonishingly simple, relying on techniques that could be learnt in a textbook. The writing for the wind instruments, on the other hand, is skilful and idiomatic from the very first works, employing characteristic articulations, the most efficacious ranges, and appropriate figurations… [3]

Indeed - Poulenc himself once remarked that: ‘nothing could be further from human breath than the stroke of a bow’. [4] Perhaps understandably then, the composer held his sonatas for violin and ‘cello in relative disdain. He was more optimistic about his woodwind works, and perhaps rightly – the flute sonata has become one of the most commonly performed pieces in the instrument’s repertoire.

Regarding its inception, Poulenc had initially rejected a non-specific commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge foundation in April of 1956 - primarily because he was still orchestrating his opera, Les Dialogues des Carmélites. But a more explicit proposal was afforded him again later that year, the suggestion being a work for flute and piano. [5] Having apparently entertained this possibility since 1952, Poulenc could finally seize the opportunity; The sonata was completed in 1957, and was dedicated to the memory of the aforementioned Madame Coolidge (1864-1953), an American patron of the arts. Poulenc, with the celebrated flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, went on to give its première performance at the Strasbourg Music Festival in 1957. The piece has since been recorded by rafts of notable flute-players, not least William Bennett, Emmanuel Pahud, and Adam Walker. Lennox Berkeley orchestrated the sonata at the behest of James Galway in 1976, to great acclaim.

The first movement opens with a graceful flourish from the flute, and the ensuing phrases exemplify a suavity common to much of Poulenc’s chamber music. The piano writing is equally typical, comprising, for the majority of the movement’s ternary structure, sets of flowing broken-chords. This pattern is broken by the arrival of the movement’s middle section, now in the Major. Here Poulenc makes use of different, yet equally recognisable compositional tactics: a familiar bassline, consisting of consecutive, ascending leaps of a minor third and octave, links the sonata to works as far back as his Litanies à la Vierge Noire (1936). Likewise, much of the melodic material is borrowed from earlier works – the opening four-note ‘pirouette’, for example, appears first in Poulenc’s Dernier Poème of the previous year.

The second movement is often hailed as one of the flute’s most beautiful slow movements. In it too Poulenc reuses harmonic and melodic material from other works. Frequent reference is made to the Dialogues, but material is also drawn from further afield - certain melodic material invokes motifs from the Sinfonietta (1948), for example. The movement is dominated by a pulsing, quaver accompaniment in the piano, and haunting, scalic lines in both instruments. The music begins and ends in Bb-minor.

In stark contrast to the melancholic denouement of the middle movement, the opening to the finale is decidedly éclatant: the piano bursts forth with an exuberance matched (with great technical difficulty) by the flute five bars later. Indeed, the final movement sets the greatest technical challenge yet, and especially so at quicker tempi. Numerous difficulties are presented by high, scalic quips in the flute part, as well as in more chromatic passages toward the end of the movement. Marked Presto giocoso, it is the shortest of the three, and concludes in an emphatically triumphant A-Major.

Interested listeners might acquaint themselves with Poulenc’s other chamber works - the sonatas for clarinet and oboe are obvious places to begin. Much of the emotive palette employed by the composer in these works is, however, but a microcosm of a larger compositional trend. A common, and not entirely unfounded, assertion adduced to the Frenchman’s music is that it embodies, at times, unbridled buoyancy – at others, deep profundity. Such a duality is worth exploring.

Peter Havlat, October 2020

References [1] Daniel, Keith W. 1982. Francis Poulenc: His Artistic Development and Musical Style. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Umi Research Press, p. 24 [2] Stéphane Audel and Francis Poulenc, Moi et mes amis, p. 41 [3] Daniel, Keith W. 1982. Francis Poulenc: His Artistic Development and Musical Style. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Umi Research Press, p. 101 [4] Mellers, Wilfrid. 1995. Francis Poulenc. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. [5] Schmidt, Carl B. 2001. Entrancing Muse: A Documented Biography of Francis Poulenc. Hillsdale, Ny: Pendragon Press. P. 408


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