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ClassicsOnline Home » POULENC: Violin Sonata / Clarinet Sonata / Cello Sonata
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) Complete Chamber Music, Volume
'I am a musician without a label'
'Francis Poulenc is music itself, I know
no music more direct, more simply expressed nor which goes so unerringly to its
target.' This praise from his friend, the composer Darius Milhaud, can only be
equalled by that from Arthur Honegger who admired 'the man, a born composer,'
who, 'in the midst of fashions, systems, prescriptions, has stayed true to
himself with that rare courage which demands respect.'
A French musician par excellence, Francis
Poulenc grew up in the heart of Paris, between the Madeleine ('my home town'),
the Marais ('my village') and Nogent-sur-Mame ('my countryside ..my paradise
with its open-ajr cafes, its chip-sellers and its bals musettes'). A precocious
pianist, his creativity fed on Debussy who had 'awakened him to music',
Stravinsky whom 'he took as his guide', Ravel and, above all Satie, who
influenced him considerably 'more aesthetically than musically'. Though he
considered Chabrier a 'grandad', the music-hall fascinated and enthralled him.
For many years, Poulenc had to put up with being labelled a 'superficial' and
'light' composer. Nothing is further from the truth. His correspondence,
collected by Myriam Chimènes, and the magnificent biography by Renaud Machart,
both bear witness to this. 'And his music remains brazenly up-to-date.'
From the first work that he dared make
public, the Rapsodie nègre, at the advanced age of nineteen years, to
the very last, the Sonata for clarinet and piano and Sonata for oboe
and piano, completed shortly before his unexpected death, Francis Poulenc
devoted himself intermittently to chamber music, sometimes following an urgent
desire to write, sometimes in response to the wishes of virtuosi friends. He
liked to say, 'To write what seems right to me, when I want to, that is my
motto as a composer.'
Saturated with the Parisian excitement
greeting the end of the Great War, Poulenc's first chamber works display 'the
New Attitude', the often jocular musical vitality of the circle of friends
which the critics referred to as the Groupe des Six. The Rapsodie
nègre, the Sonata for two clarinets, the Piano Sonata for four
hands, the Bestiaire and Cocardes were created by a man yet
to reach his twentieth birthday, who, replying to a request from his London
publisher, described himself as follows. '1 was born in Paris on 7th January
1899... I studied piano under Vines and composition almost solely through books
because I was fearful of being influenced by a teacher. I read a lot of music
and greatly pondered musical aesthetics… My four favourite composers, my only
masters, are Bach, Mozart, Satie and Stravinsky, I don't like Beethoven at
all... I loathe Wagner... In general, I am very eclectic, but while acknowledging
that influence is a necessary thing, I hate those artists who dwelll in the
wake of the masters... Now, a crucial point, I am not a Cubist musician, even
less a Futurist and, of course, not an Impressionist. I am a musician without a
label.' (Letter of 6th September 1919, quoted in Correspondence)
Trusting his instinct, Poulenc was 'like
ail Latins... more into harmony than counterpoint.' Though he had refused to
join the Schola Cantorum or the Conservatoire, to increase his knowledge he
turned to Charles Koechlin, a musician more renowned as a teacher than a
composer. From the four years, 1921-25, when he concentrated on improving -
among other things - his knowledge of counterpoint, Poulenc has left us a Sonata
for clarinet and bassoon, a Sonata for horn, trumpet and trombone and
a Trio far oboe, bassoon and piano The chamber music was definitively
associated with wind instruments.
Following a fairly long period when he
moved away from the genre, Poulenc set out to write for strings and piano. The Sonata
for piano and cello was first written in 1940 and reworked eight years
later, whilst his Sonata for violin and piano was first performed in
1943 with Ginette Neveu. From this same period date L 'histoire de
Babar and Poulenc's collaboration with the dramatist Jean Anouilh, for whom
he composed the incidental music for Léocadia and L 'invitation au
château. The start of the 1950s saw the creation of a profusion of pieces
for two pianos for 'les boys', the American pianists Arthur Gold and Robert
Fizdale. L'embarquement pour Cythère, a capriccio in the style of
Le bal masqué, the Sonata and the Elégie. From 1956
Poulenc renewed his relationship with the wind instruments, with an Elégie
for horn and piano. 'I believe that specialising in the woodwind side is
the solution for me at the moment,' he wrote to Pierre Bernac. Like Debussy and
Saint-Saëns before him, at the height of his powers he composed three sonatas
for wind instruments and piano The Sonatas for flute and piano, for clarinet
and piano and for oboe and piano each represent a poignant homage to
a dear departed friend.
To celebrate the centenary of Poulenc's
birth is to celebrate French music stripped of the ideological abstractions so
common in twentieth century artistic trends, it is to celebrate the freedom to
live and the courage to follow instinct's inner path, it is to celebrate the
marriage of poetry freed from the Romantic heritage with music enamoured of
French classicism, it is to celebrate the union of Stravinsky with Chevalier,
of Pelléas with the music-hall, of the Madeleine with the boulevards, of the
'monastery and the mob'. Celebrating Poulenc means also celebrating the Paris
of Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Eluard, Cocteau, Picasso, Dufy. This is a
celebration of friendship transcending differences.
That is why Naxos decided to entrust
these complete works to a team of young French musicians inspired with the
camaraderie seen on Saturday nights when Milhaud, Auric, Tailleferre, Poulenc,
Cocteau and so many others got together to share their latest creations, to
eat, drink and have a good laugh. But good spirits are not enough, seeing this
project through, from its conception to the last recording, took no less than
two years and offers an opportunity to appreciate the vitality of the young
French school of chamber music.
'Nothing is further from human breath
than the bow-stroke,' exclaimed Poulenc to Claude Tostand. Mainly devoted to
wind instruments and piano, his chamber music rarely ventured into what was for
him, a highly skilled pianist, the less familiar medium of the strings. Unlike
Milhaud (a prolific composer of string quartets) and Honegger (a trained
violinist, with numerous sonatas for strings to his name), Poulenc gave us only
one Sonata for violin and piano, an arrangement for piano and violin of
the Bagatelle from the Bal masque and one Sonata for piano and
cello. As for the String Quartet, 'the disgrace of [his] life', it
ended up down a drain in the Place Péreire one day in 1947 But Poulenc's
leaning towards wind instruments must not make us treat unfairly his works for
strings which retain his melodic élan and the tender warmth of his melodies.
The Sonata for violin and piano was
composed in 1942/43 and first performed on 21 June 1943 at a Pléiade concert.
It was revised in 1949 and published in 1944/49 by Max Eschig, and is dedicated
to Garcia Lorca.
'To tell the truth, I don't like the
violin in the singular. In the plural, it's quite different.' Poulenc tried
three times to compose a sonata for violin and piano. First in 1919, during the
period of short pieces for wind instruments, he wrote a first sonata for Helene
Jourdan-Morhange, who played it at a concert by the Six. Poulenc destroyed the
manuscript. Then, in 1924, he wrote a second, for the violinist Jelly d'
Aranyi, to whom Ravel's Tzigane is dedicated, 'It met the same fate as
my quartet, I wrang its neck rather than let the public see it.' (Entretiens),
Finally, during the war, Poulenc
detenllined once more to compose a violin sonata for Ginette Neveu. In October
1942, he wrote to André Schaeffner: 'I've gone back to and completed the sketch
for a Sonata for piano and violin. The monster is ready... (It's) quite
different from the everlasting line of violin-melody of nineteenth- century
French sonatas. How beautiful Brahms's are! I was ill-acquainted with them. You
can only get a good balance of sound between the two contrasting instruments
-violin and piano -if you treat them both fairly. The prima donna violin over
arpeggio piano makes me sick. Debussy, somewhat breathless in his Sonata, managed,
however, to turn it into a masterpiece by dint of instrumental tact.' Again,
Poulenc explains that 'having always wanted to dedicate a work to the memory of
Garcia Lorca ...taking inspiration from the famous line. 'The guitar makes
dreams weep'.. I first composed a sort of vaguely Spanish Andante-cantilena.
Then I imagined as a finale a Presto tragico whose lively rhythmic
élan would suddenly be broken by a slow, tragic coda. A fiery first movement
was to set the tone' (Entretiens). Made up of three movements -
Allegro con fuoco, Intermezzo and Presto tragico -this Sonata was
reworked in 1949 bringing its creator's intransigent, even unjust, judgment.
'Despite a few tasty violin titbits due solely to Ginette Neveu... this sonata
is an utter failure.'
The Bagatelle in D minor for violin
and piano was published in 1932 by Rouart, Lerolle & Co. / Salabert.
For the Bal masque, written in 1932, Poulenc conceived between 'Malvina
and the blind lady, a fairly extraordinary Paganini-style capriccio for
violin.' This 'violinistery' which took the name of Bagatelle was also
arranged for piano and violin, in a version faithful to the original.
The Sonata for clarinet in B flat and
piano was sketched in 1959 and finished in 1962. It was first heard on 10th
April 1963 in New York and was published in 1962 by Chester, with a dedication
'to the memory of Arthur Honegger'.
From Rocamadour, which he had discovered
in 1936 and where he had returned to the Catholic faith, which was to remain
with him, Poulenc confided to Simone Girard in 1959, 'I’m working. I’m
finishing the lament of a Sonata for clarinet and piano dedicated to
Arthur's memory. I think it's quite moving.' Aware that for him 'concentrating
on woodwind is the solution ... at the moment' and 'simmering in the same pan,
the Sonata for oboe and the clarinet one,' Poulenc indeed wrote a
clarinet piece which mirrors the other. As Renaud Machart points out, the three
movements of the Sonata for clarinet follow an inverted plan with a
sober Allegro tristemente including a très calme central section,
a Romanza and an Allegro con fuoco. Their surface melancholy and
poetic syntax are nevertheless similar. The tenderly sad atmosphere of the très
calme and the Romanza (the former lament) evokes to some extent the
most intimate pages of another late work for voice and piano, La courte
paille, reminding us that from the same creative personality and from the
same inspiration there had sprung compositions sometimes serious, sometimes
joking. 'When people know all my choral works - sacred and profane - better,
they'll have a better idea of my personality and see that I am not merely the
light composer... of Les biches,' added Poulenc vehemently. He dedicated
one of his last works to Arthur Honegger, the first of Les Six to die.
Though they had known each other a long time, they were only really close
during Honegger's last two years, when he was ill. 'Arthur found [my music] too
light and... I found his too heavy!... We respected each other a lot, but we
didn't like each other's music till towards the end of Arthur's life.'
(Poulenc, Moi et mes amis). The Sonata for clarinet and piano was
performed three months after Poulenc's death, on 10th April 1963 in New York's
Carnegie Hall, by Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein.
Sketched in 1940 and completed in 1948,
the first public performance of the Sonata for piano and cello was on
18th May 1949 in the Salle Gustave. It was published in 1949 by Heugel and
dedicated to Pierre Fournier and Marthe Bosredon.
'Sketched in '40, when I started the Animaux
modèles, it is closely related. I had abandoned my sketches, when in '48
the admiration and affection I had for Pierre Fournier made me finish this work.'
The terror of publishers, Poulenc added that 'thanks to the public,
taking no notice of them, whilst I was playing, I came across the new version
of my Sonata for piano and cello, going over it six times in
Italy with Pierre Fournier. Now I think it is ready. An error of proportion
does not necessarily imply a massive cutting, but quite often an overall,
imperceptible trimming. I'm quite fond of it' (Entretiens). The feeling
of dissatisfaction with the Sonata for violin perhaps still in his mind,
a year after destroying his String Quartet, Poulenc fixed on marrying
throughout the four movements the piano's soaring passion with the cello's rich
textures to the extent of using the title 'Sonata for piano and cello' instead
of the traditional title, putting the melodic instrument first. The opening Allegro
- tempo di marcia displays an autumnal lyricism reminiscent of later
Brahms, a grave Cavatina where is seen once more his preference for
subtle, mellow piano playing which he so admired in his master, Vines,
specifying: 'using a lot of pedal (in a sonorous halo).' There follow a Ballabile,
instead of the scherzo, 'very lively and gay', where one feels the
vivacity of chatter amongst friends, the complicity of impromptu musical
soirees, and the Finale, a presto framed by two large sections of
Translation Wil Gowans
Born in Vilak in the Ukraine in 1972,
Graf Maourjak was the laureate of the 1990 Genoa International Paganini
Competition, In following years he won several other prestigious awards, including
the Moscow Tchaikovsky Prize. After a promising start in Paris at the Theatre
de Ville in January 1996 and his successful performance in 1997, he was the
guest at the Divonne International Festival, where he appeared with the pianist
Christian Zacharias. Graf Mourja has also played with the French National
Orchestra, the Île de France National Orchestra and the Sinfonia Varsovia.
Ronald Van Spaendonck
Born in Namur in 1970, Ronald Van
Spaendonck is considered one of the most promising clarinettists of his
generation. From 1987 he accumulated national awards and became 'Laureat
Juventus' in 1991. In the field of chamber music, he has appeared with the
violinist Gidon Kremer at the Paris Theatre de Ville and he regularly plays
with the Takács and Skampa String Quartets.
Fran~oise Groben's career was really
launched in 1990 when her cello playing won the silver medal and special prizes
awarded by the Moscow Virtuosi and the Union des Artistes at the Moscow
Tchaikovsky Competition. A pupil of Georges Mallach at the Luxembourg
Conservatoire, she also studied with Boris Pergarnenchikov in Cologne, where
she took her Soloist's diploma. She has since made guest appearances at
numerous international festivals.
At seventeen, Alexandre Tharaud was
already making a name for himself at the Paris Conservatoire. His remarkable
performances in various international competitions, including Munich and Città
di Senigallia in Italy - second and first prize respectively - marked the start
of an international career. He has made many tours of Asia and North America as
well as France, where he has been heard at the Chopin festivals in Montpellier
and La Roque d' Anthéron. At the invitation of Georges Prêtre, he was the
soloist in Poulenc's Piano Concerto with the Orchestre National de
France on the occasion of the composer's centenary.
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