|About this Recording
8.553612 - POULENC: Violin Sonata / Clarinet Sonata / Cello Sonata
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) Complete Chamber Music, Volume 2
'I am a musician without a label'
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 profound gravity.
Ronald Van Spaendonck
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