Articles

ARENSKY — Trio No. 1 in D Minor for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Opus 32

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Though the name Anton Stepanovich Aren­sky (1861 – 1906) is not very well known today, he was an inte­gral part of the Russ­ian musi­cal world of his day. He stud­ied com­po­si­tion with Rimsky-Korsakov at the Saint Peters­burg Con­ser­va­tory and, imme­di­ately upon grad­u­a­tion (with a gold medal), joined the fac­ulty of the Moscow Con­ser­va­tory, where his pupils included such famous future com­posers as Alexan­der Scri­abin, Rein­hold Glière, and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The undis­ci­plined Scri­abin incurred Arensky’s wrath on a num­ber of occa­sions and finally walked out of his com­po­si­tion class with­out pass­ing the final exam. Rach­mani­noff, on the other hand, did so well he was allowed to grad­u­ate a year early, and it was to Aren­sky that he ded­i­cated his Opus 3 piano pieces, Morceaux de fan­tasie, which include his most famous work, the Pre­lude in C-sharp minor.

Tchaikovsky admired Arensky’s music, writ­ing to a friend in 1890 that the com­poser was “a man of remark­able gifts, but mor­bidly ner­vous and lack­ing in firm­ness — alto­gether a strange man.” On more than one occa­sion Tchaikovsky let the younger com­poser know what he thought of a piece of music, even if he had not been asked. In the autumn of 1885 he wrote Aren­sky, “Par­don me if I force my advice upon you. I have heard that 5/4 time appears twice in your new Suite. It seems to me that the mania for 5/4 time threat­ens to become a habit with you. I like it well enough if it is indis­pens­able to the musi­cal idea, [but in this instance] your basso osti­nato should be writ­ten in ¾ or 6/4 time, but not in 5/4.”

The fol­low­ing year Tchaikovsky wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov, ask­ing that com­poser to replace one of Tchaikovsky’s own pieces in an upcom­ing con­certo with a work of Arensky’s. “I have a favor to ask,” Tchaikovsky wrote. “Aren­sky is now quite recov­ered, though I find him some­what depressed and agi­tated. I like him so much and wish you would some­times take an inter­est in him, for, as regards music, he ven­er­ates you more than any­one else. He needs stir­ring up; and such an impulse given my you would count for so much with him, because he loves and respects you.”

All his life Aren­sky was some­thing of a loner. He had prob­lems with alco­hol and gam­bling, and these even­tu­ally caused a per­ma­nent break with Rimsky-Korsakov. His health under­mined by his way of life, Aren­sky died of tuber­cu­lo­sis. On learn­ing of his death, Rimsky-Korsakov remarked, “The man burned him­self out, but he did not lack talent.”

Arensky’s Trio No. I for Vio­lin, Cello, and Piano is one of his most suc­cess­ful works. It was awarded the Glinka Prize (500 rubles) and was writ­ten in mem­ory of the great vir­tu­oso cel­list Karl Davi­dov. The Trio is in four move­ments — none of which are in the 5/4 time Tchaikovsky warned against overus­ing. The first move­ment, Alle­gro mod­er­ato, opens with a lyric theme admirably suited for the vio­lin and cello, a good exam­ple of Arensky’s abil­ity to com­pose won­der­ful melodies and which made his numer­ous songs so appeal­ing. The remark­able, imp­ish sec­ond move­ment is a scherzo. Its play­ful, puck-like open­ing and clos­ing, with its stac­cato and pizzi­cato tex­ture, is a splen­did con­trast to the movement’s more lyric cen­tral sec­tion, which seems almost like an affec­tion­ate par­ody of a pop­u­lar waltz tune. The pen­sive, melan­cholic third move­ment is labeled Ele­gia. A dra­matic alle­gro finale in ¾ time brings the Trio to a sat­is­fy­ing end,

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here with per­mis­sion.

 

 

Richard Danielpour — FEAST OF FOOLS, A Concertino for Bassoon and String Quartet

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I – Largo e calmo (The Jester Pon­ders the Mean­ing of Life)

II – Vivace gio­coso (The Jester Learns A New Dance)

III – Ada­gio mis­te­rioso (The Jester’s Cohorts Save Him from The Dun­geon of the Ice Princess)

IV – Con moto, ben mis­urato (The Jester and Com­pany Charm and Tame The Great Serpent)

 

Amer­i­can com­poser Richard Danielpour (born 1956, in New York City), is one of a new gen­er­a­tion of com­posers who delights in writ­ing music that is acces­si­ble for an audi­ence, while still hav­ing sub­stance. “Part of the great joy in writ­ing music is because you’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing not just to peo­ple who like to hear nice sounds, but you’re deal­ing with human psy­ches as well,” he explains. “You’re not just deal­ing with ears, you’re deal­ing with ears and hearts and minds when you’re putting across music as a com­poser.  It doesn’t mat­ter if you’re writ­ing an opera, or a con­certino for bas­soon and string quar­tet that deals with the bas­soon as a kind of arche­typal char­ac­ter of a jester or a fool.”

Danielpour’s com­po­si­tions range from cham­ber music and song cycles to con­cer­tos, sym­phonies and bal­let. The San Fran­cisco Sym­phony com­mis­sioned his Sec­ond Sym­phony (“Visions,”) and his Cello Con­certo that was pre­miered by Yo-Yo Ma. Danielpour also wrote Song of Remem­brance for the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony Youth Orches­tra.  In addi­tion to com­pos­ing for the world’s major orches­tras and soloists, Danielpour teaches com­po­si­tion at both the Cur­tis Insti­tute and Man­hat­tan School of Music.  This fall he plans to being work on his first opera, to a libretto by Toni Mor­ri­son, though he is quick to point out, “I’ve been an opera com­poser in dis­guise all these years.”

An exam­ple of that is Feast of Fools, not only because the titles of the indi­vid­ual move­ments sug­gest a story line, but also because the way he writes for the solo bas­soon could be com­pared to the way some of the great bel canto opera com­posers, such as Bellini, wrote for the human voice. “That’s a great com­ple­ment,” he says. “Com­posers like Bellini — and Chopin — are sort of overtly beau­ti­ful on the sur­face, but then you dis­cover there is a lot beneath the sur­face, in terms of the way things are put together. We’re liv­ing in an age where, in the same vein, it’s often con­sid­ered that if you’re not cyn­i­cal, you’re not smart. I think that some­times car­ries over musi­cally, that if the music isn’t ugly, it’s not intel­li­gent. The great­est exam­ple of this, of course, is Mozart. This is the sim­plest music on the sur­face, and in some ways, it’s the most com­plex music beneath the surface.”

Feast of Fools was com­mis­sioned by bas­soon­ist Stephen Walt who pre­miered the work in August, 1998 with the Muir String Quar­tet (today’s con­cert will be the work’s West Coast Pre­mier.) When Danielpour received the com­mis­sion he remem­bered that, as a very young child, he had con­fused the words “bas­soon” and “buf­foon,” and the piece began to take shape after he had a dream about a jester. The piece is ded­i­cated “To the Jester.”

The char­ac­ter of the fool or the jester is some­thing I’ve always been very inter­ested in,” the com­poser says, “because the fool, in medieval his­tory and in folk­lore, is the one who is allowed to speak the truth with­out being pun­ished for it. A lit­tle bit like artists at var­i­ous times and places. ”

Danielpour asked the titles of the indi­vid­ual move­ments be printed at the end of the move­ment, rather than the begin­ning (“not unlike the Debussy pre­ludes”) because “It’s impor­tant that you hear the piece for what it is, but there’s also a lit­tle dra­matic idea attached to it.  I wanted there to be an ele­ment of fan­tasy and play­ful­ness that per­vades the piece, not unlike The Magic Flute. This one is a com­edy, not a tragedy. I hope there is a child-like qual­ity to the piece, with­out it being childish.”

The work is in four move­ments, but varies the tra­di­tional order, with the first and third move­ments being slower, more con­tem­pla­tive, and the sec­ond and fourth move­ments being much more extro­verted. Through­out, the bas­soon rep­re­sents the jester.

In the first move­ment, I wanted those open­ing can­nons to have the feel­ing of some­thing for­mal, in a sort of late Renais­sance, early Baroque tra­di­tion, that would invoke com­me­dia dell’arte,” Danielpour explains.  “In the sec­ond move­ment, with all the pizzi­cato strings, I remem­ber hav­ing the image as I was writ­ing it of the scene in Magic Flute where Papageno has his magic bells to ward off Mono­statos, that feel­ing of cre­at­ing a pleas­ant spell with light­hearted magic. For the third move­ment, I was think­ing very much of the equiv­a­lent of a pas­tel water­color, rather than some­thing that would be in oils. It would be in a softer kind of veiled hue. And in the last move­ment I was think­ing of a cer­tain kind of Mid­dle East­ern music that might fla­vor it.”

The last move­ment begins with a ris­ing melodic line in the strings that is remark­ably sim­i­lar to their pizzi­cato open­ing of the sec­ond move­ment. Given the move­ments’ indi­vid­ual titles, does the musi­cal sim­i­lar­ity sug­gest per­haps that the Jester takes the new dance he learns in the sec­ond move­ment and uses it to charm and tame the great ser­pent? “Absolutely,” Danielpour says. “In a way, what the Jester is doing in the last move­ment is thumb­ing his nose at death, because death has no power over him.”  And the third movement’s Dun­geon of the Ice Princess? “Any indi­vid­ual, or arche­type in mythol­ogy, has an Achilles’ heel. The jester’s great weak­ness is the beau­ti­ful princess, the temptress. It’s another arche­type in the shad­ows of that movement.

If I could talk to the audi­ence before a per­for­mance, I would prob­a­bly say that this music is, in some ways, a reac­tion to all the overtly seri­ous, overtly ugly music I’ve heard in the last 20 years. Yes, life is seri­ous. Yes, there’s a lot of dark­ness in the world, but if you only see the dark­ness, if you miss the light­ness, then you’re not really see­ing it all. It’s a bal­ance. This work in par­tic­u­lar, as well as a num­ber of oth­ers I’ve writ­ten, includ­ing the Vio­lin Con­certo, is a response to all the ugly music. It’s my way of say­ing, ‘Enough, already!’ ”

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here by permission.

 

 

Brahms — Trio in A minor, Op. 114 for Piano, Clarinet, and Cello

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When Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) com­pleted his String Quin­tet in G major, opus 111, in the sum­mer of 1890, he thought he had fin­ished his work as a com­poser. A firm believer that one should not write music unless truly inspired, Brahms was feel­ing exhausted as a com­poser and quite happy with his new quin­tet, which he decided was the per­fect way to end his long career. He also felt he deserved to take things easy.  A recent trip to Italy had been vir­tu­ally per­fect, as he exclaimed in let­ters to his friend Clara Schu­mann, and Brahms was look­ing for­ward to more vacations.

In the fall of 1890, Brahms began set­ting his affairs in order, which led, a few months later, to writ­ing his will. (Among its pro­vi­sions was one leav­ing the Gesellschaft der Musik­fre­unde his valu­able col­lec­tion of orig­i­nal man­u­scripts. These included the full scores of Mozart’s Sym­phony in G minor, Haydn’s Sun Quar­tets, var­i­ous sketches by Beethoven and Schu­bert as well as the close of the con­cert ver­sion of Wagner’s Pre­lude to Tris­tan und Isolde.)

But within a few months Brahms was newly inspired to return to com­po­si­tion, thanks to a visit to the ducal Court of Meinin­gen in March 1891. The Meinin­gen Orches­tra was con­sid­ered one of the finest in Europe, and on March 17th, Brahms enthu­si­as­ti­cally wrote to Clara Schu­mann about a per­for­mance of Weber’s “very fine F minor Con­certo for clar­inet. It is impos­si­ble to play the clar­inet bet­ter than Herr Mühlfeld does.”

It was thanks to Richard Mühlfeld’s play­ing that Brahms com­posed his Opus 114 Trio in A minor for Piano, Clar­inet and Cello, as well as his Opus 115 Quin­tet for Clar­inet, two Vio­lins, Viola and Cello, and his last piece of cham­ber music, the Opus 120 Two Sonatas for Clar­inet and Piano.

A few months after Brahms first heard Mühlfeld play, the com­poser explained to Clara Schu­mann why he was look­ing for­ward to a return trip to Meinin­gen to hear pri­vate per­for­mances of his newly writ­ten clar­inet trio and quin­tet. “If only for the plea­sure of hear­ing these (his Opus 114 and 115) I am look­ing for­ward to Meinin­gen. You have never heard such a clar­inet player as they have there in Mühlfeld. He is absolutely the best I know. At all events this art has, for var­i­ous rea­sons, dete­ri­o­rated very much. The clar­inet play­ers in Vienna and many other places are quite fairly good in orches­tra, but solo they give one no real pleasure.”

Brahms became per­son­ally fond of Mühlfeld, refer­ring to him as “my dear nightin­gale” (because of the unusu­ally sweet tone with which Mühlfeld played) and “Fräulein Klar­inette.” One week before Brahms died, he had lunch for the last time out­side his home — with Richard Mühlfeld and a few other close friends.

The pub­lic world pre­mier of the Clar­inet Trio (and the Clar­inet Quin­tet) was given in Berlin on Decem­ber 12, 1891, to an extremely enthu­si­as­tic audi­ence, which included the painter Adolf Men­zel. Mühlfeld’s play­ing so com­pletely cap­ti­vated Men­zel that he sketched the clar­inetist as a Greek god and sent the draw­ing to Brahms with the words, “We con­fess our sus­pi­cions that on a cer­tain night the Muse itself appeared in per­son (dis­guised in the evening dress of the Meinin­gen Court) for the pur­pose of exe­cut­ing a cer­tain wood­wind part. On this page I have tried to cap­ture the sub­lime vision.”

The inti­mate, decep­tively simple-sounding Clar­inet Trio is in four move­ments, marked Alle­gro, Ada­gio, Andante grazioso, and Alle­gro. Not sur­pris­ingly, the wist­ful, some­what melan­choly tim­bre of the clar­inet per­me­ates the entire piece with the cello and piano parts also often hav­ing an autum­nal color to them. Some crit­ics unfairly have char­ac­ter­ized the Trio as being a bit aus­tere. It would per­haps be more accu­rate to describe the emo­tions as being held close to the vest, rather than being grandly expan­sive. But this very inti­macy leads to won­der­ful byplay between the instru­ments, as if they are old friends com­plet­ing each other’s musi­cal thoughts. A friend of Brahms, Euse­bius Mandy­czewski, per­haps summed it up best when he remarked, “It is as though the instru­ments were in love with each other.”

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here by per­mis­sion.

 

 

 

 

Carlisle Floyd on Being a Librettist

Carlisle Floyd

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Quick — who wrote the words to Verdi’s La Travi­ata? To Donizetti’s Lucia? To Puccini’s Tosca? “Libret­tists have always been the num­ber two man, and the lion’s share of the atten­tion is always going to go to the com­poser,” says Carlisle Floyd. And Floyd is in an espe­cially author­i­ta­tive posi­tion to talk about the mat­ter since he is not only a pop­u­lar Amer­i­can com­poser, but he is also his own librettist.

A com­poser writ­ing his own libretto is an extremely rare event in the world of opera. Richard Wag­ner always did it (and accord­ing to some peo­ple did him­self no great ser­vice in the process). But far more fre­quently the process of cre­at­ing an opera is a col­lab­o­ra­tion between a per­son in charge of the music and one in charge of the words. ”Writ­ing a libretto is an under­ap­pre­ci­ated art and it shouldn’t be, because it’s extremely dif­fi­cult,” explains Floyd. “Every­thing really starts with the libretto — and in a sense, ends with it.

Com­pres­sion is the soul of the libretto writer; that’s your over­rid­ing con­cern. I think we’re all star­tled when we see the size of the libretto com­pared with the length of the opera. It’s amaz­ing what you can do without!”

When Floyd was first work­ing on Of Mice and Men, he included a scene that he later cut, though not with­out first doing a lot of soul search­ing. “I had made a whole scene in the whore house and cre­ated a big role for the madam. It worked very well as a scene, but it really wasn’t nec­es­sary to tell the story. When it was sug­gested the opera could do with­out the scene, of course, I protested vehe­mently,” he recalls with a laugh. “But you just can’t squirm away from the fact that if it’s not nec­es­sary to tell the story, then it best be left undone. It’s a case of the brain and the heart bat­tling each other. It’s a bru­tal busi­ness, sometimes.”

It can also be a bru­tal busi­ness to read the let­ters com­posers send their libret­tists, try­ing to get exactly the right words for a char­ac­ter to sing, or the right pac­ing for a scene. In fact Verdi once threat­ened to emas­cu­late a libret­tist unless the man gave the com­poser what he wanted.

I remem­ber Dou­glas Moore [com­poser of The Bal­lad of Baby Doe] say­ing to me, ‘Carlisle, I really envy you, you never have to quar­rel with your libret­tist.’ Basi­cally that’s right, but where Carlisle Floyd the com­poser quar­rels with Carlisle Floyd the libret­tist is when I haven’t pro­vided enough text, and musi­cally it requires more words. The prob­lem is that I’m very, very care­ful at being as pre­cise as pos­si­ble when I’m writ­ing the libretto, in the choice of words, and inter­nal rhythm — all those things. But when I have to stop writ­ing music to come up with more text, I’m always exas­per­ated with myself and I’m not nearly as selec­tive about the text I choose at that point as I am when I’m writ­ing the libretto to begin with. I’m much less hard on myself at that point, because I want to get back to the music.

Peo­ple are always amazed that I don’t write music when I’m writ­ing words,” Floyd con­tin­ues. “I’m not even hear­ing any music. But if you stopped me at any given place I would prob­a­bly be able to tell you what the color of the music would be. But at the same time, I know what I have to sup­ply myself with as a composer.”

Writ­ing his own libretto “just seemed like a nat­ural thing to do” when the 21-year-old com­poser decided to under­take his first opera, Slow Dusk. Part of the rea­son was that he had excelled in cre­ative writ­ing in col­lege, so words were hardly a for­eign means of expres­sion for him. “I adapted a short story of mine that I’d writ­ten in a cre­ative writ­ing sem­i­nar, so writ­ing the libretto just didn’t seem that big a stretch to me. Maybe it should have,” he adds with a laugh. “I got a lot of com­men­da­tion and encour­age­ment so there was noth­ing to deter me, I sup­pose, from writ­ing my own libretto again.”

So what it is about a sub­ject that makes Carlisle Floyd the libret­tist sit up and take notice? “It’s two things: rich char­ac­ters and very dra­matic sit­u­a­tions or inci­dents. Cri­sis is the nat­ural habi­tat of opera. It’s not day-to-day events, it’s extra­or­di­nary events. If a novel or a play doesn’t seem to have those, you’re prob­a­bly bet­ter off leav­ing it alone. I remem­ber some­one say­ing that opera was the nat­ural habi­tat for feel­ing, for emo­tion. That’s absolutely right.

There are a lot of things you can do in a play, a lot of sub­ject mat­ter you can treat, that I don’t think are appro­pri­ate for opera at all. Any­thing that has to do with philo­soph­i­cal, intel­lec­tual dis­putes you just can’t do on the opera stage. Any­thing that’s highly inter­nal­ized or requires a great deal of ver­biage unac­com­pa­nied by action you can’t do.”

Through­out his long career, Floyd has writ­ten orig­i­nal libret­tos and has also cre­ated libret­tos based on lit­er­ary mas­ter­pieces such a John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Emily Bronte’s Wuther­ing Heights, and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. Per­haps sur­pris­ingly, he says deal­ing with another author’s work is often eas­ier than fash­ion­ing a libretto from his own. “Using an exist­ing work, you never lose your objec­tiv­ity. There’s an emo­tional dis­tance built into that, whereas doing your own work dri­ves you mad, because you can’t be quite as emo­tion­ally detached from it.”

And how does Floyd the libret­tist decide where to put an aria, or a musi­cal ensem­ble for Floyd the com­poser to write? “Well, the dif­fi­cult thing is get­ting to it, because you just can’t do it arbi­trar­ily,” he explains. “Some­one once said that in opera seria the recita­tive loads the gun and the aria fires it. Load­ing the gun is the prob­lem so that fir­ing the gun seems absolutely nat­ural. You have to look through the mate­r­ial and find those scenes where there are pos­si­ble mono­logues or solil­o­quies, moments of lyric expan­sion. You’ve got to have an emo­tional crys­tal­liza­tion at that time, so you can afford to take the time [for the aria].

The point is that as a libret­tist the com­poser part of you is always breath­ing down your neck. You’re always ask­ing, is this too talky, is the action car­ry­ing the sto­ry­line? The for­ward move­ment must con­tinue. Good cur­tains don’t just arrive; they have to be built to. You’re always work­ing with struc­ture and shape in a libretto. Then the music and the libretto become prop­erly wed­ded. You can’t impose a musi­cal struc­ture on a libretto — or vice versa.”

But when there’s a dis­agree­ment between Carlisle Floyd the libret­tist and Carlisle Floyd the com­poser — who wins? “The com­poser, always,” he says with a laugh. “He’s a real tyrant!”

This arti­cle first appeared in the Hous­ton Grand Opera Play­bill.

Photo of Carlisle Floyd by Jim Caldwell.

 

 

Poulenc — Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano

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Fran­cis Jean Mar­cel Poulenc (1899 – 1963) had an upbring­ing that could hardly have been more for­tu­nate, given his even­tual career. He was born in Paris to a wealthy fam­ily of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal man­u­fac­tur­ers. The arts were an impor­tant part of the Poulenc house­hold, and the young boy’s inter­est in them was encour­aged, espe­cially by his mother, her­self a pianist of some tal­ent. At the age of five, Poulenc began piano lessons with her. She steered him to the music of Mozart, Chopin, Scar­latti, and Couperin and later fos­tered his explo­rations of com­posers such a Debussy, Ravel, and Stravin­sky. She also firmly resisted all attempts to force her son into the rigid, scholas­tic edu­ca­tion of the day. From her brother, Poulenc’s Uncle Papoum, young Fran­cis devel­oped a life­long delight in Parisian the­ater and café life in all its forms.

At six­teen, Poulenc began study­ing with Ricardo Viñes, a pianist who often per­formed the works of his friends Ravel and Debussy and who was a staunch sup­porter of avant-garde music. It was through Viñes that Poulenc met Erik Satie, who would be a great influ­ence on him. While still a teenager, Poulenc met Auric, Honeg­ger, and Mil­haud, and to them he ded­i­cated his first pub­lished com­po­si­tion, Rap­sodie négre. Writ­ten in 1917 and revised in 1933 Rap­sodie négre made it clear, once and for all, that Poulenc and the French musi­cal estab­lish­ment of the time were unsuited to each other. The direc­tor of the Paris Con­ser­va­tory told the eighteen-year-old com­poser, “Your music stinks, it is noth­ing but a load of balls. Are you try­ing to make a fool of me? Ah, I see you have joined the gang of Stravin­sky, Satie and com­pany. Well then, I’ll say goodbye.”

Though Poulenc briefly stud­ied with Ravel, Charles Koech­lin was the one who gave the young man the ground­ing he needed in order for his pro­found musi­cal indi­vid­u­al­ity to blos­som con­fi­dently. Today, the indi­vid­u­al­ity of his music has made Poulenc the dom­i­nant mem­ber of Les Six, a com­poser whose stature seems to grow with time. While he was alive, how­ever, Poulenc’s works were often treated dis­mis­sively, lead­ing the com­poser to remark to a friend that though he was “not intox­i­cated with the idea of being a Grand Musi­cian, it nonethe­less exas­per­ates me to be thought of by so many peo­ple as noth­ing more than a ‘petit maître éro­tique’.” His col­league Igor Stravin­sky thought oth­er­wise: “You are truly good, and that is what I find again and again and again in your music.”

The wit, ebul­lience, and Gal­lic charm that mis­tak­enly led peo­ple to under­value Poulenc’s music — as well as the superb crafts­man­ship which Stravin­sky and other com­posers so admired — are fully present in Poulenc’s Trio for Oboe, Bas­soon, and Piano. Writ­ten in Cannes in 1926 and ded­i­cated to Manuel de Falla, the Trio reflects the composer’s own con­sid­er­able abil­i­ties as a pianist (he often per­formed in con­cert and toured sev­eral times with the bari­tone Pierre Bernac and later with soprano Denise Duval) and his love of wind instruments.

The Trio is in three move­ments. The first (marked Presto) begins with a sixteen-measure intro­duc­tion, slow — one might almost say por­ten­tous — and com­pletely oppo­site to the play­ful qual­ity of the rest of this move­ment, which one writer has called “rococo crossed with Offen­bachian opéra bouffe.”  The more lyric sec­ond move­ment (Andante) demon­strates fully the composer’s aston­ish­ing melodic gifts, cou­pled with his abil­ity to use sub­tle har­monic shifts to alter the emo­tional color of the music. The last move­ment (Rondo) is a rol­lick­ing mod­ern ver­sion of the baroque French gigue, mod­i­fied by Poulenc’s own sen­si­bil­i­ties. The entire work is delight­ful, potent, and sec.

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here with per­mis­sion.

 

 

W. A. Mozart — Quintet in D Major for Strings, K. 593

Mozart, mature

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Wolf­gang Amadè Mozart (1756 – 91) was an invet­er­ate player of cham­ber music. Today, with 20/20 hind­sight, we might assume that such an august musi­cal genius would grav­i­tate to the first vio­lin parts when he played string quar­tets with his friends. But in fact Mozart much pre­ferred to play the viola on such occa­sions. He loved the instru­ment, with its warm, mel­low tim­bre, and he seems thor­oughly to have enjoyed being at the cen­ter of the music, rather than play­ing one of the more imme­di­ately notice­able outer voices.

By the time Mozart fin­ished writ­ing his first string quin­tet, in Decem­ber 1773, the seventeen-year-old had already com­posed fif­teen string quar­tets. It is pos­si­ble that Mozart decided to try his hand at the more unusual five-instrument form because Michael Haydn, younger brother of the com­poser Franz Joseph Haydn and a good friend of the Mozart fam­ily, had writ­ten what he called a “Not­turno” for two vio­lins, two vio­las, and cello in Feb­ru­ary 1773. This must have been suc­cess­ful, because the younger Haydn soon fol­lowed it up with a sec­ond quin­tet, and in Mozart’s let­ters from that year he speaks of play­ing both works.

Oddly, Franz Joseph Haydn, who wrote so much cham­ber music and whom Mozart revered, never wrote a string quin­tet. When asked why, he is said to have replied that no one ever com­mis­sioned one from him. A great excep­tion to the usual quin­tet instru­men­ta­tion of two vio­lins, two vio­las, and one cello is Schubert’s sin­gle string quin­tet, D.956 in C major, where the cello is dou­bled rather than the viola.

Though Mozart wrote far more string quar­tets (twenty-three) than quin­tets (six), he obvi­ously had a great per­sonal affec­tion for the five-voice form. Two string quin­tets com­prise the last cham­ber works he wrote: K. 593 in D major, com­pleted in Decem­ber 1790, and K. 641 in E-flat major, which he fin­ished on April 12, 1791. Both works were writ­ten on com­mis­sion, though exactly who com­mis­sioned them remains a mystery.

A cou­ple of years after Mozart’s death the quin­tets were pub­lished with the note: “Com­posed for a Hun­gar­ian Ama­teur.” Since Mozart’s wife, long after the fact, said her hus­band had writ­ten some music for Johann Trost (a vio­lin­ist from Eszter­háza and a musi­cian to whom Haydn had ded­i­cated some of his quar­tets), some writ­ers have spec­u­lated that Trost was the “Hun­gar­ian Ama­teur” in ques­tion. We know that, before Haydn left Vienna on Decem­ber 15, 1790 for the first of his two vis­its to Lon­don, he joined Mozart in play­ing the younger man’s quin­tets, espe­cially (accord­ing to Max­i­m­il­ian Stadler, a friend of Mozart’s and one of the other string play­ers) the new Quin­tet in D major. Stadler added that, dur­ing these cham­ber music ses­sions, Haydn and Mozart took turns play­ing first viola.

Mozart’s D major String Quin­tet is in four move­ments. The first, one of the most unusual first move­ments in all of Mozart, begins with a twenty-one-measure Larghetto intro­duc­tion in ¾ time. This is — sur­pris­ingly — brought back in a slightly mod­i­fied form at the end of the movement’s main, duple-meter Alle­gro sec­tion. The first move­ment is then fin­ished off, rather abruptly, by an eight-measure restate­ment of the movement’s prin­ci­pal theme.

The Ada­gio is one of Mozart’s most beau­ti­ful lyric cre­ations, with the indi­vid­ual instru­ments jux­ta­posed with enor­mous skill. In the Menuetto, the com­poser makes dra­matic use of sud­den shifts in the dynam­ics, ask­ing the play­ers to go from forte to piano within one or two beats. The Alle­gro finale is in 6/8 time. The delight­ful, bounc­ing open­ing theme gives no hint of the aston­ish­ing polyphony that Mozart will employ before fin­ish­ing the Quintet.

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here with per­mis­sion.

 

The Devil Gets His Due

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The world of opera is gen­er­ously pop­u­lated by an assort­ment of unsa­vory, even nasty and some­times down­right evil char­ac­ters, some of whom employ magic and the super­nat­ural in their quest of wreak­ing havoc on the unsus­pect­ing. But even though opera as a genre does not flinch from explor­ing The Dark Side of life, there are remark­ably few operas in which the Devil him­self actu­ally appears onstage. Two of them — Gounod’s Faust and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress—enter the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera’s reper­toire this spring, offer­ing audi­ences the oppor­tu­nity to pon­der what would seem to be a conun­drum, Why is it that the attain­ment of our heart’s deep­est desire is only pos­si­ble by enter­ing a pact with the Devil which, inevitably, leads to our eter­nal damna­tion? Why does it seem that behind every delight and plea­sure, ret­ri­bu­tion lurks in one form or another?

Faust pre­miered in 1859 and quickly became so extra­or­di­nar­ily pop­u­lar as to almost be ubiq­ui­tous, even inau­gu­rat­ing the old Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House on Octo­ber 22. 1883. For sev­eral decades audi­ences could not get enough of watch­ing the aged philoso­pher Faust sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for a sec­ond chance at youth and the oppor­tu­nity to expe­ri­ence the bliss of desire. (In Goethe’s orig­i­nal, more pro­found telling of the story, Faust bar­gains not specif­i­cally for youth and young love but says,  “If to the moment I should say:/Abide, you are so fair – /Put me in fet­ters on that day,/I wish to per­ish then, I swear.” Per­haps Gounod’s libret­tists felt their audi­ence could more eas­ily relate to the desire for a sec­ond chance of youth and romance than to the more amor­phous quest for the sin­gle per­fect moment.)

A dev­il­ish Mar­cel Journet

The opera might be called Faust but the juici­est role is Méphistophélès who, sum­moned by Faust, makes his appear­ance to five for­tis­simo chords played by the entire orches­tra. “I am here. Is that so sur­pris­ing?” Méphistophélès asks the aston­ished Faust. “Does my appear­ance dis­please you?” And imme­di­ately the orches­tra begins giv­ing us clues about what kind of guy this par­tic­u­lar Devil is. His first ques­tions are all fol­lowed by four soft, quick notes from the flutes, bas­soons and fourth horn, accom­pa­nied by two eighth notes by the strings. The music is play­ful, ele­gant, slightly mock­ing, the essence of a man very much in con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion and thor­oughly enjoy­ing it.

It is true that Faust takes the ini­tia­tive by sum­mon­ing Méphistophélès, and it is Faust who asks what the price will be for the Devil work­ing his super­nat­ural pow­ers on the philosopher’s behalf. He does not go blindly into the deal with Satan, he knows exactly what the price will be before he signs away his soul. He is fully aware of the con­se­quences and even hes­i­tates at the cru­cial moment — Méphistophélès has to sum­mon a vision of Mar­guerite to nudge, or entice, Faust into the final step. But once Méphistophélès steps on stage, he dom­i­nates the action and delights in it, while seduc­ing us into enjoy­ing his delight.

Pol Plançon

There are basses who have tried to make Gounod’s Méphistophélès a car­i­ca­ture of loath­some evil, the vocal equiv­a­lent of the Bible’s descrip­tion of the Devil in I Peter 5:8 as being “like a roar­ing lion, [who] walketh about, seek­ing whom he may devour.” But how many peo­ple would will­ingly hang around a roar­ing lion set on devour­ing them? Far more entic­ing is the Apos­tle Paul’s ver­sion in II Corinthi­ans: “Satan him­self is trans­formed into an angle of light,” which is much closer to Gounod’s Devil. An “amal­gam of debonair grace and cyn­i­cal men­ace,” is the way critic Paul Jack­son summed up the role, and lis­ten­ing to record­ings of great Méphistophélès like bass Pol Plançon (who sang the role 85 times at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan between 1893 and 1908) one can under­stand why every­one is so taken in by the guy. A critic for The New York Times describes Plançon’s Méphistophélès as “a boule­vardier,” a man about town, the kind of guy Faust, actu­ally, would like to be in his sec­ond youth, which is why he leans on the Devil for help, advice and instruc­tions when it comes to woo­ing Marguerite.

This iden­ti­fi­ca­tion between the Devil and his vic­tim is even more closely drawn in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, which pre­miered in 1951, almost a cen­tury after Gounod’s Faust. In the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury opera there is no magic potion, no overt sum­mon­ing of the Devil. Tom Rakewell merely says, “I wish I had money,” and instantly a stranger appears and informs the young man he has been left a for­tune by an uncle Rakewell never knew. Per­haps it is Rakewell’s unthink­ing youth which blinds him to the true iden­tity this mes­sen­ger, but Stravinsky’s libret­tists W. H. Auden and Chester Kall­man give man the name “Nick Shadow,” which leaves no doubt in the minds of the audi­ence as to the man’s iden­tity: “Old Nick” being one of the Devil’s many names, and “Shadow” being the dark side of every human being.

Those unpleas­ant and immoral aspects of our selves which we would like to pre­tend do not exist or have no effect on our lives — our infe­ri­or­i­ties, our unac­cept­able impulses, our shame­ful actions and wishes — this shad­owy side of our per­son­al­ity is dif­fi­cult and painful to admit,” writes Rob Hopcke in A Guided Tour of The Col­lected Works of  C. G. Jung.

The shadow is, in truth, a dev­il­ish form,” observes June Singer in Bound­aries of the Soul, “and just when you think you know who he is, he changes his dis­guise and appears from another direction.”

Igor Stravin­sky

Tom Rakewell, who has no desire to work for a liv­ing and plans to rely on the favor of For­tune, only has to express as wish and his shadow, Nick Shadow, grants it. Every wish appears, as if by magic, just by the wish­ing itself. But none of the wishes last, and Tom ends up dying insane in Bedlam.

Per­haps one of the rea­sons our delights fade, and some­times have unpleas­ant con­se­quences, is to be found in the root of the word itself. “Delight” comes from the same root as “to snare” or “to bind,” and is closely related to “a noose.” Our delights can hang us, and we do it to our­selves by remain­ing uncon­scious of the roots of our desires, even if we blame it all on the Devil.

In the first scene of  The Rake’s Progress, Nick Shadow thanks Rakewell for tak­ing him on as guide and says, “for mas­ter­less should I abide/Too long, I soon would die.” What a con­cept, that the Devil needs us or he dies? In the Epi­logue, Shadow explains, “Day in, day out, poor Shadow/Must do as he is bidden.”

Nick Shadow needs Tom Rakewell as much as Rakewell needs Shadow for the ful­fill­ment of his wishes. Méphistophélès needs Faust as much as Faust needs him. What a para­dox. Or is it?

If I can stay with my con­flict­ing impulses long enough, the two oppos­ing forces will teach each other some­thing and pro­duce an insight that serves them both,” notes Robert A. John­son in Own­ing Your Own Shadow. “This is not com­pro­mise but a depth of under­stand­ing that puts my life in per­spec­tive and allows me to know with cer­tainty what I should do. That cer­tainty is one of the most pre­cious qual­i­ties known to humankind.”

This arti­cle appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, March 2003.

The paint­ing at the top of the arti­cle is Eugene Delacroix’s “Faust and Mephistophe­les,” 1826 – 27.

 

Giovanni Hoffman — Serenade for Viola and Mandolin

Girl_with_a_Mandolin

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Gio­vanni Hoff­man is one of the mys­tery men of music. Grove Dic­tio­nary includes no entry for him, nor does Baker’s Bio­graph­i­cal Dic­tio­nary or the Oxford Con­cise Dic­tio­nary of Music. Even his name is enig­matic. An obvi­ously Ital­ian given name is cou­pled to a Ger­manic fam­ily name, per­haps indi­cat­ing that he, like many musi­cians of the eigh­teenth cen­tury, moved to Italy at some point and changed his name, hop­ing to find poten­tial patrons for whom “music” meant “Ital­ian music.”

Howard Kadis, a Bay Area man­dolin­ist who has per­formed with the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony, has unearthed a few snip­pets of infor­ma­tion from liner notes for var­i­ous record­ings. “He was by birth Milanese,” says one of these anno­ta­tions. But Kadis also adds that Gerber’s Dic­tio­nary of Musi­cians, pub­lished in 1812 or 1814, lists Gio­vanni Hoff­man as “an obscure con­tem­po­rary musi­cian, likely from Vienna, and a vir­tu­oso on the man­dolin.” Kadis has also dis­cov­ered a ref­er­ence from a musi­cal lex­i­con by one Her­mann Mendell: “Hoff­man was a vir­tu­oso on the man­dolin and wrote var­i­ous com­po­si­tions for man­dolin and assorted accom­pa­ni­ments pub­lished in Vienna about 1799. Not much remains of his work except a con­certo for man­dolin and orches­tra and var­i­ous works for man­dolin and strings, along with three sonatas for unfig­ured bass.”

That era, late Mozart/early Beethoven, was rife with man­dolin­ists,” Kadis points out. “A lot of Ital­ian musi­cians of that time, gui­tarists and man­dolin­ists, moved to Vienna. Hum­mel wrote for the man­dolin, so did Mozart and Beethoven.” Could Hoff­man have been an Ital­ian who moved to Vienna and adopted a Ger­man surname?

A mem­ber of the lute fam­ily, the man­dolin seems to have appeared in Naples around the mid­dle of the sev­en­teenth. The ori­gin of the term “man­dolin,” sug­gests Grove, is some­what obscure. “It is not entirely clear whether the name derivers pri­mar­ily from the word ‘man­dola’ or from the wide­spread use of ‘man’ (or vari­ants such as ‘ban,’ ‘pan,’ ‘tan,’ etc.) as the first syl­la­ble in names of lute instru­ments from the East and West.”

The orig­i­nal Neapoli­tan man­dolin quickly became pop­u­lar in Italy, and as the instru­ment trav­eled north, vari­a­tions began to appear, named after the cities in which instru­ment mak­ers refined the Neapoli­tan orig­i­nal to their own tastes. The Roman man­dolin (which had a more rounded neck and a higher bridge than its Neapoli­tan cousin) appeared, fol­lowed by the Flo­ren­tine (with its smaller body and longer neck), and finally the Milanese or Lom­bar­dian man­dolin, which fea­tured an almond-shaped, more elon­gated body and a less deeply con­vex back. Other coun­tries, too, quickly adapted the man­dolin to local tastes. In the eigh­teenth cen­tury, France, Por­tu­gal, and Spain all had their own ver­sions of the instrument.

Com­posers of West­ern art music have often used the instru­ment for color. Mozart included it in Act II of his opera Don Gio­vanni, where the Don is to accom­pany his pop­u­lar ser­e­nade “Deh vieni alla fines­tra,” on the man­dolin. Verdi uses it to accom­pany a cho­rus in his opera Otello. Mahler seems to have been quite fond of the mandolin’s sound, using it in both his Sev­enth and Eighth Sym­phonies as well as in Das Lied von der Erde. Even Stravin­sky (in Agon) and Schoen­berg (in his Vari­a­tions for Orches­tra and Opus 24 Ser­e­nade) have writ­ten for it.

There is a rea­son Gio­vanni Hoffman’s Ser­e­nade for man­dolin and viola isn’t played a lot, and that’s because it’s so hard for the man­dolin,” says man­dolin­ist Ben Brus­sell, who is fea­tured in the work this after­noon. “In all of the man­dolin lit­er­a­ture, there’s noth­ing that I have come across that is a hard to play as this Ser­e­nade. It makes the Vivaldi con­cer­tos look like child’s play.”

Though no one seems to know for sure exactly when the piece was writ­ten, the score of the Ser­e­nade indi­cates that it was com­posed “circa 1800.” Which means it was writ­ten for an instru­ment slightly dif­fer­ent from a mod­ern man­dolin, which is shaped some­what dif­fer­ently and, accord­ing to Brus­sell, holds the pitch more securely and projects the sound better.

I’ve had to make a few adap­ta­tions to the Ser­e­nade to make it playable,” Brus­sell says. “My sup­po­si­tion is that the first move­ment and the last move­ment were in sketch form. The three inner move­ments are more like cham­ber music, with the viola and man­dolin parts being pretty much equal. Whereas the two outer move­ments are more like viola accom­pa­ni­ments and man­dolin etudes, as opposed to real cham­ber music.

I’ve had to do a bit of work — adding a cou­ple mea­sures here, delet­ing a cou­ple there, to make it fit well on a mod­ern man­dolin. Music of that era, roughly Mozart’s period, often look decep­tively sim­ple. In this piece, for instance, Hoff­man will some­times ask the man­dolin to play a run. Then, rather then notat­ing a full chord, as a mod­ern com­poser would, he asks the man­dolin to play an octave and a fifth, which is quite awk­ward to play and sounds off to mod­ern ears. So I’ve had to fill in some of the voic­ings to make the work ‘sound’ on a mod­ern instrument.”

Over the years, Leonid Gesin, the vio­list in today’s con­cert, has played Hoffman’s Ser­e­nade sev­eral times. “There are not many pieces writ­ten for man­dolin and viola,” he says with a laugh. “Almost nobody knows this music, but peo­ple like it when they hear it. It’s a beau­ti­ful piece.”

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here with per­mis­sion.

The paint­ing at the top of the arti­cle is “Girl with a Man­dolin” by Jules Joseph Lefeb­vre (1836 – 1911).

 

W. A. Mozart — Trio in E-Flat Major for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano, K. 498

Mozart, mature

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Wolf­gang Amadè Mozart (1756 – 91) seemed to have an affin­ity for sur­round­ing him­self with col­or­ful peo­ple.  Even a short list of such friends would have to include the Vien­nese clar­inet and bas­set horn vir­tu­oso Anton Paul Stadler (1753 – 1812), who played in the first per­for­mance of the Trio in E-flat for Clar­inet, Viola, and Piano.

Though Mozart cer­tainly knew about the clar­inet from his days in Munich (the orches­tra in Mozart’s home­town of Salzburg did not include clar­inets), it was Stadler who revealed the instrument’s true beau­ties and poten­tial to the com­poser. For this fel­low Mason, Mozart com­posed the Clar­inet Quin­tet, K.581, and the last instru­men­tal work he com­pleted, the great Clar­inet Con­certo, K.622. Stadler went to Prague to play in the orches­tra at the pre­mière of Mozart’s opera La clemenza di Tito, and for him Mozart wrote the promi­nent clar­inet and bas­set horn obbli­gatos in the score, later report­ing glee­fully that Stadler had received many cries of “bravo” for his play­ing. Stadler’s younger brother, Johann, was also a clar­inet player, and for these broth­ers Mozart added clar­inet parts to his Sym­phony No. 40 in G minor.

Some writ­ers sim­ply dis­miss Stadler’s char­ac­ter as “dis­solute,” but Mar­cia Dav­en­port, in her biog­ra­phy of Mozart (first pub­lished in 1932), does not stop there: “The most con­spic­u­ous of the leeches was Anton Stadler, a wretched lying thief who took every advan­tage of Wolf­gang and yet made it hard for his poor friend to believe that such a superb clar­inetist could be a rogue.”

Anton Stadler

It is true that in 1791 Mozart loaned Stadler 500 Guldin, a large enough sum of money to make one won­der where the com­poser, who was con­stantly short of funds, got the money in the first place. (The debt was later listed as “uncol­lectible” on a totally of Mozart’s assets; pre­sum­ably it was never repaid.) In all prob­a­bil­ity Stadler stole some of Mozart’s pawn tick­ets and sold them, keep­ing the money for him­self. A minor com­poser, Stadler passed off some of Mozart’s work as his own, but he was hardly the only one of Mozart’s cir­cle to do so. In any event, Mozart did not hold any of his friend’s numer­ous short­com­ings against him. He enjoyed the man’s com­pany thor­oughly and esteemed him as an out­stand­ing musician.

Mozart fin­ished this Trio in Vienna on August 5, 1786. Ear­lier that year he had com­pleted his opera Le nozze di Figaro, two piano con­cer­tos (No. 23 in A major and No. 24 in C minor), and numer­ous other works, among them the Twelve Duos for Two Wind Instru­ments, K.487. Across the head of the auto­graph score for the last set of pieces, Mozart scrawled, “Vienna, the 27th of July 1786, while bowl­ing.” No such head­ing appears on the score of the Trio for Clar­inet, Viola, and Piano, writ­ten only nine days later, even though it is known as the Kegel­statt (“bowl­ing alley”) Trio.  It is entirely pos­si­ble, of course, that Mozart did write the Trio in the bowl­ing alley, though some writ­ers have sug­gested that he just thought about the work while relax­ing dur­ing the game.

The Trio was writ­ten for one of Mozart’s favorite piano stu­dents, Franziska Got­tfried von Jacquin (sis­ter of one of the composer’s best friend, Got­tfried von Jacquin), who played the piano in the first per­for­mance. In all prob­a­bil­ity, Mozart him­self played the viola on that occasion.

In is an unusual work. The tim­bres of clar­inet and viola give the music an espe­cially inti­mate and gen­tle char­ac­ter, as does the fact the first move­ment is not the typ­i­cal Alle­gro, but a slower Andante (and in 6/8 time). Through­out the three instru­ments are beau­ti­fully matched, and the sense of unity arises from the music’s con­cen­tra­tion and the way Mozart uti­lizes each instrument’s strength.

The arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here with per­mis­sion.

Francis Poulenc — Sonata for Horn, Trumpet, and Trombone

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In the hands of a less sophis­ti­cated com­poser than Fran­cis Poulenc (1899 – 1963), a sonata for horn, trum­pet, and trom­bone could eas­ily turn out of be an exer­cise in bom­bas­tic noise. In Poulenc’s hands, the unusual instru­men­ta­tion is a con­stant delight, his writ­ing for each par­tic­i­pant rang­ing from mel­low lyri­cism to brash exuberance.

Poulenc was born in Paris and, before he was twenty years old, became a mem­ber of “Les Six,” the group of six young French com­posers that included Erik Satie, Arthur Honeg­ger, and Dar­ius Mil­haud. Though Poulenc cer­tainly was suc­cess­ful at writ­ing large works (among them choral pieces such as his Sta­bat Mater, as well as three operas), most of his out­put is on a smaller scale. He was a bril­liant song writer, some­times cre­at­ing mas­ter­pieces less than a minute long. In his cham­ber music he occa­sion­ally delighted in writ­ing for unusual com­bi­na­tions of instru­ments, such as his Sonata for Two Clar­inets (1918), Sonata for Clar­inet and Bas­soon (1922), and, of course, the present work, from 1922 (revised in 1945).

In his book My Many Years, pianist Arthur Rubin­stein refers to the “sub­tle sim­plic­ity” of Poulenc’s piano works, adding, “Because they always seemed to remind you of some­thing, I some­times accused them of being sim­ple pas­tiches. But later I learned bet­ter. Poulenc was one of the bravest musi­cians of his time. He accepted all the influ­ences with­out qualms but some­how a strik­ing per­son­al­ity emerged.”

Cer­tainly his Sonata for Horn, Trum­pet, and Trom­bone could remind lis­ten­ers of an eighteenth-century diver­tisse­ment, at least in spirit. But this short work (its three move­ments last less than ten min­utes) could only be the prod­uct of a twentieth-century French­man. The com­poser used his melodic gift lav­ishly in the sonata, but the melodies are often over­shad­owed by Poulenc’s over­flow­ing wit, which, in true Parisian fash­ion, some­times bor­ders on the acerbic.

The entire work is suf­fused with a play­ful­ness and a sense of delight that is extremely sophis­ti­cated. As Roger Nichols writes in his essay on Poulenc in The New Grove Dic­tio­nary of Music and Musi­cians, “The open­ing trum­pet theme…needs the cor­rec­tion of only three ‘wrong’ notes in the first four bars for it to con­form with eighteenth-century har­monic prac­tice — as it were, Per­golesi with his wig awry.”

For Poulenc, a sense of light­ness was one of the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of French music. “You will find sobri­ety and dolor in French music just as in Ger­man or Russ­ian,” he said in 1950. “But the French have a keener sense of pro­por­tion. We real­ize that somber­ness and good humor are not mutu­ally exclu­sive. Our com­posers, too, write pro­found music, but when they do, it is leav­ened with that light­ness of spirit with­out which life would be unendurable.”

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here with per­mis­sion.

The delight­ful photo of Poulenc is by Fred Plaut, cour­tesy of the Fred and Rose Plaut Papers at the Irv­ing S. Gilmore Music Library, Yale Uni­ver­sity, box 18.