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.