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.