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.