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

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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.