Articles

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

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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

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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

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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.