Francis Poulenc (1899 – l963): Sonata for Violin and Piano, FP 119
Allegro con fuoco
Intermezzo: Trés lent et calme
Born into a well off bourgeoisie family, Francis Poulenc was the son of Emile Poulenc, director of the pharmaceutical firm Rhône-Poulenc, and Jenny Royer, an amateur pianist. Poulenc’s mother gave him his first piano lessons when he was five. From 1914-1917, Poulenc took lessons with the pianist Ricardo Viñes, who became a spiritual mentor and the dedicatee or first performer of his earliest works. After military service between 1918 and 1921, he took composition lessons from Charles Koechlin, a pupil of Massenet, Fauré, and André Gedalge at the Paris Conservatoire.
By the 1920s, Poulenc was an established composer. He was the youngest member of a loosely related group of young French composers known as Les Six, whose members included Milhaud, Durey, Tailleferre, Honegger and Auric. Poulenc’s life and his musical style often reveal traits of polarity: on one hand, his music was marked by a charismatic sense of urbanity and dry wit; on the other hand, his choral works, in particular, reflected a profound sense of spirituality and piety. But in Poulenc’s own words, “I am very eclectic … Now, a crucial point, I am not a Cubist musician, even less a Futurist and, of course, not an Impressionist. I am a musician without a Iabel.” In fact, Poulenc musical language can be considered rather ‘conservative’ to his contemporaries. Quoted from a letter of 1942 by Roger Nichols, Poulenc expressed that: “I think there’s room for new music which doesn’t mind using other people’s chords. Wasn’t that the case with Mozart–Schubert?”.
While Poulenc’s most widely known chamber music involves wind instruments, not strings, he made three attempts in writing a violin sonata, all dedicated to French female virtuoso violinists of his time. He discarded the first two violin sonatas, written for Helene Jourdan-Morhange (1919) and Jelly d’Aranyi (1924) respectively. The third one, which managed to see the light of day was written for the hugely talented violinist, Ginette Neveu, who died prematurely in a plane crash in 1942. Poulenc revised the last movement after the tragic incident.
The sonata was first performed on 21 June 1943, written in memory of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, a victim of the Spanish Civil War. The first movement opens with an obsessive figure of dotted rhythm, followed by three sharply articulated sixteenth notes. An innocent melody introduced by the piano brought a breath of fresh air to the commotion, and the relentless pace is replaced by a more nostalgic dialogue between the violin and the piano. A distorted version of the piano melody, accompanied by screeching figures in the violin, drive the movement to a dramatic halt. The main themes are heard again and the movement closes with a glimmer of ray in D major.</p<
The second movement, an Intermezzo, is headed by a quotation from Lorca, “The guitar makes dreams weep.” Perhaps that explains why the movement features pizzicato and strumming technique on the violin, evoking the sound of the guitar. It begins with a chant-like melody on the piano, the modally inflected violin tune add to the feeling of a vague, remote past. The music is rather like a caressing breeze on a hot summer night, with the violin mysteriously gliding away into the darkness at the end.
The opening of the finale shows Poulenc’s gaîté Parisienne style: the sounds of can-can, carousel and the musette are thrown into a whirlwind frenzy, winding to a catastrophe climax. The solo violin screams and falls, as if hit and crushed by accident. The music grounds down to a mournful dirge, as if life is shown in flashback while the world stand still. The sudden flourish in the piano and violin are reminiscent of the specter reappearing at the end of Petrushka.