This post is part of a long term project between myself and cellist Sarah Acres, which explores French Song repertoire, taking in along the way some of the great solo works of the French repertoire, including this one, marking the 50th anniversary of Poulenc’s death.
Recordings of Sarah Acres & Albert Combrink performing this work can be found HERE.
Encountering Poulenc’s Cello Sonata is an extraordinary experience. Given the extreme difficulty of the solo part, and the extremely fast metronome markings, it is a work that comes up less often in pianists’ field of vision than, say, the Clarinet or Flute Sonatas. Some writers consider it atypical of the composer. For me, it has been a chance to dip my hands into a jewelery case – as I did with my mother’s when I was a child. Every page is filled with delights and treats, glorious ribbons of melody, sparkling harmonies and carefully handcrafted corners that are a delight to the touch. Les Six are in attendance. The aesthetics of Jean Cocteau is palpable – avoiding Wagnerisms and drawing inspiration from Parisian “folklore” – such as the circus – being a focal point. In Poulenc’s music, conflicting sides of his personality rub shoulders: the pious Catholic boy and the rebellious l’enfent terible. The Cello Sonata reflects this as much as any of his works.
Les Six is a name, inspired by Mily Balakirev’s The Five (for the Big Five Russian Nationalist Composers), given in 1920 by critic Henri Collet in an article titled “Les cinq Russes, les six Français et M. Satie” (Comoedia, 16 January 1920) to a group of six French composers working in Montparnasse. Their music is often seen as a reaction against the musical style of Richard Wagner and the impressionist music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.
The members were:
- Georges Auric (1899–1983)
- Louis Durey (1888–1979)
- Arthur Honegger (1892–1955)
- Darius Milhaud (1892–1974)
- Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
- Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983)
Charlie Chaplin meets a merry band of characters of the commedia dell’arte and dance and tumble down the bustling les Champs Elysées. As the noisy band moves down the street, they might pop into a Cathedral, light a candle and Arleccino might kneel and say a “Hail Mary”, and light a candle, before rushing out into the sunlit street. Colombina delights in some Coco Chanel she sees in a shop window, and then the band walk past the cemetery where rows and rows of white crosses mark the graves of the young French “Bleuet’s” who died in the recent horror that was World War II. They might go in and place a flower on a grave, and Arlecchino, for a moment, sinks to his knees, overwhelmed with sadness at the death and destruction they witnessed. He would be tenderly consoled by Pulcinella. Who promptly pulls out a wooden sword and challenge Il Capitano to a duel, who responds by giving the salute and marching his little Prokofiev March. As they all laugh at one of Chaplin’s famous tipping scenes, they momentarily forget the ghastly reality that they are standing on French land both humiliated by Hitler and fertilised with the blood of French youth.
Francis Poulenc completed his Sonate pour violoncelle et piano, Op. 143, in 1948. He first sketched it in 1940. It was dedicated to the French cellist Pierre Fournier, who had helped with the technical aspects of the cello part, as the composer was unfamiliar with the instrument. Each movement is in ternary form, having a contrasting middle section. The piece makes much use of Neo-Baroque and Neo-Classical styles. The work is a product of his newly found duo with cellist Pierre Fournier.
Poulenc wrote to Simone Girard:
“Fournier is a love, a real love. He is undoubtedly an admirable artist, the greatest cellist of our day. Only someone with Fournier’s stupendous class could make me take to a new duo.”It is very easy to play with Fournier. He never falters. I repeat that he is adorable.” [Buckland, Sydney, “Fancis Poulenc: Echo and Source – Selected Correspondence 1915-1963”, Victor Gollancz Ltd., London, 1991, p.201]
Despite a letter from Rostropovich, Poulenc only contributed one serious work to the cello repertoire, the sonata, sketched in 1940, but only completed in 1948 for a concert tour of Italy with Pierre Fournier (1906-1985).
Poulenc claimed not to understand the instrument, writing to Claude Rostand, that he was not at ease writing for strings, preferring to write for wind instruments which he found closer to the human voice:
“Nothing is further from the human breath than the stroke of a bow.” [Ibid. P.411]
Poulenc was a friend of Marc Chagall, who has his own song in the cycle “Le travail du peintre” for voice & piano, FP 161. The Sonata shares a certain character with the Cello Sonata. The following paragraph about Chagal’s painting, “Circus” (Pictured above), sums up my experience of the Cello Sonata.
Firstly, the vibrant color. Chagall has truly captured the bright, vibrant colors that are present at such an event. The audience is immersed in these background colors and become themselves, part of the mood. One can’t help but feel the energy simply pouring out of the canvas, which is due almost exclusively to the use of dazzling hues and tones. The festive mood is furthered by the placement of the performers. At center ring is a woman riding an imaginatively colored horse, which provides a focal point to the painting. A wandering minstrel is present amongst the audience, which was a common occurrence in early circuses, as performers would often venture out into the crowd. The other predominant figure is the man holding the ring, ready for any sort of animal to jump through. One of the benefits of such a busy scene is that there are so many subtleties to be discovered. It seems every time I view this painting I see something that I didn’t see before. This is why this Chagall painting is one of my all time favorites. The bright colors allow this painting to be used as a focal point in almost any room, and the little nuances will pull you closer time and time again. [Read more at Chagallpaintings.org]
Poulenc’s Sonata was completed in the same year as other momentous woks:
~ Turangalîla-Symphonie is a large-scale orchestral work by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), including the electronic instrument, the Ondes Martenot. Messiaen had earlier expressed his first-hand experience of war in the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, also known by its English title Quartet for the End of Time. At this time he was less concerned with painting religious canvasses or Catholic commentaries, but wrote a “love song” on a giant scale, inspired by Tristan and Isolde. The gigantic war seems to encourage Messiaen to search for the good in human love.
~ Igor Stravinsky’s Mass, written between 1944 and 1948 is a 19-minute setting of the Roman Catholic Mass which exhibits the austere, Neoclassic, anti-Romantic aesthetic that characterizes his work from about 1923 to 1951. The Mass also represents one of only a handful of extant pieces by Stravinsky that was not commissioned. As such, part of the motivation behind its composition has been cited by Robert Craft and others as the product of a spiritual necessity. Again, one feels the gigantic impact of World War II somehow galvanised a search for spiritual values.
~ Poulenc’s final work, the Oboe Sonata, is dedicated to Sergei Prokofiev, a mark of his esteem and knowledge of the Russian composer’s music.
While studying this work, I felt these three above-mentioned composers “dancing in the wings” as it were: popping in, tiptoeing through the field or dabbing their paintbush on Poulenc’s canvas, leaving tell-tale traces as they go. Messiaenic chord-clusters, Neo-Classical Stavinskian Counterpoint and some jauntily percussive Prokofiev are all given the Poulenc treatment. Exquisite melodies abound throughout. Javanese Gamelan music – always an influence in Poulenc – is also present: the closing pages of the Cavatina is reminiscent of the closing pages of the first movement of the Concerto for Two Pianos.
Ricardo Viñes (1875 – 1943), the great Spanish pianist, was Poulenc’s teacher. Artist Leon Bakst, returning to France from America in 1916, brought Viñes copies of various piano works, including the Sarcasmes Op. 17 and the Piano Sonata No. 2 Op.14. Poulence evidently delighted in hearing his teacher play these works to him. [Schmidt, Carl B., “Entrancing Muse: A Documented Biography of Francis Poulenc”, Pendragon Press, New York P.21]
Francis Poulenc: Sonata for Cello and Piano Op.143
i Allegro: Tempo di marcia
ii Cavatine: Très calme
iv Finale: Largo, très librement – Presto subito – Largo
Cellist Sarah Acres has this to say about the Sonata:
“…Nothing is further from human breath than the bowstroke …” – words spoken by none other than Poulenc. He stated categorically that he was “unfamiliar” with the cello, and it took eight years from the first sketches for the Cello sonata in 1940 until it’s completion in 1948, under technical advisement from cellist Pierre Fournier. Like so many of his compositions, it shows the influence of Stravinsky and Prokofiev, and he was known to also plagiarise his own works. Excerpts from Barbar the Elephant and the Concerto for Two pianos both make an appearance, as well as a Prokofiev style march, and the very opening fanfare is somewhat reminiscent (albeit unintentionally) of the Commedia d’ell arte characters (the music for Stravinsky’s Pulcinella and Petrouchka were both influenced to some degree by these stock characters) .
The second movement is entitled “Cavatine” and is often performed on its own. The tremendous energy and “joie de vivre”, so apparent in the first and third movement are replaced here with a darker, contained, melancholic nature. The third movement is a high energy”Ballabile” (‘danceable’- In ballet the term refers to a dance performed by the corps de ballet).
A Wonderful sonata throughout, exciting to play although the tempi are always marked at incredible speeds. But with the incisive writing and the wonderful dialogue between the piano and the cello, it is so satifying to play- although it’s certainly stretched every boundary of the comfort zone ! [Cellist in the City]
Nadia Boulenger, the legendary French pedagogue, saw the contradictions in the composer’s character. “Poulenc’s personality was much more complex than what met the eye,” she said. “He was entirely paradoxical. You could meet him as easily in fashionable Parisian circles … or at Mass.”
Watch a historically informed Youtube Clip of Poulenc’s Cello Sonata
Francis Poulenc: Sonate pour violoncelle et piano, Op. 143 (1948), performed in 1976 by two of Poulenc’s duet partners: Jacques Fevrier – with whom Poulenc performed amongst other works, the Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos – and Pierre Fournier, the dedicatee of the Sonata.
- “When I wrote this piece … I had in mind those frescoes by Gozzoli where the angels stick out their tongues. And also some serious Benedictine monks I had once seen reveling in a game of football.” (Poulenc, referring to his Gloria).