Clarinet Sonata (Poulenc)
Francis Poulenc's Sonata for clarinet and piano in B-flat (FP 184) dates from 1962 and is one of the last pieces he completed. The piece is dedicated to the memory of an old friend, the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, who like Poulenc had belonged to the group of "Les Six." A typical performance takes about 13 minutes.
The sonata is in three movements:
- 1. Allegro tristamente (Allegretto - Très calme - Tempo allegretto)
- 2. Romanza (Très calme)
- 3. Allegro con fuoco (Très animé)
The structure differs somewhat from the fast-slow-fast pattern of a traditional sonata in that the first movement is itself split into three sections in the pattern fast-slow-fast. It bears the somewhat paradoxical subtitle "Allegro tristamente": accordingly, the piece is always in motion, but proceeds with a sense of grieving. After a brief fortissimo introduction consisting of angry spurts of figuration in the clarinet punctuated by piano chords, the piano quiets to a murmur. The clarinet's lines are built of a self-perpetuating series of arcs that leave a shape but not a tune in our ears. At one point the clarinet seems stuck in a motivic rut, sadly leaping up and down between octave B tones over a shifting harmonic background. As the movement ends, the lingering memory is a fuzzy one of melancholy gestures and moods.
The second movement, "Romanza," is both clearer in its melodic makeup and more cathartic, perhaps, in its emotional expression. The clarinet melody is simple and somber throughout, but is elaborately embroidered in a few places, as if losing composure. Two particularly poignant examples are the sixty-fourth note runs near the beginning, and the trembling half-step figure that appears at the beginning and end.
The third movement, "Allegro con fuoco," energetically combines various nimble, articulate, and rhapsodic themes, bookended by a delightfully clownish tune—a mixture of serious and silly that well represents Poulenc's oeuvre as a whole.
The famous clarinetist Benny Goodman, who commissioned the piece, was intended to premiere it with the composer accompanying. Poulenc died suddenly of a heart attack on January 30, 1963 before it was published, and an editor was employed to ascertain the identity of some notes, as well as provide missing dynamics and articulations. The premiere was given at New York City's Carnegie Hall by Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein on April 10, 1963. Harold C. Schonberg, music critic of the New York Times had this to say: "Poulenc was not a 'big' composer, for his emotional range was too restricted. But what he did, he did perfectly, and his music shows remarkable finish, style and refinement.... The sonata...is typical Poulenc. In the first movement, skittish thematic elements are broken up by a broadly melodic middle section. The slow movement is one of those melting, long-phrased and unabashed sentimental affairs that nobody but Poulenc could carry off. Weakest of the three movements is the finale, which races along but has little immediacy. Here Poulenc's inspiration seems to have run out."
Additional Clarinet Sonatas
Early in his career, Poulenc composed two other sonatas featuring the clarinet. These two works, Sonata for Two Clarinets and Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon, are representative of an early style of experimentation for Poulenc. Both works make use of "wrong-note" dissonance and mix tonal harmony with modal harmony. Texturally, the works feature parallelism, imitation, and melody with accompaniment. Both works are very brief and could perhaps have been titled sonatina.
In 1918 (at age 19), Poulenc composed the Sonata for Two Clarinets (FP7), which features one player on B♭ clarinet and the other on A clarinet. The 5-minute piece is in three movements, marked:
- Andante: Très lent
- Vif: Vite avec joie
One of Poulenc's earliest sonatas, he referred to it as an "entertainment" and later revised it in 1945. The work is brief, with two fast movements bookending a slow middle movement that features the first clarinet player in solo role with the second clarinet taking an accompaniment role with an ostinato. Somewhat melodically sparse, the piece features repetition, sequences, and shifting meters, recalling Eric Satie and Igor Stravinsky and pointing the way forward for Poulenc's developing style.
In 1922, Poulenc composed the Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon (FP32), which he later revised in 1945. The 8-minute piece is in three movements, marked:
- Allegro: Très rythme
- Romance: Andante très doux
- Final: Très animé
Slightly more developed than the Sonata for Two Clarinets, the piece follows the same fast-slow-fast pattern, but contains more melodic material. The work also reflects Poulenc's study of Bach's counterpoint, with the bassoon sometimes taking the role of a quasi-basso continuo.
Other Woodwind Sonatas
The clarinet sonata is one of three that Poulenc wrote for solo woodwind and piano, part of a planned set that he did not live to complete. A sonata for flute was composed in 1956, while one for oboe was completed a few weeks after the one for clarinet. A sonata for bassoon was never begun.
Like the clarinet sonata, the oboe sonata is dedicated to the memory of a lost friend: in this case, Sergei Prokofiev. Poulenc modified his usual fast-slow-fast pattern of movements to slow-fast-slow. The concluding lament is particularly suited to the qualities of the oboe. The flute sonata shares with the clarinet/piano work a structure that features a more restrained attitude in the first two movements, followed by a more playful finale.
As scholar and biographer Keith Daniel observes, certain thematic materials appear in all three works. The thirty-second note figure that opens the flute sonata appears with some alteration in the first movement of the oboe sonata, and in rough inversion during the second movement of the one for clarinet; likewise, a motive consisting of a dotted note filled out by two shorter notes appears in multiple places in all three sonatas. Finally, Daniel notes the overall similarity of mood in the second movements of the flute and clarinet sonatas.
Published Scores of Clarinet Sonata(s)
- Sonata for clarinet and piano. London: Chester Music, cat. no. CH61763, ed. Sachania.
- Sonata for clarinet and bassoon. London: Chester Music, cat. no. CH00219, 
- Sonata for two clarinets. London: Chester Music, cat. no. CH00219, 
Fredrik Fors, clarinet; Sveinung Bjelland, piano (Harmonia Mundi HMN911853; see recording details at Fredrik Fors).
- Schonberg, Harold. "Music: A Tribute to Francis Poulenc" in The New York Times, April 11, 1963. Accessed 2 September 2009. Registration and purchase required.
- Fischer, Guido (2004), translated by Charles Johnston. Untitled essay in the booklet accompanying Harmonia Mundi CD HMN911853.
- Minor, Janice Louise (2004). ""Were They Truly Neoclassic?" a Study of French Neoclassicism Through Selected Clarinet Sonatas by "Les Six" Composers: Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, Darius Milhaud, and Francis Poulenc". p. 45.
- Bellman, Hector. "Sonata for 2 Clarinets". All Music Guide.
- Roger Nichols: 'Poulenc, Francis' in Sadie.
- Chester Novello prod. page. Accessed 2 September 2009.
- J.W. Pepper prod. page Accessed 2 September 2009.
- Chester Novello prod. page. Accessed 2 May 2011
- Chester Novello prod. page. Accessed 2 May 2011
- Daniel, Keith (1982). Francis Poulenc, His Artistic Development and Musical Style. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press. ISBN 978-0-8357-1909-4
- Sadie, S., & Tyrrell, J. (2001). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. New York: Grove's Dictionaries. ISBN 1-56159-239-0