Flute Sonata (Poulenc)
The Flute Sonata by Francis Poulenc, for flute and piano, was written in 1957. It is dedicated to the memory of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, an American patron of chamber music. Poulenc composed it for the flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, and he and Rampal gave the première in June 1957 at the Strasbourg Music Festival. It is now one of Poulenc's best known works and is a prominent feature in 20th century flute repertoire.
Sources indicate that Poulenc had had the idea to compose a flute sonata for a long time, which can be dated back to the year 1952 in a letter to the baritone Pierre Bernac. Throughout the next few years, Poulenc had intended to resume the work as stated in his letters to his publisher in 1953, 1955 and 1956.
However, it is unknown whether this planned sonata is directly related to the published sonata. In April 1956, Harold Spivacke, a spokesperson for the Coolidge Foundation at the Library of Congress, wrote a letter to Poulenc offering a commission for a piece of chamber music for a festival going to take place in October 1956. Poulenc declined the commission soon as he was just finishing the orchestration of his new opera and the première in Milan was too close. Spivacke again offered the commission in May, and this time Poulenc responded in August when he noted that the opera was in order and he could write something for him. He suggested the Sonata for Flute and Piano, provided that he could reserve the première for the Strasbourg Festival in June 1957.
Jean-Pierre Rampal learned about the sonata in a phone call from Poulenc. The occasion was marked in his autobiography:
"Jean-Pierre," said Poulenc: "you know you've always wanted me to write a sonata for flute and piano? Well, I'm going to,' he said. 'And the best thing is that the Americans will pay for it! I've been commissioned by the Coolidge Foundation to write a chamber piece in memory of Elizabeth Coolidge. I never knew her, so I think the piece is yours."
Poulenc wrote the piece in Cannes between December 1956 and March 1957, and the completed manuscript was mailed to the Library of Congress on 7 June 1957. On 17 June 1957, an unofficial première was given at the Strasbourg Festival by the composer and Rampal - with only one audience member, Arthur Rubinstein, who requested to hear it one day before the official première as he was going to leave before it.
On 16 January 1958, Poulenc played the work with Gareth Morris in a broadcast on BBC. The American première took place in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress on 14 February 1958. It was reported to be a rousing success.
The sonata is in three movements:
- Allegretto malinconico - This movement starts in 2/4 and with the characteristic four demisemiquaver run in the flute part, which is repeated throughout the piece. It contains double tonguing, and some tricky fingerwork in places. It also features Poulenc's trademark motif in the middle section, and ends quietly, leading into the second, slower movement. This movement has an equivalent standard to an ABRSM grade 8 piece, and, at the time of writing, is included in the listed pieces for this grade.
- Cantilena: Assez lent - This movement is much slower and quieter. It begins with two quavers on the piano, which are echoed by the flute during the course of the next two bars. The haunting tune features minimal decoration, and is accompanied by flowing quavers on the piano. In the middle of the piece, the atmosphere suddenly changes to loud high notes on the flute, reaching a top B. However soon after it returns to the original slow tune. This movement has an equivalent standard to an ABRSM grade 7 piece, and, at the time of writing, is included in the listed pieces for this grade
- Presto giocoso - This movement is predominantly loud and fast, and Poulenc's "trademark motif" mentioned above reappears in the contrasting central section.
The whole sonata appears in the listings for many flute diplomas, including ABRSM and Trinity Guidhall.