Poulenc: Sonata for Flute and Piano Program Notes

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was a French composer and pianist who, along the other members of Les Six, sought to liberate French classical music from foreign influence. His deep Catholic faith inherited from his father and his mother’s artistic influence created a duality of sacred vs. profane that permeated many of his works. Musicologist and french music critic Claude Rostand once notoriously remarked, “In Poulenc, there is something of the monk and something of the rascal.”

Poulenc studied piano with Ricardo Viñes from 1914-1917 during which time Viñes acted as piano teacher, spiritual mentor, performer of Poulenc’s early compositions, and connection with other musicians such as Auric, Satie, and Falla. Following several successful premieres, Poulenc studied composition with Charles Koechlin. Poulenc divided most of his life between concertizing in Paris and retreating to compose in rural Noizay. He gave his first concert tour through the United States in 1948 and continued to return regularly through 1960.

The Sonata for Flute and Piano (1957) further solidified Poulenc’s connection with the United States. Poulenc dedicated the Sonata to the memory of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and American chamber music patron. The Coolidge Foundation contacted Poulenc in 1956 and offered him a commission for a piece of chamber music. Jean-Pierre Rampal gave the unofficial premiere of the work with Poulenc at the piano, and recalled learning of the commission 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 performed the work with Gareth Morris on January 16, 1958 in a broadcast on BBC, and the American premiere followed on February 14, 1958 in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress.

Enjoy my favorite recording of this sonata: Emmanuel Pahud and Eric Le Sage

And as a bonus, a lovely recording of the Poulenc Sextet.

Chimènes, Myriam and Roger Nichols. “Poulenc, Francis.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online.Oxford University Press, accessed December 11, 2013, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/22202.


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