Ah, clarinet! I couldn’t wait too much longer to talk about a clarinet piece, but I did have a hard time deciding which of the many I love to talk about first. I’ve settled on Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, composed in 1962, shortly before Poulenc’s death and published posthumously. Side note: Brahms’ clarinet sonatas (Op. 120, Nos. 1 & 2) and Mozart’s clarinet concerto (K. 622) were also written shortly before the respective composers’ deaths. Is it a case of saving the best for last, or that writing a great clarinet work kills you? I guess we’ll never know.
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was a French composer who was part of a group of musicians and composers nicknamed “Les Six”. He wrote a variety of works: instrumental sonatas, choral works, ballet music, etc. He had planned to write solo pieces for all of the woodwinds, but only completed works for clarinet, oboe, flute, and horn. The Sonata for Clarinet and Piano was dedicated à la mémoire de Arthur Honegger (“to the memory of Arthur Honegger”). Honegger was also a member of Les Six. The sonata has three movements in the traditional fast-slow-fast form. Today we’ll discuss just the first movement; I’ll discuss the second and third in future posts.
This first movement is titled “Allegro Tristamente“; allegro means “fast” and tristamente means “sad”.
We start off with a bang, the clarinet scurrying around and the piano interjecting some statements here and there. I consider this an introductory theme. After a loud burst at 0:12, both the piano and clarinet calm down and take a breath. At 0:17, we get a theme that’s long and smooth in the clarinet, with a smooth yet pulsing accompaniment in the piano. This theme is a bit different than what we’ve heard so far on the blog. It doesn’t feel nearly as centered in a key as a piece like Festive Overture does. Yet it is still a theme and, to my ears, is quite melodic once you get used to it. Poulenc introduces a new rhythm at 0:30, giving the theme a bit of a bounce.
Pay attention at 0:33-0:40, as Poulenc gets a lot of mileage out of that theme. He makes some minor changes each time, but the overall theme is identifiable. How many times did you hear it?
We go back and forth between bouncy and straight tempos for a while, with partial quotes of the bouncy theme finishing this section (clarinet partial quote at 1:04; piano quote right after that at 1:07). We get just the briefest of breaks before launching into the next theme at 1:10.
It’s a new theme, but it doesn’t last very long. I feel this part is a little bit of light shining into the window; it sounds a bit like a bird song to me. We return almost immediately to the bouncy theme (1:28). But this time, he expands the part of the theme we heard back at 0:40-0:47. He draws out the held note in the clarinet, giving the piano some time to play, then repeats it with a modified ending (1:25-1:39).
Poulenc lets the piano have a bit of the bouncy theme at 1:39, followed by the light theme in the clarinet at 1:43. But we get just a glimpse of that, because he immediately goes back to the thematic material we’d heard at the beginning of the piece (1:44-1:56). The music stops suddenly, with a long pause before moving into the next section.
When the music begins again at 2:00, we’re in a very different mood. The tempo marking here is très calme (very calm). While there is movement in the accompaniment, and eventually in the clarinet part (2:50), it’s never frantic. We have a wide range of dynamics in here, from pianissimo (very quiet) to forte (loud). Playing softly is often harder than playing loud. It takes a lot of control to play quietly but have enough support so that the tone still sounds good.
This entire section (2:00-5:04) is filled with emotion. I feel a sense of melancholy, of longing, in here. To me, this is where the tristamente is at its full effect. What emotions do you feel as you listen to this part? I do sense another brief ray of light at 4:49 before we plunge back into the long, smooth theme we heard near the beginning of the piece (5:05).
Poulenc truncates the smooth theme to head into the bouncy theme (5:16), but he even interjects the bird song into the middle of that. We hear a little bit more of the bouncy theme before recalling what we heard way back at the beginning of the piece. This time it’s a bit subdued and in the lower part of the clarinet’s range, as opposed to the louder and higher notes we heard earlier. There’s some interplay between the clarinet (playing the introductory theme) and the piano (playing the bouncy theme). Finally, both parts settle down for a last, long minor chord – the piano playing a chord and the clarinet playing a tremolo.
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