Music Appreciation: Sonata for Clarinet Mvt. III by Francis Poulenc

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(Third in a three-part series. For part one, click here. For part two, click here)

My Buffet R-13 Bb clarinet

My Buffet R-13 Bb clarinet


From the melancholy of the previous movement, we fly into the third movement with exuberance! It’s a tough call which of these two movements I enjoy more, as I love them for very different reasons. The second movement is achingly beautiful, while this one is wild and fun.

We don’t waste any time with an introduction here – we’re immediately off to the races! Theme A starts right at the beginning of the piece. It is essentially in two halves, the first from 0:04-0:14 and the second from 0:15-0:22. The themes in this piece aren’t quite like what we’ve heard in other pieces, in that they don’t always sound like a statement that finishes with a period. A piece like the Sousa march we discussed earlier has very definite themes that have a beginning, middle, and end. Poulenc? Not so much.

At 0:07, listen to the “rips” up to the high notes. We get three of those rips before hitting a peak and coming back down. A common trick in music is to build it up in a series of three repeated phrases then finish the statement. The phrases aren’t necessarily repeated note-for-note; they often alter something about it (pitch, volume, etc.) to keep the momentum going. As you listen to other pieces, see if you notice any “three and finish” situations*.

Theme B begins at 0:22. Does it sound familiar? It should – it’s the light, “bird” theme from the first movement, though altered a little bit. The piano even gets a quick shot at it at 0:28.

We immediately jump into the next theme (C) at 0:30. Really listen from 0:30-0:35. Imagine this bit played much slower and smoother. Do you hear the resemblance to the B theme of the second movement (aka the luscious theme)? I love how Poulenc reuses and modifies that idea and gives it a completely different mood from the last time we heard it. We get to spend a little more time with this theme than the bird theme.

Beginning at 0:51, we start to transition away from the C theme into our next theme (D). We get some new melodic material, but theme C reminds us it’s still there at 0:59. There’s a brief ritard (slowing down) from the piano to usher in the D theme, but it doesn’t stay slow, as the new theme suddenly (subito) launches forward in the original tempo (1:07).

While the new theme reverts back to the original tempo (a tempo), Poulenc changes the mood. This melody is smoother and more lyrical than what we’ve heard so far in this movement. Notice, however, that there’s still some intensity in the piano accompaniment. This section is the longest in this movement (1:07-1:46), with the piano getting a chance to play the melodic line at 1:21 over a low clarinet trill.

At 1:47, Poulenc brings some of the wildness back into the piece. This starts a longish transition/development section that will eventually lead us into the last hurrah of the piece. He inserts some new melodic content during this time, interspersed with motifs we heard earlier. At 2:03, we think we’re going to get a recap of the opening theme of this movement, but we’re wrong. We get just a brief glimpse of it before jumping suddenly to theme C, in which Poulenc repeats the motif but truncates it each time (2:06-2:15). Listen to 2:16-2:18 – Poulenc inserts a bit from the second movement (I even suggested that you remember that bit (3:20-3:26) for later!)

Continuing on, we hear a portion of the D theme (2:21) before returning to the motif we heard at the beginning of this section (2:31). But Poulenc, once again, shows us that everything is related when we reach 2:37 – do you remember that motif from waaaaay back at the beginning of the first movement? I just love how he ties all this together. It’s like when a book or TV series intertwines characters or bits of plot from episodes past.

Done teasing us, Poulenc finally gives us our recap of theme A at 2:40, complete with the three rips. There’s a brief bit of the “bird” theme (B; 2:49), and another shout out to the bit from the second movement that I had you remember (2:50-2:53). From there, we move into the coda section. Poulenc introduces new melodic material to help close the movement (2:54). We get a bit more tension and buildup in the melodic line before getting another “three and finish” trick at 3:04. There’s a very short breath, then a final push to end the piece.

I hope you’ve enjoyed exploring Poulenc’s clarinet sonata. If you’d like to hear the piece in its entirety, please visit the Tonal Diversions playlist on YouTube.

Looking for the sheet music? Visit my link at Sheet Music Plus!

*To be honest, I have no idea if there’s an official musical term for this effect. If anyone knows, please leave a comment!

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