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

(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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Music Appreciation: Sonata for Clarinet Mvt. II by Francis Poulenc

(Second in a three-part series. For part one, click here, for part three, click here)

My Buffet R-13 Bb clarinet

My Buffet R-13 Bb clarinet

The second movement in Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano is titled “Romanza” (romance). According to the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music (compiled by Don Michael Randel, ©1978), a romanza is a “short instrumental composition of a lyrical character”. That definition is spot on for this movement. The tempo marking here is très calme (very calm), which should sound familiar as it’s the same marking from the slow section of the first movement.

I love this movement; I think it is absolutely gorgeous. It is so full of emotion: melancholy, hope, heartbreak, peace.



The intro starts with a soft solo statement from the clarinet, followed by “wailing” that’s underscored by a strong piano chord. The clarinet recollects itself, and continues with the soft melodic lines (0:24), this time with the piano providing accompaniment. The piano continues on its own, briefly, ending the introduction.

We first hear the main theme (A) at 0:52; the clarinet has a lyrical line with the piano playing a calm, steady series of chords underneath (similar to what we heard in the first movement). Poulenc is so effective with this theme – we hear the first bit get repeated (0:52-1:01 & 1:01-1:09), building up tension. We think we’re going to hear it repeated a third time, but Poulenc shifts to a higher note this time at the apex (1:14) giving things a bit more tension. The volume has also increased at this point.

The clarinet shows some power in the second part of the theme (1:28). Poulenc uses repetition again with the run and the notes immediately after, then modifies the last note so it leads into the close of the theme. The volume comes back down and we hear a slight mood shift in the piano’s chords (1:49-1:52).

The piano starts the B theme for us at 1:54. It continues with the steady accompaniment in the bass and middle ranges, but gets the new melody in the high range. Listen for a brief bit of sunshine peeking through the clouds (aka some major chords). This theme is luscious. I just want to wrap myself in it and stay a while.

Okay, I’m back.

An interesting thing to listen for during the B theme (1:54-2:45) is how Poulenc moves the melody between piano and clarinet. It’s not a cut-and-dry “you play the first time, I play the second time” type of interchange. For me, these types of details can add so much more interest to a piece.

At 2:47, we think we’re going back to theme A. But we’re not. We start it, but only get the first bit before quoting from theme B (3:04). We don’t get much of that theme, either, for Poulenc inserts some completely new melodic material at this point (3:20-3:26). (Hint: you may want to remember this new motif)

We do come back to a fuller statement of theme A at 3:29, though in a different key than we’d heard before. We hear the entire first half of that theme before going into more of theme B at 4:02. It’s kept short, though; Poulenc finishes this statement with a nod back to our intro (4:19) as we move into the final section of the piece.

We’re treated to a final recap of theme A at 4:36. But instead of building up like we did when we first heard the theme, he keeps it quiet. When we reach the highest note this time, we get a wonderful major chord – a bit of sweetness (4:58) which we’re treated to a second time at 5:06. The happiness does not last long, however, as we fall back into despair and wailing before finishing the piece with a somber, somewhat unsettling statement.

Don’t miss part 3!

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

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.

My Buffet R-13 Bb clarinet

My Buffet R-13 Bb clarinet

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.

We’ve reached the end of the first movement. To continue to the second movement, click here. To skip to the third movement (and why would you do that? The second movement is lovely!), click here.


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Bonus Features: The Alcotts

Finally, the bonus features post! I hadn’t forgotten that I wanted to do this; sometimes “real life” gets in the way.

Here’s another video of the piano version. Part of the reason I chose this one is because you can hear the difference in interpretation between this performance and the one by Ives that I used in the previous post:


I also wanted to give you a chance to hear the band transcription. This arrangement was my introduction to the piece. The end section is quite powerful when you have an entire band playing it! Listen, though, to how the different instruments bring out the various melodies.


This last one is just fun. How would “Chopsticks” sound if arranged by Charles Ives? Richard Grayson gives it a shot.


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Music Appreciation: The Alcotts (Concord Sonata) by Charles Ives

After a lot of band and orchestra music, let’s move on to something completely different: a piano solo.

Charles Ives, 1913

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

Specifically, The Alcotts by Charles Ives, an American composer who lived from 1874 – 1954. He had a “day job” at an insurance company while pursing music in his free time – something many musicians (including myself) can relate to. His father, George, was a bandleader, and he encouraged Charles’s musicality. The story I’d heard in college was that George would play a song in one key and make Charles sing the same song in another key at the same time. Combined tonalities and other experiments certainly show up in a lot of Ives’ music – if he was arranging something as simple as “Mary had a little lamb”, I’m sure he’d manage to have Mary singing in one key and rhythm while her lamb was off cavorting in some other key and rhythm. And yet it would all make an absurd sort of sense.

Like so many other pieces I’ll talk about on the blog, I was first introduced to Ives’ music in college band. We’d played his Circus Band March, then later on played an arrangement of The Alcotts. This piece is the third movement in his second piano sonata (the “Concord”). The four movements are inspired by literary figures from New England: I) Emerson, II) Hawthorne, III) The Alcotts and IV) Thoreau.

Although the sound quality on this recording is a bit fuzzy, I really wanted to use this particular one as it is Ives himself playing his own piece. If you’d like to follow along with the sheet music, check out the PDF at

As you listen to the piece, note that Ives uses the famous motif of Beethoven’s fifth symphony frequently. This motif appears in each of the four movements of the sonata. Ives also quotes other pieces throughout, and I’ll admit I don’t know them all. But I guarantee you’ll recognize one other later in the piece.

We don’t often think of musical works such as sonatas or symphonies having a cast of characters, but this is one of the exceptions. To me, the main character of this piece is Beth Alcott’s piano. As Ives himself wrote in Essays Before a Sonata:

“And there sits the little old spinet-piano Sophia Thoreau gave to the Alcott children, on which Beth played the old Scotch airs, and played at the Fifth Symphony…

…And so we won’t try to reconcile the music sketch of the Alcotts with much besides the memory of that home under the elms – the Scotch songs and the family hymns that were sung at the end of each day – though there may be an attempt to catch something of that common sentiment (which we have tried to suggest above) – a strength of hope that never gives way to despair – a conviction in the power of the common soul which, when all is said and done, may be as typical as any theme of Concord and its transcendentalists.”

We hear the Beethoven’s Fifth quote right away. Gently, though, and expanded with beautiful harmonies underneath. The theme also relates to two hymn tunes: “Martyn” and “Missionary Chant.” There’s a bit of tension at 0:26, but it doesn’t last long. The bass line (left hand on piano) begins to play repeated chords which, to me, feel rather like a drone. On top of that we hear what Ives calls the “human faith melody” (0:33), a tune that he uses in the other movements as well. The melody lasts until 0:57, and includes quotes from both Beethoven’s fifth symphony and piano sonata no. 29 (as per James B. Sinclair).

At 0:58-059, do you hear the “chime”? Ives plays it very quietly, so you may have to crank the volume to catch it. To me, it’s reminiscent of a grandfather clock, or perhaps a distant church bell. It’s one of those moments where Ives seems to reinforce the idea of a girl playing piano in the parlor of her home, with all the other sounds of daily life happening around her.

We move on with a short bit of new melodic content which leads us into another statement of the human faith melody at 1:08. This time, the melody gets louder and a bit more frantic. We don’t get to finish the entire theme, as Ives spends time developing the Beethoven motifs. Listen for the repeated rhythm while he changes which pitches are used. We continue to get louder and faster – Ives’ written direction in the score actually says, “in a gradually excited way”.

At 1:46, we hear the first climax of this section, with a repeat of the Beethoven’s Fifth motif. Here’s another instance of Ives painting a mental picture for us. Do you hear the seemingly random little plinks of high notes here? The “wrong” notes are very much correct and intentional. These notes were explained to me as recreating the idea of the old family piano, with tuning issues and some sticky keys, which lead to hearing some sounds that weren’t meant to be played. Another image that comes to my mind is a young child who is “helping” the pianist out by slyly pressing keys near the end of the keyboard (chances are, if you’ve played a piano near a youngster, you’ve had this happen!)

The music continues to work itself into a frenzy, getting faster and louder until we reach the real climax of the section at 1:59. Notice that we still get some rogue plinks here. But we quiet back down and hear another snippet of the human faith melody (2:09). Ives changes it up a bit at 2:14-21, but we do go on to hear the rest of the theme with some interesting harmonies added to it. We finally rest a bit at 2:37 on a dominant seventh chord (B♭, D, F, and A♭) that helps us to transition into the next section of the piece. (In the printed music, there’s another plink here, but I’m not hearing it in the recording. I’m not sure if it’s because it just doesn’t come through in the recording or if Ives didn’t play it. I’ve read that he didn’t always play this piece the same way.)

The section beginning at 2:41 pays homage to the other songs that Beth played. I love this melody. It’s rather straightforward, but Ives includes some tasty harmonies. At 2:51, we hear a snippet of “Loch Lomond” (“…never meet again…”, but in a slightly different rhythm), which leads into the quote I know you’ll recognize: “Here Comes the Bride” (Wagner’s Bridal Chorus, 2:56) We move a bit faster with new melodic content, ending on that same dominant seventh chord at 3:11 (this is another spot where the printed music has a plink but I don’t hear it in the recording).

We’re treated to that lovely melody from 2:41 again, this time beginning at 3:15. We hear most of it, but again Ives doesn’t let us finish the theme and takes us into some more developmental material. We start working into a frenzy again, this time using moving melodic lines instead of block chords. But the idea is similar – it moves us toward the final climax of the piece. We get closer at 4:01; to me, I feel we gain a bit more stability here, with solid chords in the bass and repeated rhythms in the upper notes. Those repeated notes coincide with the pattern found at the beginning of the human faith melody, and that melody is what we get at 4:04. It’s the slightly altered version we heard back at 2:09, but we get to hear the entire theme this time. The final climax occurs at 4:22, with huge, powerful chords playing the Beethoven portion of the human faith melody. That power continues until 4:38 or so, when we settle back down into the gentleness of the beginning of the piece and finish the human faith melody. Ives finishes the piece with a lovely bit of melody that takes us down into a soft and satisfying C major chord.

For that era, Ives was quite experimental in his work. In this piece, he rarely used time signatures or barlines, which lends to the ebb-and-flow feel of the piece. At one point, he has different key signatures for the right hand (two flats) and the left hand (four flats). He uses standard key and time signatures during the homage, which seems to befit the notion that Beth is playing from some songbooks. And while he has used standard time signatures, he’s also not afraid to use an unusual one: 4½ over 4! (It’s “legal” – you just have four and a half beats (4½ quarter notes = 9 eighth notes) with the quarter note getting the beat).

And there ends my discussion of The Alcotts by Charles Ives. Check out the bonus features post for some other renditions of the piece.

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