Listen to the Haunting 2nd Movement of Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata
I love this movement; I think it is absolutely gorgeous. It is so full of emotion: melancholy, hope, heartbreak, peace. I fell in love with it the first time I ever heard it.
Poulenc’s second movement in his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano is titled “Romanza” (romance). According to the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music¹, 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.
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.
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¹ compiled by Don Michael Randel, ©1978