Fictional Review – Premiere of Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon

January 7, 1923

The new year has brought in a plethora of entertainment that’s sure to not disappoint! It appears that 1923 is shaping up to be a fantastic year for the arts. On Thursday, the 4th of January, Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon was premiered to a packed house at the Theatre des Champs Elysees. This concert featuring the music of Satie and Poulenc was part of the concert series put on by Jean Wiener. Before going to this concert, I was dreading that this piece (and the concert in general) was going to be a repeat of what had been done in the past few years, basically dripping with the influence of Stravinsky and including cookie-cutter work of Les Six. Thankfully, this concert proved otherwise. Though Poulenc has been influenced by these other composers, his work on this concert was fresh; the programming was effective and the performance enticing.

In addition to Wiener’s concert, there were many entertainment choices for a lovely evening out in Paris. Just a few of the available options were Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or at L’Alhambra or Montre-moi ton Coquelicot a la Cigale.[1] I (and several others) chose to attend this concert partially because I was curious to see how this work compared to Poulenc’s previous Sonata for Two Clarinets. Would this new piece be any different from the Sonata published five years ago? (As it turned out, it was indeed unique.) Though some other performances that were offered may be more popular, Wiener is “determined to program the latest musical tendencies together (Schoenberg and Stravinsky alongside Satie and Les Six, for example).” His concerts represent a spirit of openness and experimentation, “drawing on the latest tendencies from throughout Europe, but placing Paris at its center.”[2] Wiener knows how to plan a great show!

The Champs Elysees was a fitting venue for this concert. From the outside, the Theatre’s appearance is shockingly plain, but when you step inside, the interior is spacious and gorgeous, seating 1,900. During its short life of merely a decade, it has been home to diverse art forms:  opera, ballet, symphony concerts, and recitals.[3] There were several important people in the audience, including Philippe Gaubert, Gabriel Pierné, sculptor Fernand Ochsé, Count Harry Kessler, and other critics Azaïs, Roland-Manuel, Souday, and Vuillermoz.[4]

The rest of the program featured Satie’s La Belle Excentrique, Nocturne n. 4, and Descriptions Automatiques, plus Poulenc’s Mouvement Perpetual and the premiere of his Sonata for Horn, Trumpet, and Trombone.[5] Though Suzanne Balguerie’s performance of Satie’s Socrate was the main attraction, Poulenc did not fail to measure up. Concerts like this can sometimes be seen as a competition between the two composers, but that aura was not present at this concert. There was plenty of applause and some hissing, but overall, Poulenc’s new Sonata was well received upon first hearing.[6]

The piece is dedicated to his long-time friend Audrey Parr and is written in three movements in a fast-slow-fast fashion, which is typical. Though only eight minutes long, it contains a lot of motivic repetition, numerous meter changes, and dissonance pervades (mostly of the “wrong-note” variety of Stravinsky).[7] Jazzy and bitonal passages often lead to mischievous cadences.[8] The Stravinsky influence is evident in the two part wind writing, but Poulenc’s “writing is skillful, idiomatic…employing characteristic articulations, the most efficacious ranges, and appropriate figurations, while exploring all the expressive possibilities of each instrument.”[9] Cahuzac on clarinet and Hermans on bassoon was the perfect combination of soloists; their tones blended effortlessly. Poulenc said he has “always adored wind instruments, preferring them to strings…Of course, L’Histoire du Soldat and Stravinsky’s solo clarinet pieces stimulated [his] taste for winds, but [he] developed the taste as a child.”[10] It’s evident that Poulenc drew on what he was familiar with, but then created his own fresh music and changed and improved it to his tastes. This Sonata is likely to take its “place on the front rank of modern wind music.”[11]

It’s important to remember not all of Poulenc’s music bears the mark of Stravinsky.[12] Poulenc’s chamber works are generally light-hearted, tuneful, saucy, and tongue-in-cheek, unlike Stravinsky’s. However, they do retain the imprint of both Parisian popular music and the aesthetic of Les Six.[13] This piece is more genially Francophile and though it still has traces of Russian heritage, it’s stepped away from that plenty.[14] When Stravinsky saw the music of the two premieres, he was impressed and commented,

“both are very well written and seem to me very significant in the sense that he visibly rids himself of the ‘modern prejudices…’ I very much loved the music of these two sonatas, very fresh music where the originality of Poulenc manifests itself as it does in none of his other works. Moreover, this music is very, very French.”[15]

Of course Poulenc’s music has hints of Stravinsky and Les Six in it; he has spent a great deal of time around these composers and listening to their works. But with this Sonata, he has proved he is able to make his work uniquely his own. What a night it was for him; a concert featuring only him and Satie, with two premieres to boot! Poulenc commented on the piece, “I’ve just finished a new work, Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon. [It’s] very good… I’m delighted because after 18 months of uncertainty, I’m back on the right path.”[16] I agree.

Bibliography of Additional Sources:

Hopkins, G. W.. 1970. The Musical Times 111 (1530). Musical Times Publications Ltd.: 811. doi:10.2307/955334.

Messing, Scott. Marching to the canon: the Life of Schubert’s Marche Militaire. Rochester, 2014.

Poulenc, Francis. 2000. Complete Chamber Music, Vol. 3. CD. Naxos.

“Poulenc, Francis.” The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed. rev.. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed November 17, 2015,

Poulin, Pamela Lee. 1983. ‘Three Stylistic Traits In Poulenc’s Chamber Works For Wind Instruments’. Ph.D., Eastman School of Music.

[1] Le Figaro,. 1923.
[2] Kelly, Barbara L. 2013. Music and Ultra-Modernism In France. Boydell Press. 158.
[3] Theatre des Champs Elysees. 2015. ‘Site Des Archives’.
[4] Schmidt, Carl B. 2001. Entrancing Muse: A Documented Biography of Francis Poulenc. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press. 119.
[5] Theatre des Champs Elysees. Picture of the original concert announcement.
[6] Schmidt, Carl B. The Music of Francis Poulenc (1899-1963): A Catalogue. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. 92.
[7] Daniel, Keith W. Francis Poulenc, His Artistic Development and Musical Style. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1982. 104.
[8] Myriam Chimènes and Roger Nichols. “Poulenc, Francis.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed November 17, 2015,
[9] Daniel 101.
[10] Francis Poulenc, Entretiens avec Claude Rostand, p. 118. Reprinted in Daniel 101.
[11] Schmidt Music 93.
[12] Daniel 25.
[13] Daniel 101.
[14] Mellers, Wilfrid. Francis Poulenc. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. 12.
[15] Excerpt of Stravinsky’s 17 Nov. 1922 letter in Auric 1979, p. 57. Reprinted in Schmidt Entrancing 119.
[16] Letter of July 7, 1922; Poulenc, Correspondance, p. 162. Reprinted in Kelly, Barbara L. 2013. Music and Ultra-Modernism In France. Boydell Press. 156.