Francis Poulenc’s Flute Sonata

by Anja Weinberger

Francis Poulenc and his particularly beautiful Sonata for Flute and Piano

Francis Poulenc was born in Paris in 1899. He was an only child, the family was financially very well off and the interactions were extremely cordial. He learned to play the piano from his mother at the beginning and from her he probably also inherited the artistic and intellectual vein. As a teenager he was able to take lessons with the Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñès, of whom he later said “I owe everything to him”.

Viñès must have been a good teacher, who provided his student with a lot of information, a wide variety of literature, but also with a healthy self-confidence and a large portion of love for the aesthetic.

Poulenc lost both parents at a very young age between 1915 and 1917, and during these difficult years for him he met Eric Satie and Jean Cocteau, who supported the young man and provided him with new companions. Some time later, the Group des Six developed from this, a rather loose association of the six composers Georges Auric (1899-1983), Louis Durey (1888-1979), Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983) and Francis Poulenc. The six were united above all by an aesthetic program that consisted in the rejection of Romantic music and also of musical Impressionism. Wit, provocation, effectively used offensiveness, anti-academism – these were their maxims. The music of everyday life, of small forms and simple gestures – that interested them.

As a composer Poulenc was purely self-taught and had no interest in the Paris Conservatoire. His love of poetry was already evident in the ten-year-old, who liked to recite Mallarmé poems by heart often. Looking at his complete works, one notices the large number of songs, which can certainly be attributed to this.

The meeting with his congenial singing partner, the baritone Pierre Bernac, with whom he toured for years – also overseas – and to whose vocal characteristics he tailored all the piano songs, was the beginning of an impressive artistic collaboration. Poulenc was able to contribute all his literary knowledge and Bernac was able to use his incomparable articulation and expressive power with stylistic confidence. This duo gave French art song an unimagined flowering.

It was late in his life that Poulenc wrote the wonderful Sonata for Flute and Piano. It became an instant classic of the repertoire. Its naturalness and almost disarming beauty, especially in the slow middle movement, shows that genius can lie in simplicity.

Poulenc wrote the sonata on behalf of the Coolidge Foundation and for the flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal. At the premiere, the latter had to repeat the 2nd movement at the request of the audience.

Although the work has all the typical French characteristics, it is at the same time a child of the neo-baroque and accordingly simple in its outer form.

In the first movement, the prelude, which introduces a melancholy theme, is already beguiling. This is later replaced by a somewhat more energetic second theme. The piano is instructed to use a lot of pedal and the flute soars to the highest heights.

The second movement, already mentioned, is basically a 65-bar chant, interrupted only briefly by a thought reminiscent of the second theme of the previous movement mentioned above. The melodic line begins hesitantly in the piano, is taken up by the flute, and draws several large arcs in various harmonic colors. Wonderful.

The fireworks of semiquavers in the third and final movement conclude a sonata that is among the most beautiful the flute literature has to offer.


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Poulenc, the self-taught composer, not only had the greatest success of the representatives of the Six in the 1950s and early 1960s, but also internationally he still outstrips the reputation of Milhaud and Honegger.

Independent of all trends, currents and the spirit of the times, with each new work he came closer to the demand proclaimed by Cocteau at the time in Le Coq et l’arlequin to create an authentic “musique française de France”. He overcame the gap between avant-garde aspirations and nationalistic self-assurance seemingly instinctively and met the demand to ingratiate himself into the ears of the simple listener, i.e. the man in the street, with everyday art that was as unpretentious as possible. One searches in vain for grand gestures, strict counterpoint, and elaborate performances in his work. He wrote operas, three in number, very forceful all three and very different. More on this elsewhere.

In his last years his health was not the best and he died of a heart attack in 1963 in his favorite city, Paris.


Mgg online
Böhmer, Dr. Karl: Kammermusikführer online
Adorjan, Andras (Hrsg.) u.a.: Lexikon der Flöte, Laaber 2009

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