Chamber Music: Sonata for Violin and Piano (Francis Poulenc)

(Born January 7, 1899, in Paris; died there January 30, 1963)

Francis Poulenc was the youngest of the French composers who in 1920 were dubbed “The Six,” a group that turned French music away from what had become stultifying formality, elevated pretense and empty pomp. Poulenc, Milhaud and Honegger, of this gifted sextet, went on to have substantial careers, but when the others are now remembered, if at all, it is only because of their association with them. Poulenc was known during his lifetime as a man of urbanity and wit, qualities that appear conspicuously in his music even when, late in life, he turned with increasing frequency to religious subjects. He wrote all of his finest compositions, the sacred works, operas and songs, the piano music and chamber music and the several concertos, in a musical language whose apparent simplicity barely conceals the sophisticated way in which, with unerring fluency, he made it suit his expressive purposes.

Poulenc’s most widely known chamber music involves wind instruments, not strings. He discarded two violin sonatas before he completed this one, which itself was a long time in reaching its final form. He composed it in 1942 and 1943 for the magnificent young French violinist Ginette Neveu, who lost her life in a plane crash at the age of thirty, in 1949. Poulenc decided to revise the sonata in the year of her death, making most of the changes in the last movement. The sonata also recalls the composer’s memory of the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (1899-1936), who was shot by the Fascist Falangists soon after the outbreak of civil war in his country.

The sonata is a melodic work infused with tragedy that is expressed in the opening Allegro con fuoco in a musical language related to that of the best known French sonata, one composed by César Franck. The second movement, an Intermezzo, is headed by a quotation from García Lorca, “The guitar makes dreams weep,” an allusion to the poet’s own arrangements of Spanish folk and popular songs. The third movement carries the uncommon indication,Presto tragico. The beat is very quick and the mood tragic as the sonata moves on lyrically to its close.

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