Thursday, April 10, 2008

Francis Poulenc, Oboe Sonata: Program Notes

Oboe Sonata – Francis Poulenc (1962)

Francis Poulenc (7 Jan 1899 – 30 Jan 1963) was a prolific composer of secular and religious music, including operas, ballets, orchestral and chamber music, and music for choirs and solo or chamber voices.

Many of the compositions of Poulenc’s later years are religious vocal works, including Dialogues des Carmelites, Gloria, and Sept Repons. These pieces were representative of Poulenc’s mental state, one of religious intensity coupled with a fear of death, decay, and illness, and have been described as “Poulenc’s own death music.”[1] His explorations of the multiple aspects of religion are evident in the “sweetness and transfiguration” of Sept Repons, the “sedative” and “consciously escapist” qualities of Gloria, and Dialogues’ “fear of death.” [2] Yet as he aged, it was this last aspect, as well as the portions of Sept Repons which deal with rage instead of joy, which prevailed, and these ideas appear in his instrumental works as well.

Following in the tradition of fellow French composers Debussy and Saint-Saens, whose last works were wind sonatas, the Oboe Sonata was Poulenc’s last composition, premiered in 1963 after his death. Written in memory of Sergei Prokofiev, the piece follows in the footsteps of Sept Repons, angry, urgent, and “very interior.” Despite his religiousness, in his later pieces Poulenc creates “a religious atmosphere [that is] no consolation, faced by the proximity of death,” and this is evident in the Oboe Sonata.

In the Sonata, the traditional sequence of movements is inverted, resulting in a slow-fast-slow pattern which allows for a somber conclusion. As with Sept Repons, here the music is very personal, creating the feeling that “we overhear as much as hear.” The movements move from Elégie to Scherzo to Déploration, from the melancholic to the frantic to pensive grieving, creating the feeling of a memento mori.

Following a short, unaccompanied fragment, Elégie, written in a modified ABA form, opens with a lyrical, nostalgic oboe melody which recalls the frequent use of the oboe in pastoral writing. Following this the mood abruptly shifts, moving into minor and introducing a ff theme in double-dotted rhythm which rages against the reality of death. This B section alternates between ff and pp before returning to a p statement of the A theme. However, this is not long lasting, and the B theme returns in a short coda before the movement dies away, ending on a pp long tone in the oboe.

The second movement, Scherzo, though also in ABA form provides an abrupt change of mood, introducing a “perpetual motion” feeling that is perhaps a nod to Prokofiev. The perpetual motion machine here is a bit off, interspersing 9/8 measures into the 6/8 theme, and clipping or adding to the ends of phrases; the effect is one of slight mania. The second theme of the A section reintroduces the first movement’s arpeggio motif, here uneven yet cyclical. A rude outburst closes the A section, and the movement abruptly changes mood. The B section presents a gentle, tonal contrast, featuring an expansive melody in which the angry arpeggios of the opening are transformed into an airy, peaceful theme. However, this reprieve is short-lived, and the frantic perpetual motion machine returns, leading to a closing outburst.

In another dramatic change, Déploration takes the airy B theme of the second movement and condenses it. The melody has a high tessitura and falls completely within an octave. The music in this movement varies widely in dynamics, moving rapidly from pp to ff, as well as from major to minor, but the effect is neither show nor mania. Instead, the movement is a lament, and the effect is of intense, intensely personal grief. Again in ABA form, the B section quotes the first movement, themes condensed in range and stretched in time, creating a mounting plea. Here the emotions of the movement reach their peak. Following this, the A section returns in an exact though transposed quote of the movement’s opening material. After this the melody is further condensed in range, and the final statement of the piece is contained within a diminished fourth. The dynamics are similarly reduced, ranging from pp to ppp, and the music dies away on a long tone in the oboe, harmonically unresolved.

[1] All quotes from Francis Poulenc, Benjamin Ivry
[2] Final quote from “Dialogues des Carmelites,” Claude Gendre, Francis Poulenc: Music, Art, and Literature, ed. Buckland and Chimènes.

For expanded analysis or citation info, please contact me by leaving a comment on this post, or emailing of [dot] polyhymnia [at] gmail [dot] com. Please credit Rachel Becker if using quotes/specific information from these notes.


Anonymous said...

what an amazing article! i love this sonata! thanks.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this! I'm playing this piece for my jury this semester, and your program notes were so helpful. Your insight and analysis helped with my interpretation so much. Again, thank you for posting this!

racheloboes said...

I found it frustrating how little information was available when I was working on this piece, so I'm glad I could help you!

And thank you for such a nice compliment. :-)

craig leman said...

Thank you for your comments on this superb elegy. I ran across the sonata 25 years ago and it still haunts me. So much of Poulenc's work is repetitive and banal, but, in this sonata, in some of his songs, and a few of his piano pieces, he scales heights of emotion that most
composers never even visualize.
Craig Leman

racheloboes said...


Thank you for reading! I certainly agree that Poulenc evokes emotions in this piece with an amazingly deft hand. Playing the sonata is a very powerful experience.


bea said...

Thank you for posting this:) i'm performing this on the 10th in my recital. very helpful:)

Nina A. said...

Thank you so much for your article! It is one of my favourite pieces to play, and you helped me so much with all your information as I have exams next week :)

W Somerall said...

Dear Rachel,

I am performing this work on a recital in about three weeks. With your permission, and with credit to you, could I use your notes for my program?

racheloboes said...

W Somerall,

Yes, you may! Thank you for asking. I'd love to know where you are playing it - if you don't want to post details in public, I completely understand, and my email is
racheloboes at gmail dot com.