The Kennedy Center

Violin Sonata

About the Work

Francis Poulenc Composer: Francis Poulenc
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Poulenc wrote and destroyed two violin and piano sonatas before publishing his only extant specimen of the form in 1944. The work was begun at his country retreat in Noizay, a tiny village in the Loire Valley, in the summer of 1942, and completed there on Easter Sunday 1943; Poulenc premiered it at the Salle Gaveau in Paris on June 21, 1943 with violinist Ginette Neveu at a benefit concert for writers and musicians imprisoned during World War II. Perhaps inevitably, the time of its creation and the circumstance of its first performance colored the Sonata with more than Poulenc's customary quotient of melancholy. The score was dedicated to the celebrated poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, who was killed in 1936 at the age of 38 at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Poulenc greatly admired Lorca and his writing, and, in addition to dedicating this Sonata to his memory, set three of his poems, in French translations, in 1947. The association of the Sonata with the poet's death also accounts for the title of the finale - "Presto tragico" - and the quotation from Lorca that Poulenc placed at the head of the second movement: "The guitar makes dreams cry," an allusion to Lorca performing Spanish folk songs while accompanying himself on the guitar.

Slashing violin chords introduce the opening movement's jaunty main theme, for which the piano provides a chattering, stubbornly independent accompaniment. The music quiets for the lyrical second theme, a sad, Slavic-sounding plaint such as Tchaikovsky might have conceived during one of his Parisian visits. The main theme is then developed with considerable intensity. A pause and a jagged transition lead to a poignant, bittersweet song in the violin, after which the main and second themes are given a condensed and subdued recapitulation. Poulenc said that the second movement was "a vaguely Spanish Andante cantilena." This introspective and dreamy Intermezzo, with the violin arching above tolling-bell chords in the keyboard, sounds like a vision of Spain that the composer might have conjured over a third glass of amontillado in a Parisian café. The finale, Presto tragico, is in two starkly contrasted sections. The opening part is built around a bustling theme rooted in Poulenc's familiar Parisian folklore idiom. The closing section, however, which follows after an abrupt break in the music, speaks of tragedy, with mournful sighing phrases from the violin, and a sad, halting accompaniment in the piano. The Sonata ends with a few bleak, isolated, stabbing gestures.