The Kennedy Center

Sextet for Piano and Woodwind Quintet in C major, FP 100

About the Work

Francis Poulenc Composer: Francis Poulenc
© Richard Freed

Francis Poulenc, his place in the Pantheon of French composers assured now beyond question, was regarded as something of a paradox at the time of his death 42 years ago. It had been fashionable to observe that in his music--always stylish, polished and urbane, never pretentious--Poulenc aimed "not for greatness but for pleasantness." That view was supported by reference to such works as the opéra-bouffe Les Mamelles de Tirésias, the witty score for the ballet Les Biches, the sparkling Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, and the charming song-cycles to poems of Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Éluard. The appearance of the solemn and exalted opera Les Dialogues des Carmélites, introduced at La Scala in January 1957, called for drastic reconsideration of this attitude, and also brought about a new level of attention to Poulenc's sacred works, leading to a reminder that this composer simply embraced a broader range of emotion and expressiveness than many had been willing to give him credit for.

The elegant Concert champêtre for harpsichord and the highly dramatic Organ Concerto come to mind at once to reassure us that this breadth extended to his instrumental works as well as the vocal ones, and many others simply remind us that the concepts of greatness--or in any event substance--and pleasantness need not be regarded as conflicting with each other. Poulenc's chamber music is generally light-hearted in character, but underlying it always are an intellectual vitality and innate elegance that beguile the ear by simply refusing to call attention to themselves. There is a good deal of the music hall hanging about the Sextet, composed between 1930 and 1932, with a possibly unintentional but hard to miss resemblance to "Melancholy Baby" in the first movement as well as evocations of Erik Satie in the second and particularly the last of the three movements. The score bears such notations as "very gay," "very dry," even "very sweet and melancholy," and there is the repeated injunction "sans ralentir"--"keep it moving." The final movement, with its jazzy principal theme and fleeting parodies of Hindemith (the opening of the Kleine Kammermusik for wind quintet is suggested by the piano and bassoon midway through the movement) and of popular tunes, exudes an infectious air of good cheer, untouched by the slightest hint of empty-headedness.