Poulenc: Sinfonietta

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Lakeview Orchestra will perform Poulenc’s Sinfonietta on Tuesday, June 11th at 7:30PM at the Athenaeum Theatre.

Sinfonietta, FP 141
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Like Chabrier, Francis Poulenc was the only son of a wealthy father who expected, and insisted, that his child choose a dignified and sensible career path. Also, like Chabrier’s father, Poulenc’s father enrolled his son at an elite preparatory school in Paris, the Lycée Condorcet, whose notable alumni include: 1927 Nobel Laureate in Peace Ferdinand Buisson (1841 – 1932), 1927 Nobel Laureate in Literature Henri Bergson (1859 – 1941), artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 – 1901), 1937 Nobel Laureate in Literature Roger Martin du Gard (1881 – 1958), and President of the French Republic Paul Deschanel (1855 – 1922). The young Poulenc initially desired to study music, but his father would have none of it and demanded that Francis study business to join the family’s successful pharmaceutical and chemical company. Again bearing some semblance to Chabrier’s musical journey, Poulenc took his education seriously but studied music in his spare time – at least, until the death of both his parents when he was only 18 years of age. This loss of parental oversight, which was accompanied by a massive inheritance, enabled Poulenc to follow his dreams.

The young Poulenc quickly sought out renowned French composer Erik Satie (1866 – 1925) and requested acceptance into his musical clan – a group of free-thinking composers experimenting with new musical ideas of rhythm, tone, and texture. Safely under the tutelage of Satie, coupled with constant exposure to some of the most influential musical minds of early 20th century, Poulenc finally felt he had found a true purpose in life – to become a composer. Sadly, this vision was temporarily put on hold when, from January 1918 to January 1921, Poulenc was a conscript in the French army in the last months of the First World War and the immediate post-war period. It was this introduction to the real world – the destruction, horror, pain, and death of war, and the preciousness and frailty of life – that only solidified Poulenc’s desire to live his life accountable to himself as so he chose, and thus, to devote his time left on this world to music.

When Poulenc returned to civilian life, he plunged everything he had into music and composition. Very aware of his lack of formal training, Poulenc desperately tried to discover his own musical voice. Fortunately for Poulenc, his emerging maturity as a serious composer coincided with a time when public mood started to turn against the traditional late-romantic lushness in favor of the new charming, fresh, and insouciant works of the younger generation - technically unsophisticated though they were. Poulenc rose rapidly in fame along with a new generation of French composers.

In 1923, Poulenc received a commission from art patron Sergei Diaghilev (1872 – 1929) for a full-length ballet score. He decided that the theme would be a modern version of the classical French fête galante. This work, Les biches, was an immediate success, first in Monte Carlo in January 1924 and then in Paris in May, under the direction of André Messager (1853 – 1929). To date it has remained one of Poulenc's best-known scores.

Poulenc's new celebrity after the success of the ballet further solidified his reputation as a serious composer that the world wanted to hear, and it garnered him not only fame, but well-paying commissions. One such commission was from the BBC in 1947. The work was to be for orchestra and generally avoid heavy topics. It was so that Poulenc composed Sinfonietta, a four movement orchestral work that is light, overflowing with popular turns and dance rhythms, and even, at times, satirical. It is in four movements: Allegro con fuoco, Molto vivace, Andante cantabile, and Très vite et très gai (“very fast and very gay”). Musicologists have pointed to some structural weaknesses in the work, but to quote the composer, “Don’t analyze my music—love it!”

The title’s diminutive reference reveals much about Poulenc’s motivation for the work, which, like many his other pieces, seems to revel in the study of musical character and orchestration rather than aiming toward symphonic formal cohesion. Poulenc unapologetically weaves in modal passages between waves of lush, romantic harmonies, and he carries the listener from an aggressive descending phrase in the opening Allegro to a finale apropos of Haydn in its folksiness. Tucked in to the inner movements are the broad, haunting theme in the Andante cantabile as well as the brief misterioso moments in his scherzo. Poulenc, who struggled with cycles of manic-depression throughout his life, was a composer of complex emotional character inextricably linked to his creativity. That the instrumental mélange of Sinfonietta should come so tightly packed with a range of styles and characters should be of no real surprise.

1948 saw the premiere of the work in London under the baton of Roger Desormière (1898 – 1963), as well as Poulenc’s first concert tour of the United States, even further boosting his international reputation. Sinfonietta is his only symphonic work, and it is as close as Poulenc ever got to writing a symphony. Full of Poulenc’s trademark charm and wit, this gem of mid-century French music truly deserves every appreciation it can be afforded.

Lakeview Orchestra will perform Poulenc’s Sinfonietta on June 11th, 2019: Learn More or Get Tickets

Program Notes by Luke Smith.

Luke Smith