Sonata for Horn, Trumpet, and Trombone

Poulenc belonged in the 1920s to an avant-garde circle of French composers called, Les Six. Their style of composing reflected a revolt against Debussy and the impressionists as well as against the massive scale and superabundant textures of the late Romantics. Writing for more intimate ensembles, Les Six’s music tends to be concise without being bare, simple without being trivial, well-structured, and very accessible. Their works create an impact on par with more densely orchestrated symphonic works.

Les Six rejected the prevailing idea that a composer had to be some kind of strange being battling with demons, communing with nature, or struggling with the cosmos. They believed instead that a composer could be, to quote Aaron Copland, a regular fellow “who liked to go to nightclubs like everybody else.”

The youthful Poulenc fit this description to a “t.” He was intentionally an enfant terrible, audacious in spirit, extroverted, and brash in manner. His early music reflected these characteristics, giving it the timeless feeling that it is fresh and new. He said, “I am not a cubist musician, even less a futurist, and certainly not an impressionist. I’m a musician without a label. What counts is not what is played, but what is played again and again.” And here we are 100 years later with one of his enduring pieces.

This eclectic sonata delivers a rich and entertaining variety of moods, tone colors, striking rhythms, elegant wit, and dissonances, Poulenc uses what is sometimes called the “added note technique”. In plain terms, this procedure simply means adding a foreign note to a melody or a chord that doesn’t belong, thereby creating a momentary dissonance. This device creates fleeting tension that adds a spice to music that is otherwise comfortably harmonic. Remove the added notes, and this piece would sound like it could have been written in the 18th century.

When asked in 1950 about his music, Poulenc offered these observations: “You will find sobriety and sorrow in French music just as in German and Russian. But the French have a keener sense of proportion. We realize that somberness and good humor are not mutually exclusive. Our composers, too, write profound music, but when they do, it is leavened with that lightness of spirit without which life would be unendurable.”

Poulenc was a free spirit. One of his friends said, “There is in him something of the monk and the street urchin.” Both show through in his captivating music. I might note that Poulenc gave this program annotator some good advice: “Above all, do not analyze my music—love it!”

Written by the Honorable Stephen S. Trott