Sonata for Violin and Piano, FP 199 (Poulenc)

…The guitar makes the dreams weep…

Program note
Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
Sonata for Violin and Piano, FP 199

Allegro con fuoco
Intermezzo: Très lent et calme
Presto tragico: Strictement la double plus lent

“The guitar makes the dreams weep,” Francis Poulenc inscribed above the central movement of his Violin Sonata, completed in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of Paris. The words are by poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, believed to have been assassinated – for his political views or his homosexuality – by nationalist militia in the early days of the Spanish Civil War. “So beautiful in Spanish, with its resonance of plucked string,” Poulenc said of the phrase, a sentiment he echoes in the Intermezzo’s pizzicato violin.

A master of song, whose sonatas for clarinet and flute remain incredibly popular today, Poulenc was less sure of himself when it came to the violin. His letters are littered with references to attempted violin sonatas he would later destroy (he also mentions throwing a string quartet into the gutter in the Place Péreire) and this is his only surviving contribution to the genre. Even this one was touch and go, the self-critical composer later decrying its “artificial pathos”. “To be honest, I don’t like the violin, as a solo instrument,” he wrote. “But how could I resist a suggestion from Ginette Neveu?”

It was Neveu, an acclaimed violinist, who premiered the work in 1943, with Poulenc at the piano, in a concert alongside Poulenc’s Sept Chansons and music by Debussy and Ravel. Like Poulenc’s sonatas for wind instruments, the work is full of vividly realised musical characters and irresistible melodies. On the centenary of his birth, British writer Jessica Duchen described Poulenc as “a fizzing, bubbling mass of Gallic energy who can move you to both laughter and tears within seconds.” There are plenty of both in his Violin Sonata. The first movement quotes from Tatyana’s letter scene from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin and the opening melody, comprising just three different notes, resembles a spikier take on the American jazz standard Tea for Two – potentially provocative under German rule.

While the Intermezzo pays tribute to Lorca, another tragedy shaped the Sonata in its final form. Poulenc revised the third movement following Neveu’s death in a plane crash in 1949, the pain of that devastating news written into the music’s final bars.

Angus McPherson © 2021

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