The wind instruments, with their ability to be rakish, jesting, caustic, cynical, insinuating, brash, strident, etc., were natural foils for the kind of musical hijinks so often engaged in by Francis Poulenc. Any composer who would, for example, combine horn, trumpet, and trombone, which Poulenc did in a 1922 Sonata, would have to have a specific purpose, or purposes, in mind. At least one of this Frenchman's motives in the mentioned trio, and in many other of his works, was to help disperse the cloud of refinement upon which the music of the French Impressionists floated.
“A musical clown of the first order,” as Poulenc was labeled, was eminently well-suited to his appointed task. As a member of “the Six” – Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Germaine Tailleferre, and himself – and guided by the irreverent aesthetic ideals of composer Erik Satie and writer Jean Cocteau, Poulenc struck out at the etherealness of Debussy and Ravel with such musical tools as he assembled from the musical hall, the boulevard cafés, the circus – the streets of Paris. Compounded of three parts brittle wit and two parts unabashed sentimentality, Poulenc’s clownish music can be, in turn, entertaining, endearIng, outrageous, and strikingly clever. That he was capable of deep and poetic things – as in his tragic opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites – came as a jolting surprise to those who thought he didn’t have a serious bone in his body.
The Sextet for Piano and Winds is about as determinedly lighthearted and satiric as anything he ever wrote. The first movement is filled with a characteristic juxtaposition of a rickytick jazziness and near-teary songfulness, the latter epitomized midway by a possible allusion to “come to me, my melancholy baby,” which returns in the last movement. The Sextet, incidentally, was completed in 1932, the year Poulenc wrote his Two-Piano Concerto, and the linkage between the two works is extensive.
Reversing the first movement’s order of moods, the second movement begins and ends melodiously (is that main theme a take-off on Mozart’s well-known C-major Piano Sonata?). There is midsection kick-in-the-pants comic relief, and a surprisingly wistful ending.
The finale is part ragtime buffoonery and part biting satire on the neoclassicism of the period. Poulenc, however, is rarely if at all wickedly satiric – he’s too good-humored to take himself or others that seriously.
— Orrin Howard annotated programs for the Los Angeles Philharmonic for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives. He continues to contribute regularly to the program book.