The in-turn breathy sensuousness and penetrating brilliance of the flute, an instrument beloved by French composers, are perfect timbral qualities for music by Poulenc. No French composer epitomized the elegance, clarity, and droll wit of the 20th-century Gallic spirit better than Poulenc, and it is not surprising that he came around to expressing these national characteristics in a work for an instrument that can delineate them so well.
The Flute Sonata is as typical of Poulenc as anything he ever wrote, combining as it does elegant charm and brashness, and embodying a disarming combination of innocence and sophistication and a naturalness that seems to stem directly from the boulevard cafés. Although titled ‘sonata,’ the piece makes no pretense of being one formally -- none of the three movements is in sonata form -- nor does it make any effort at instrumental equality: the flute is frankly the star, with the keyboard cast in a supporting role.
The first movement is in simple three-part form. The main idea’s rather pensive character is contrasted with a middle theme that has an early-Debussy sweetness, and both melodies have nothing in common temperamentally with a brief flute outburst that occurs near the beginning of the movement and never returns. The song-like middle movement is so Parisian-caféish, it could easily have (French) boy-girl-moon-June lyrics.
Having sung his tender song, Poulenc devises a virtuosic finale that is nearly all one big elbow in the ribs. Not only is the main theme as frivolous as possible, but the movement is shot through with a very brief snatch of Bach’s Badinerie (from the Suite No. 2), and quotes of the first movement’s main and secondary themes.
Everyone knows that Poulenc can be, among other things, suave, sensuous, and slapstick; the Flute Sonata is a three-movement confirmation of this character description.
Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving the Orchestra as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic’s program book.