A sonata as intense and deeply felt as this one – and for a solo string instrument, at that – is something of an anomaly in Poulenc’s output. An urbane master of musical sarcasm and sentiment, working happily in miniatures and parody, Poulenc was one of the last century’s most inspired songwriters. Writing for solo winds also proved congenial, but Poulenc acknowledged his unhappiness composing for solo strings.
Indeed, he had written and then destroyed two violin sonatas (in 1919 and 1924) before completing the present work in 1943 (revised in 1949). Poulenc remained in occupied France during World War II, expressing his political opposition musically, through the poets he set and in the dedication of this Sonata to Federico García Lorca, the Spanish poet shot by fascists at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.
In that context, movement headings such as “Allegro con fuoco” and “Presto tragico” are understandable. Those passionate outer movements express both grief and fury over the tragedy of Lorca’s murder in terms of pointed rhythmicality, abated occasionally by softer sentiment.
The Intermezzo, however, is a gentle elegy more sad than angry. Marked “very slow and calm,” it also carries a quotation from Lorca — “the guitar makes dreams weep.” Pizzicatos suggest Lorca’s guitar, and there are hints of French ideas about Spanish languor in the supple main melody, a plaint as tender and expressive as any that Poulenc ever wrote for voice.
The Sonata had its premiere on June 21, 1943, in Paris, with Ginette Neveu the violinist and Poulenc himself at the piano.
- John Henken is the Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.