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Poulenc was the ultimate Parisian. Born in Paris, he came of age in the legendary 1920s and was part of the scene that produced some of the most creative and experimental figures of the early 20th century. His mother, an amateur pianist, gave him his first piano lessons, and Poulenc’s early compositions focused on the keyboard. He briefly studied composition with Charles Koechlin but remained an essentially self-taught composer.
Perhaps his minimal formal training partially accounts for the fresh sound of his music; either way his work is stamped by great lyricism, spare harmony, and dissonance. Between 1917 and 1920, Poulenc presented his early works at a series of concerts in an art studio in Montparnasse. Here the composer met others like himself and became part of the composer Erik Satie’s Les nouveaux jeunes. The group would later become “Les Six,” a group of French and French-Swiss composers with similar stylistic notions about a French music that returns to Classical ideals of restraint and clarity. Les Six were interested in wit, form, and anything that diverged from German composers such as Schoenberg and Wagner, and from Impressionists like Debussy and Ravel.
This Trio is quintessentially Poulenc, containing the contradictory mixture of brooding and wisecrack that fills his work. Poulenc’s style can perhaps best be defined by his following insight: “I am a melancholy person who loves to laugh like all melancholy persons.” There’s also a sense of elegance that pervades Poulenc’s music. About the first movement Poulenc said, “(it) is based on the structure of a Haydn allegro,” and indeed, the opening of the Allegro movement is a stately, serious (or perhaps mock-serious) introduction, akin to the introductions of many of Haydn’s symphonies. The movement then erupts into a presto that presents no fewer than nine different tunes, with the oboe and bassoon taking the lead as storytellers and the piano falling in to homophonic accordance. In the midst of the presto there’s a poignant slower section that picks up and returns to the playfulness of the original theme as though the instruments just needed a moment of respite to feel rejuvenated and continue the tongue-in-cheek venture.
The second movement is a shining example of Poulenc’s lyric genius. A lovely, lilting melody begins on piano and bassoon, then oboe takes the reins. Poulenc described the movement as “sweet and melancholic,” and indeed the music is dream-like, serene yet sometimes strange, mournful and longing.
In the rondo finale, syncopations abound. There’s a taunting, mischievous feel that’s unmistakably Poulenc, though he borrows melodically from Beethoven and formally from Saint-Saëns. It’s not a surprise that Poulenc was such a fan of wind chamber music; the color and the clarity of the instrumentation adds to the wit and sense of fun. Poulenc’s music is neo-classical in the best sense, reminiscent of the 18th-century Classical style but always seeming current and utterly French in its execution.
- Jessie Rothwell