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Remembering Francis Poulenc

Michel Debost | July 2012

   More than fifty years ago, I was fortunate enough to play Francis Poulenc’s Flute Sonata with him at the piano. From the sonata’s première in 1957 by flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and Poulenc, this sonata was an immediate success. Francis Poulenc performed it with many flutists in the short years before his death at age 64 in January 1963.
   Poulenc loved hearing his works played and had kind, but sincere, words for all his performers (Jean-Pierre Rampal, Garreth Morris (BBC), Maxence Larrieu, Christian Lardé and myself, and many others I don’t recall). Each of them have or had their own perception of this work and could claim authority on what Poulenc wanted. I will not. These words are recollections, not rules of engagement.  They are the flowers of fondness, not an academic statement of truth. I am not sure of some dates. My references come from memory and Poulenc’s own correspondence.
   Jean-Pierre Rampal is forever associated with this work. He told me many times that the United States première of the sonata at the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C. on February 14th, 1958 with pianist Robert Veyron-Lacroix launched his American career. He had worked with Poulenc on the elaboration and performed the world première with him in Strasbourg in June 1957. They also recorded it together in 1959 for Véga (Présence de la Musique Contemp-oraine), which went bankrupt in 1962.
   A short time before Poulenc unexpectedly passed away, EMI wanted to do a new recording, but the original company would not release Rampal. EMI asked me if I would be willing to record it with Poulenc. We had already played it together in Paris, in Lille and in a Parisian salon. He had coached pianist Christian Ivaldi and me on it. Poulenc agreed and plans were drawn up to record in 1963. Alas, Francis died early that year. EMI decided to go ahead with the recording as a tribute, with Jacques Février, one of Poulenc’s oldest friends, at the piano.
   Poulenc was a hedonist, an epicure who loved life and its pleasures but was also a deeply religious Catholic. “Les Litanies de la Vierge Noire” is a beautiful example of his piety and his choral work. He was prone to periods of profound self-doubt and depression. Some of his greatest works of religious inspiration were born in torments of his soul. Such was Le Dialogue des Carmélites, a tragic opera about a convent whose nuns suffer martyrdom during the French Revolution. As he was putting the final touches to Le Dialogue, he started to work on a chamber music commission by the Coolidge Foundation, the Flute Sonata.
   He also fell in love, a mood reflected in the Sonata’s light-hearted contrast with the Dialogues. His two last works, the sonatas for oboe and clarinet are of a much more somber mood than the flute sonata.
   Francis used to say he wanted his music played “exactly as he wrote it,” without sentimentality or rubato. This is often a composers’ whim. If you are too strict, however, they are also unhappy.
    Too many interpretations tend to slow down at the end of every phrase, and Poulenc disliked that. He wanted terminal or long notes to be held exactly the time indicated. For instance, he wanted the very last note of the whole piece to be cut off precisely on the 16th note, no fermata. Likewise, in the first movement, he stressed the exactitude of the quarter note tied to a 16th, so that the scales would also be in time and clean. In fact, wherever this rhythmic pattern reappears in all three movements, I remember clearly that Poulenc insisted on exactitude, not too long, not too short.
    Still, with the inconsistency of great artists, Francis Poulenc wanted the first flourish soft and graceful (but not too slow), which is definitely more appropriate for a natural progression from p to f than the mf at the start indicated in the more recent scholarly editions. He would compare the first four notes of the piece to “a falling autumn leaf.” Thereafter, the same pattern would be played in time.
For practical and sentimental reasons, I have always played this sonata from the score I used with Poulenc. It must be one of the first editions, because it still indicates “Flute part revised by Jean-Pierre Rampel” (sic). It is annotated by Poulenc and cherished by me.
   There are numerous discrepancies in the various editions that succeeded mine. The new editors must have some ground for this, but once again, performers have every right to do their own assessment without the pencil pushers calling the Military Police. Once a piece of music becomes public, it escapes the authors and their sycophants to reach a life of its own. This one is now fifty-five years old and there are already question marks. And some people are adamant about how Bach and Baroque should be played? Give me a break.
   In the edition I played with Poulenc and Février, the initial tempo indication is Allegro malinconico. In later versions, it reads Allegretto malincolico. Francis was almost fluent in Italian. He knew that “malincolico” does not even exist in Italian.

   Also in the first movement Poulenc asked me to play p the upbeat to number 3 and to give a different darker color on the A flat two bars before number 9. On the very last flourish “céder” he would say, “Parle…” (Speak, as if the tempo is no longer important, whereas the ensemble with the piano still is.)
   The Cantilena is the same in all editions, pure and vocal. The q=52 can move forward a little after the first phrase, a simple Bb minor scale.
   The Presto Giocoso is typical campy Poulenc. He wanted it “as fast as possible.” He would say, “I can’t play the notes that fast myself, but don’t wait for me.” This music is akin to the French cancan and to the popular cabaret music he so much loved in his youth.
   The very first time Poulenc invited me to rehearse, I was quite nervous. He lived near the Luxembourg Gardens in a small apartment on the Left Bank. I checked and rechecked my pocket metronome at 84 before ringing. We started to play. Almost immediately, he stopped and said, “That’s too fast!” I whipped out my metronome (still set on 84). In those days, I believed in machines. Poulenc brushed it off. “Just the publisher’s request,” he said. I have rarely worked with composers who obeyed their own metronome indications which were often conceived at the table and not in live performance.
    Francis Poulenc was an adorable person. He was funny, sensitive, vulnerable, complicated, and modest. For a recital I was to play in Paris with Christian Ivaldi, we had chosen for the second half of the program the Prokofiev Sonata followed by the Poulenc. We sent Poulenc an invitation. He was away and sent his regrets with a telegram and later added, “Please don’t play me after Prokofiev. His Sonata is so much stronger than mine!”