André George, a French reviewer for the periodical Les Nouvelles littéraires, once wrote that “with Poulenc, all of France comes out of the windows he opens.” One could extend such a compliment to include the whole world, for his contemporary musical stylings gave compositions like his Sextet an air of well-traveled sophistication and compelling emotional range.
An influential member of the composer group Les Six, Francis Poulenc composed his Sextet somewhere between 1931 and 1932. Originally composed as a piece of chamber music for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, piano and French horn, the Sextet came to Poulenc during a period of great musical productivity. The composer had just finished their Concerto for Two Pianos in addition to a cantata, Le Bal Masqué. Poulenc’s popularity as a member of Les Six was reaching its zenith, and he wanted to ensure his next musical gift to the world wouldn’t disappoint.
Poulenc struggled throughout his life with a musical form of writer’s block, something which inexplicably came and went depending on the nature of the musical work he was composing at the time. With the Sextet, Poulenc laboured for months to pull the music together in a way that best fitted his vision for the piece as a whole. The composer would return to his manuscripts for the piece in 1939, seven years after his Sextet’s premiere, in order to revise what he felt was a work of great potential that failed to execute properly the first time around.
After extensive revisions, Poulenc wrote a letter to his friend and confidante, the conductor and composer Nadia Boulanger. In this letter, Poulenc shared the experience of rewriting the Sextet to better fit his original vision for the piece. “There were some good ideas in [the original]” he wrote, “but the whole thing was badly put together. With the proportions altered, better balanced, it comes over very clearly.” Poulenc’s decision to rewrite his Sextet was ultimately a positive one, as critics cite the evocative capacity of each instrument within the quintet increased substantially following Poulenc’s return to the musical drawing-board.
The sextet is separated into three sections and is approximately eighteen minutes in duration. The first movement, “Allegro vivace”, features a rhythmic piano line upon which the quintet can layer rapid-fire melodies which draw inspiration from elements of jazz. The movement creates the sensation of movement by utilizing abrupt rhythmic changes in all instrumental voices, and it flurries away just as quickly as it arrived to reveal a beautiful bassoon solo.
Movement two, the Divertissement: Andantino, exhibits a fast section framed by two slower and majestic passages. The bassoon solo which opens the movement is repeated by other instrumental voices in turn before the oboe and clarinet drive the pace forward through the faster section. Recapitulating the themes explored in the movement’s beginning, the sumptuous strains of this second movement recall Classical influences while also parodying elements of Mozart.
The Finale: Prestissimo represents the emotional highpoint of the entire work, and the accelerated tempo reflects this. The movement is in rondo form, and begins with “an Offenbachian gallop”. The jazz influences from the first and second movements are more pronounced here, and the spirit of ragtime is explored to delightful effect. Critics have interpreted this element of the Finale as being a “satirical depiction of neoclassicism in music”. After revisiting themes from the first and second movements at greater speeds, the Finale takes inspiration from Ravel in the execution of a coda brimming with lyricism and beauty.
Premiered in 1933, the Sextet’s original lineup featured Poulenc himself on the piano alongside Marcel Moyse, Roland Lamorlette, Louis Cahuzac, Gustave Dhérin, and R. Blot on flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn, respectively. Although the piece itself was not lauded by some of the more traditional critics in the musical community of France, (with critic Florent Schmitt of Le Temps criticizing it as wandering and vulgar), others found it to be a musical breath of fresh air.
Pulling from a multitude of musical styles, Poulenc’s Sextet is a triumphant example of what can be produced if one persists in the depths of a frustrating case of brain fog. You can hear your Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra perform Poulenc’s Sextet at our upcoming Mother’s Day concert!