POULENC: Flute Sonata / MESSIAEN: Le Merle Noir / BOULEZ: Sonatine

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French Flute Music

Poulenc Messiaen Sancan Jolivet Dutilleux Boulez

The transverse flute had early importance in Frenchmusic, particularly after the technical changes in theinstrument towards the end of the seventeenth century. Itowes much of its relative prominence in French music ofthe twentieth century to the use made of it in orchestralcolouring by composers such as Debussy and Ravel andto the existence of a group of highly gifted playersassociated in one way or another with the ParisConservatoire.

Francis Poulenc was one of the group of youngFrench musicians known in the 1920s as Les Six,influenced by the eccentric composer Erik Satie, andfriends of Jean Cocteau. His Sonata for flute and piano,a relatively late work, was written between December1956 and March 1957 in response to a commission fromthe Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, and dulydedicated to the memory of Mrs Coolidge. The firstperformance was given at the Strasbourg Festival inJune 1957 by the flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal and thecomposer, and it was to become one of Poulenc's mostpopular works. In January his opera Dialogues desCarmelites had had its successful premi?¿re at La Scalain Milan, and he explained in a letter to his biographerHenry Hell that the writing in the sonata, simple butsubtle, had harmony recalling the novice SisterConstance in the opera. The first movement, markedAllegro malinconico, brings contrasts of mood, with aprincipal theme of essential poignancy. The secondmovement, Cantilena, brings a moving melody, theharmony and texture of the piano writing deceptive in itsapparent simplicity. The work ends with a rapid andcheerful Presto giocoso of similarly lucid clarity, itslively course briefly interrupted by a more pensivepassage.

Olivier Messiaen is among the most influentialfigures in the music of the twentieth century. At firstalarming and shocking audiences, he later won anunassailable position, respected at home in France andabroad for his achievement through a musical languagethat is intensely personal, emotional and informed by adeep Catholic piety. His musical idiom was derivedfrom a number of sources, with an interest in bird-songthat is directly evident in his Oiseaux exotiques (ExoticBirds) and Catalogue d'oiseaux (Catalogue of Birds)and indirectly elsewhere in his music, in which hedeveloped a form of serialism that has been variouslyinterpreted. Le merle noir (The Blackbird), for flute andpiano, was written in 1951 as a test piece for the ParisConservatoire. After the the sustained notes of the pianohave died away, the flute plays a solo passage, itsinspiration derived from the song of the bird. The pianoenters with a phrase immediately echoed by the flute,extended and then returning after an episode recallingthe opening. The same material provides the basis forthe rapid final section.

Pierre Sancan was for nearly thirty years a professorof piano at the Paris Conservatoire, while pursuing ahighly successful career as a performer. A winner of thePrix de Rome in 1943, he has written a variety of music,including an opera, ballets, a string symphony, twopiano concertos and other works. His Sonatine, writtenin 1946 as a test piece for the Paris Conservatoire, isdedicated to his colleague there, the distinguishedflautist Gaston Crunelle. This is very much in the spiritof Debussy, with a flute melody over a gentlyaccompanying piano texture that is to return inrecapitulation after contrasting material. A short pianopassage leads to a ternary-form Andante espressivo ofmelancholy lyricism. A flute cadenza is then followedby the final triplet rhythm movement, marked Anime,with its reminiscence of the opening of the work, beforethe flute resumes the rapid figuration of the lastmovement, bringing the sonatina to a brilliantconclusion.

A member, with Olivier Messiaen, Daniel Lesur andYves Baudrier, of the group of French composers knownas Jeune France, Andre Jolivet was a pupil of Le Flemand of Var?¿se. As director of music for the ComedieFran?ºaise he wrote incidental music, and elsewhereshowed a particular interest in the incantatory and magicelement that he perceived as fundamental to humanmusic. It was for this association that he favoured theflute, both in his orchestral works and in his chambermusic. Chant de Linos, also dedicated to GastonCrunelle, explains, in a superscription, that the Song ofLinus was, in Greek antiquity, a kind of threnody, afuneral lament, a plaint interrupted by cries and dances.

The opening section leads to a gentler lament, broken bywild cries before the threnody resumes. Anotheroutburst leads to a dance-like section, moving to musicof tamer mood, before the lament briefly returns,followed by a final passage recalling the cries and dancerhythms suggested by what has passed.

The Sonatine for flute and piano by Henri Dutilleuxis, again, a test piece for the Paris Conservatoire, with adedication once more to Gaston Crunelle. It was writtenin 1942, while the composer was director of singing atthe Paris Opera, before moving to French Radio. Hisindividual musical language develops from thetraditions of Debussy and Ravel, avoiding theprogrammatic, or dogmatic, and seeking always clarityof texture. In the sonatina the piano introduces the firstmelody, later taken up and extended by the flute, leadingto a secondary melodic element. A cadenza-like passagemoves on to an expressive and poignant Andante, afterwhich there is a final movement, marked Anime andimpelled forward by its motor rhythms, a celebration ofthe composer's 'joy of sound', with another cadenzaappearing before the work comes to an end.

Pierre Boulez has exercised great influence as acomposer and as a conductor. In the latter capacity he isknow principally for his early extension of serialism,under the influence of his teacher Messiaen, into a morecomprehensive and logical system that, nevertheless,allows, in his hands, a certain freedom. His Sonatine forflute and piano was written in 1946 and first heard inpublic at a concert in Darmstadt ten years later. It wasamong his first published works, written at a time whenhe had received instruction in serialism fromSchoenberg's pupil Leibowitz, in the same year as hisPiano Sonata No. 1 (Naxos 8.553353). Written with ameticulous and very French attention to sonorities andtextures, the work makes use of melodic cells, groups ofnotes that return and have a melodic function in what thecomposer later described as 'organised delirium'.

Keith Anderson
Disc: 1
Chant de Linos
1 I. Allegro malinconico
2 II. Cantilena
3 III. Presto giocoso
4 Le merle noir
5 Sonatine
6 Chant de Linos
7 Sonatine
8 Sonatine
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