Francis Poulenc: Cello Sonata


Francis Poulenc began sketching his Cello Sonata in 1940, but the work was considered complete until 1948. The premiere performance happened in Paris in May 1949, with Poulenc playing the piano and Pierre Fournier, to whom the piece is dedicated, playing the cello. Fournier helped Poulenc with some of the technical aspects of the sonata, as the composer was not as familiar with the cello as a solo instrument. 


The Music

Set into four movements the sonata adheres to the classical traditions of a sonata form first movement, a slow and lyrical second movement, an upbeat scherzo penultimate movement and then an exuberant finale. 


Movement I – Allegro – Tempo di Marcia

The opening movement provides a variety of themes that are played between the cello and the piano, often in dialogue. A bright fanfare opens this movement and the exchange of themes between the two instruments is the focal point here. Moving between both lyrical, broad, march and animated sections, the opening movement gives you a taste of what is to come in the rest of the sonata. The nuanced modulations keeps the harmonic language colourful as the rich timbre of the cello mixes with piano. After a reprise of the opening material, this movement concludes quietly. 


Movement II – Cavatine

Perhaps the most famous movement of the four, the lyrical second movement evokes a more serious tone within the sonata. The gentle piano introduction sets the scene for the delicate cello to sing out. The melodies in this movement are nostalgic in character and mournful in presentation. This movement explores the cellos rich lower register, which adds to the richness of the music. The intimacy in this movement is also worthy of note, as the two instruments intertwine gloriously, with each phrase yearning for more. The concluding lullaby section ends this movement quietly. This movement is deep-rooted at the centre of the sonata and offers a musical experience like none of the movements can.


Movement III – Ballabile

The jaunty third movement is in the style of a scherzo. The peppy themes are playful and show the cello and piano interact again by passing melodies to one another. The faster pace of this movement creates more intricate lines and allows the two instruments to let loose a bit more after the serious tone of the second movement.


Movement IV – Finale

The seemingly serious opening to this movement is sonorous and the segue into the largo section quickly changes the atmosphere. The rollicking theme, based on triplet movement, is imitated by the piano. Similar to the opening movement, the finale also takes you through a number of different sections. From the serious opening to the playful middle section and then the lyrical reprise, something from all four movements makes it into the finale. The merry atmosphere is almost celebration-like, with the quick tempo and powerful unison playing. Unusually, this movement doesn’t quite end how you would expect. A reprise of the serious opening returns and the final climax is reached, with the shadow of the movement resonating. 


Final Thoughts

Francis Poulenc’s Cello Sonata was not the best-received work from critics at the time, with many saying it was fairly average. However, the dramatic twists and turns and the level of communication between the cello and piano makes it one thrilling piece of music. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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