Francis Poulenc: Sextet for Wind Quintet & Piano


Francis Poulenc’s Sextet for Wind Quintet & Piano was composed during his time as part of Les Six in c.1931-32. After a not-so satisfactory premiere in Paris, Poulenc heavily revised the work in 1939 stating that:

“There were some good ideas in the original, but the whole thing was badly put together. With the proportions altered, better balanced, it comes over very clearly.”


The Music

Sextet is cast into three movements, with a total performance time of c.18 minutes. 


Movement I – Allegro vivace

Opening with a flourish of unison playing, the first movement opens with a force of energy that is carried throughout the whole piece. Laden with complex rhythms and a nod to jazz harmony, Poulenc’s jaunty style of writing is showcased. The piano works with the horn and bassoon to create bold foundational lines to support the fluttering flute and the shrill clarinet. Brash ensemble swells lead to the first climax that initiates a sweet bassoon solo. The central section is much slower and is based on the opening bassoon melody. The piano plays Romantic-era-inspired accompaniments as the quintet pass the melody between them. The opening tempo returns quite suddenly and this quick tempo takes the listener into the exhilarating final sprint to the end of the movement. 


Movement II – Divertissement: Andantino

The opposite to the first movement, the central movement is in a slow-fast-slow structure. Influenced by Classical period divertimentos, this movement has been described as ‘musical relief’. Poulenc experiments with texture in this movement, with the slow sections creating lush lyrical lines, and the fast middle section showcasing the jaunty style once more. Once again the piano takes an accompaniment role as the wind quintet lead with the melodic content. This movement ends quietly as the melody comes to a natural close. 


Movement III – Finale: Prestissimo

The energetic finale starts with a gallop that is intricate and quick in tempo. As with the opening movement, the influence of jazz and ragtime is pertinent here. Quick harmonic movement paired with the complex rhythms drives these influences even more. The themes from the previous two movements are then heard for the final time before the finale heads into a slow and solemn coda. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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