The premiere of Francis Poulenc's Sonata for Clarinet and Piano took place on April 10, 1963, with Benny Goodman on clarinet and Leonard Bernstein at the piano. But what was originally to be the premiere of a piece in memoriam -- the work bears the dedication "to the memory of Arthur Honegger -- turned out to be an in memoriam performance; Poulenc had died suddenly of a heart attack in January of that year, just shy of his 63rd birthday. "His death is a disaster for music and for personal friendship," lamented Jean Cocteau; "Poulenc had inherited Ravel's mantle," commented Ned Rorem, "and today, in leaving us, he has taken with him the best of what remained in musical France." Perhaps some of those in attendance at the premiere of the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano heard a musical self-eulogy, a documentary looking backwards through Poulenc's musical career. The religious devotion of his maturity finds expression in the first two movements, while in the third Poulenc returns to the devil-may-care style of his youth. One reviewer called the sonata a "swan song...as delightful as ever."
This sonata is one of three Poulenc wrote for solo woodwind and piano. The other are one for flute from 1956, and one for oboe from 1962; Poulenc meant to work on a bassoon sonata next, but never got around to composing it before his untimely death. Though an autonomous work, the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano holds several formal and thematic traits in common with other works in the group. The Flute Sonata shares with the clarinet/piano work a structure that features a more restrained attitude in the first two movements, followed by a more playful finale. Also, as scholar and biographer Keith Daniel observes, certain thematic materials appear in all three works. The thirty-second note figure that opens the Flute Sonata appears with some alteration in the first movement of the Oboe Sonata, and in rough inversion during the second movement of the clarinet piece; likewise, a motive consisting of a dotted note filled out by two shorter notes appears in multiple places in all three sonatas. Finally, Daniel notes the overall similarity of mood in the second movements of the Flute and Clarinet Sonatas.
The first movement of the Clarinet Sonata bears the somewhat enigmatic subtitle "Allegro Tristamente"; accordingly, the piece is always in motion, but proceeds with a sense of trepidation. After a brief fortissimo introduction consisting of angry spurts of figuration in the clarinet punctuated by piano chords, the piano quiets to a murmur. The clarinet's lines are built of a self-perpetuating series of arcs that leave a shape but not a tune in our ears. At one point the clarinet seems stuck in a motivic rut, sadly leaping up and down between octave B tones over a shifting harmonic background. As the movement ends, the lingering memory is a fuzzy one of melancholy gestures and moods.
The second movement, "Romanza," is both clearer in its melodic makeup and more cathartic, perhaps, in its emotional expression. The clarinet melody is simple and somber throughout, but is elaborately embroidered in a few places, as if losing composure. Two particularly poignant examples are the sixty-fourth note runs near the beginning, and the trembling half-step figure that appears at the beginning and end. The third movement, "Allegro con fuoco," energetically combines various nimble, articulate, and rhapsodic themes, bookended by a delightfully clownish tune -- a mixture of serious and silly that well represents Poulenc's oeuvre as a whole.