Lean and deceptively simple, Jean Françaix's 1935 Petit quatuor (Little Quartet) for four saxophones is, along with the Piano Concertino of 1932, evidence that Françaix, though technically still a student during the first half of the 1930s, was already at 20-25 years old a composer of rare technical accomplishment. It is no simple thing to compose a piece of music that sounds utterly unruffled and plain, that is built from the most elementary rhythmic and melodic building blocks, and yet holds the audience's attention by virtue of its elegant poise and balance. If the Petit quatuor has never been as well-known or admired as the Piano Concertino, it is probably due to the fact that saxophone music in general has hardly been elevated to the status of traditional concert hall genres; this is, however, a state of affairs that a large number of twenty-first century saxophone ensembles are passionately trying to change, and many of them have taken up the Petit quatuor as part of their quest -- with the happy result that a new, cleaned-up edition of the piece was issued by Schott publishers during the mid-1990s.
The Petit quatuor is, as expected from the name, not a long piece. Ten minutes is enough to play its three movements, which are scored for the usual saxophone quartet combination of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone instruments. Movement 1 is an Allegro titled Gaguenardise. An ABA form, the movement's outer sections are made from spry, staccato-filled music, while the central portion is by way of contrast almost wholly legato -- long lines that overlap from one instrument to another, quite unlike the simultaneous attacks heard in the outer sections. The dynamic range is extreme indeed: ppp to fff are demanded, allowing the players to indulge in the especially fine dynamic control that their instruments allow (a legendary feature of the saxophone, this dynamic control was a big selling point when the instrument was introduced during the eighteenth century).
The second movement is slower, and calls for only three players -- the soprano saxophone is tacet. Lento ma non troppo, it bears the songful title Cantilène and is shaped into one large arch that rises up from ppp only to fall back down at the end. As with the central portion of the Gaguenardise movement, the Cantilène is legato in the extreme.
The playful third movement is described by Françaix as a Sérénade comique; the four performers engage in a bouncing, teasing 3/8 meter skirmish, led by the soprano saxophonist who, having rested his or her chops during the second movement, has a few more bleeps and bloops and trills and runs than his or her comrades.