The supreme master of mélodies in the 20th century, Poulenc also composed widely in other forms and genres, particularly works for the theater and the church. He was equally accomplished as a pianist, touring as a soloist and as an accompanist for singers, especially the baritone Pierre Bernac and the soprano Denise Duval. Curious and independent, he had little use for the more systematic dogmas of his century, but accepted other influences, such as jazz and neo-Classicism.
In the final years of his life, Poulenc seems to have embarked on a series of sonatas, completing three for woodwinds: the Flute Sonata, Op. 164 (1956-1957), and sonatas for clarinet (Op. 184) and oboe (Op. 185) in 1962, Poulenc’s last works before he died of a sudden heart attack in January 1963. (He may have had a bassoon sonata in mind when he died, but there are no sketches or musical evidence of his future plans.)
A number of his late works carry memorial dedications, and the Clarinet Sonata is dedicated to Arthur Honegger, who had died in 1955. The Oboe Sonata is dedicated to Sergei Prokofiev, but there is speculation that in the posthumous publishing of these pieces, the dedications were switched, since it is the Clarinet Sonata that seems full of allusions to Prokofiev’s music. Its premiere was given at Carnegie Hall by Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein in 1963.
The opening Allegro tristamente is dramatic, self-consciously over-wrought, and sassy, with its own internal slow elegy. The Romanza is a gentle lament, marked très calme. The concluding Allegro con fuoco is bright and brittle, its circus-like energies yielding to one of Poulenc’s wistfully spun melodies, derived from the first movement.
— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association