Wang Sin

Severance Hall
November 29 – Friday at 8:00 p.m. 

November 30 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m. 
December 1 – Sunday at 3:00 p.m.


Francis Poulenc  (1899-1963)
composed 1947-48

At a Glance

Poulenc wrote his Sinfonietta in 1947-48 on a commission from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for what is today known as Radio 3, its classical music service.  It was first performed on October 24, 1948, by the London’s Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Roger Désormière.  The first United States performances were given by The Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of George Szell, in October 1949 at Severance Hall.

The suite being heard this weekend runs about 25 minutes in performance.  Poulenc scored it for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, harp, and strings.

The Cleveland Orchestra has presented Poulenc’s Sinfonietta on only one previous occasion, for a pair of concerts in October 1949 that marked the work’s United States premiere, conducted by George Szell.

About the Music

Poulenc’s Sinfonietta was composed in 1947-48, during what the composer called his “second youth.”  This was the period following World War II, when Paris was recovering from the German occupation and when the style of Poulenc’s first youth, the jazz-inspired frivolity of “Les Six” in the 1920s, was mellowing.   (Les Six was the name given, in 1920, to six young French firebrand composers working in Montparnasse; the name was coined in part to contrast with and connect to the Russian “Five,” who had similarly sought to redefine Russia’s national music two generations earlier.)

Part of Poulenc’s musical mellowing may be credited to his religious faith, which he more fully embraced in the 1930s.  Another part came from the serenity of middle age — critics and younger composers had not yet begun to snipe at him for not being a modernist (meaning atonal or serial) composer, and he enjoyed wide celebrity in the company of Stravinsky, Hindemith, and other leading voices of the postwar period. 

The commission that became Sinfonietta came from the BBC in London, whose Third Programme broadcast service was launched in September 1946 with the purpose of presenting drama, music, and serious cultural programs nationwide.  The new service was, of course, accused of elitism, but it also set a standard of broadcasting literacy that has been envied to this day. 

Within a year, the BBC was commissioning new music, and Poulenc’s name made its way onto the internal suggestion list in February 1847.  He was invited to compose a work for small orchestra of 14-16 minutes’ duration on the model of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony.  The fee was £100. 

Following the opening of his comic opera Les Mamelles de Tirésias had opened at Paris’s Opéra-Comique in June 1947, Poulenc set to work on the commission.  The title Sinfonietta was agreed from the start, and he made good progress on the first three movements. 

“Catastrophe!” he then wrote on August 18, “the Sinfonietta has become a symphony.  The first three movements last 19 minutes, and I have orchestrated two of them.  I still have the finale to do.” Considering himself a composer who worked at the deliberate but slow speed of a tortoise, he became worried about the October deadline.  “I’ll never be ready on time, not being a Hindemith or a Milhaud, but more of a Falla or Ravel.”

The deadline was missed.  In fact, the finale was not ready until September 1948, with various other compositions, such as the seven songs known as Calligrammes and the Cello Sonata, distracting him from the task already begun.  Once completed, the Sinfonietta was quickly programmed and rehearsed, with a first performance in a BBC studio on October 24, 1948, conducted by Roger Désormière.

Poulenc and his partner, baritone Pierre Bernac, then left for the United States for a three-month concert tour, returning to Paris in time to hear the Sinfonietta there on January 20, 1949, conducted again by Désormière.  The first performance in America was given by The Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell late that year, in October.

The Music

Some of the themes in Poulenc’s Sinfonietta were salvaged from a string quartet that the composer had recently attempted to write.  From this, perhaps, comes part of the feeling that his style, which had always seemed perfectly adapted for wind instruments with spiky articulation and short-breathed phrasing, now lies nicely for the strings, with a good balance between both groups.  

Pairs of horns and trumpets have prominent parts, but there are no trombones.  Poulenc’s fondness for short, self-contained phrases, with each moving to a sense of resolution in cadence, is a reflection of his natural feeling for the human voice, and, whereas Rachmaninoff would continue a melody for many pages without trace of a break, Poulenc writes brief rests between phrases as if to allow for breathing. 

The second movement is a scherzo and in the slow second movement, marked Andante Cantabile, the clarinet is given an unusually long melody, with an accompaniment of classical breeding that might have come from Brahms.  Elsewhere Poulenc’s natural gaiety is never far from view, although even the finale becomes dreamy, amorous even, after a whirlwind opening. 

Throughout the Sinfonietta we hear themes that begin with four rapid notes, like the waggle of a dog’s tail.  This is one of Poulenc’s signatures, and its regular reappearance, along with passages of traditional development, suggests that it was not at all a catastrophe that the work turned out to be larger than he intended, a work in fact which he would not have been ashamed to call a symphony.

Hugh Macdonald © 2019