POULENC Francis, Sextet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn and Piano FP 100

Très vite et emporté

Divertissement. Andantino

Finale. Prestissimo


The Sextet for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn was a work over which Poulenc lavished a great deal of time and effort – the final results did not come easily or quickly. First performed in its original version at an all-Poulenc concert at the Salle Chopin in Paris on 19 June 1931 (and described in the Chesterian magazine as one of two ‘intelligent and lovely’ new compositions heard that evening), Poulenc reworked the Sextet several times before it reached a definitive form in 1939. On 29 August 1939 he wrote to Marie-Blanche Polignac that he had ‘thoroughly revised my entire Sextet (now very good)’. The result of this decade of reflection and rewriting is indeed ‘very good’: Poulenc’s most imposing chamber work is notable from the outset for its muscularity and seriousness – though the central ‘Divertissement’ provides an oasis of Mozartian repose – and, after an almost wild Prestissimo, the finale closes with an epilogue notable for its solemn stillness: Stravinsky-like austerity here is softened by Poulenc’s more emollient harmonic language. The first performance of the Sextet in its finished form took place during the early months of the German Occupation of Paris, on 9 December 1940, at a concert given by the Association de Musique Contemporaine, with Poulenc at the piano and the Quintette à vent de Paris. Poulenc kept the manuscript to himself during the years of the war and eventually sent it to Wilhelm Hansen in Copenhagen for publication in 1945. This brought to an end what Poulenc’s biographer Carl B. Schmidt has aptly described as ‘one of the most complicated compositional sagas of Poulenc’s career.’ Poulenc recorded the Sextet not with the original French players, but with the Philadelphia Wind Quintet in March 1960, during one of his last visits to the United States.


Nigel Simeone © 2010


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