One Day, Two Great French Musicians

Francis PoulencOn this day in 1899, the great French composer Francis Poulenc. And exactly 23 years later, the great flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal was born. I believe the two were friends. They were certainly colleagues. Poulenc wrote Sonate Pour Flute et Piano specifically for Rampal.

I know what you might think, “Okay, so he wrote a piece of music for Rampal! Who cares?!” When I was seriously studying flute, my teacher often (Too often!) lamented the fact that there was no great music written from the flute after the Baroque Period and before the Modern Period (if we can define that as starting with Debussy). She was pretty much correct. The great Classical composers didn’t seem to care much for the instrument. When Mozart was commissioned to write three flute concertos, he only managed two write two of them, and one was just a slight reworking of an oboe concerto he had written a year earlier. The Romantic Period was even worse with most of the works written for the flute being tiresome — all fireworks.

Jean-Pierre RampalPoulenc’s sonata has rightly become a flute standard. As far as I’m concerned, it is the best piece ever written for the flute. But then, Poulenc is one of my very favorite composers. Part of that is just that he is alternately fun, sad, thrilling, sensuous, you name it. But it is also that I never hear him working. That’s my biggest complaint with modern composers: I too often realize what they are trying to do — it doesn’t sound organic. Poulenc always made it sound easy, even when he was being extremely serious.

I feel much the same way about Rampal. Other unbelievably great flutists like James Galway and William Bennett still seem to me to be working at times. I don’t know what it is. But with Rampal it just sounds easy, like water flowing through a stream.

Anyway, here is Jean-Pierre Rampal playing Francis Poulenc’s Sonate Pour Flute et Piano. It features Rampal’s longtime associate Robert Veyron-Lacroix on piano. It is wonderful:

Happy birthday Jean-Pierre Rampal and Francis Poulenc!

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