2nd Prize – Luke Horsey

RPS Young Classical Writers Prize 2022

In our teens, all the music we ought to hear and ought to like can overwhelm us. The panel commends 18-year-old Luke for picking an unlikely piece and writing with real sincerity and heart about why it speaks to him personally. We should all have his confidence to say what we like and why we like it. We are listening to Poulenc’s sonata anew thanks to his passion.

Write the music that pleases you

When confronting 20th century music for the first time, I found myself in uncertain territory. Composers were no longer moving together in the linear way that I was used to: there were cliques of impressionists, expressionists, serialists, etc. I felt that 20th century composers’ devotion to each finding their own musical identity washed me away in a sea of pentatonic scales, tone rows, and sacrificial dances.

I was about ready to give up with the 20th century when I found Poulenc’s Cello Sonata, composed in 1948. Poulenc chooses not to give the first movement a key signature, but rather a tonal centre of E. We are treated to fabulous four-bar phrases which wander very far – but always find their way back to E. The balance and resolution of this melody takes us back to Haydn, yet the angularity and chromatic spice might take us more towards a less comfortable Webern. Poulenc walks the line between classical and modern again in how he dabbles in traditional ‘sonata form’ enough to keep the music structured and palatable, whilst discarding the formalities of the classical tonal map. I find respite in Poulenc’s use of classical structure, yet he maintains enough modern cheekiness in his use of dissonance to anchor us firmly this side of 1900.

To me, it was surprising to see so many musical fingerprints peppered over this short stretch of music – since the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring which sparked a riot, the 20th century tended to see factions frequently form around distinct musical preferences. Yet, I find that Poulenc’s willingness to splice such diverse musical styles together is what makes this sonata so appetising.

As one of Les six, a group of composers emerging in the 1920s who refused to stick to any specific musical creed, Poulenc originally composed in an exclusively light-hearted style: but after a religious awakening, his music became somewhat more serious. We see this in the second movement, a Cavatine with a sensitive yet powerful cello melody. The use of Cavatine here is noteworthy, as this is a term usually reserved for vocal music, connoting a simple song without repeats. But again, Poulenc stretches classical elements to achieve the impression of the cello lamenting mournfully.

His playful side returns in the Scherzo-like third movement entitled Ballabile,
this time a term drawn from ballets. The fourth movement gives us a taste of Poulenc’s whimsical and sinister sides simultaneously, oscillating in tonality frequently. Undoubtedly, there is plenty for musicians of all tastes to find across the four movements.

Poulenc’s brilliance in this particular sonata is his ability not to take himself too seriously. He casts aside the compulsions of his contemporaries to tie his musical identity tightly to one style at the expense of others, cherry-picking the musical trademarks he wants. And he succeeds triumphantly: this is a beautiful sonata worth navigating towards if you find yourself at sea amid so much 20th century music. For me, the message to take from this sonata is to write the music that pleases you.