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Looking for a more honed-in guide to learning and mastering your interpretation of the Poulenc Flute Sonata?

Les Six composer Francis Poulenc’s Flute Sonata is simple at first glance but full of rich modal harmonies and alternating moods. 

In this post, we’ll walk you through practice strategies and musical takeaways for approaching the iconic Poulenc Flute Sonata.

Before we begin, let’s watch this introduction from Carol Wincenc’s course on the Poulenc Flute Sonata, available exclusively on tonebase Flute:

If you’re a flutist and are serious about taking your flute technique and interpretations to the next level, I highly encourage you to check out tonebase Flute.

You’ll find over a hundred courses on subjects ranging from repertoire to circular breathing, all of which are taught by iconic flutists such as Jasmine Choi, Marina Piccinini, and more.

Now without further ado, let’s jump into the complete flute practice guide for the Poulenc Flute Sonata.


The Sonata is structured in three movements- Allegretto Malincolico, Cantalena and Presto Giocoso

The Allegretto, despite its pleasing character, has melancholic underpinnings, as indicated by the term Malincolico. Allowing sorrowful feelings to interlace with the lively Allegretto rhythm is a skill that performers must master. 

The second movement, a Cantalena, provides an excellent opportunity for the flutist and pianist to showcase their vocal abilities, infusing passion into the enchanting melodies. 

Lastly, the final movement, Presto Giocoso, is a playful, bubbly movement that exudes a gleeful disposition.

Poulenc and jean-pierre rampat

I. Allegro Malinconico

Let us take a journey back to the 1920s, a rich time in French cultural music history.

The sonata we will be exploring was crafted in 1957, but the group, Les Six (pictured right), made a bold statement of style and simplicity which they felt was essential to the flavor of music during that time.

This group wrote a great deal of beautiful music, and the composer of this sonata, Francis Poulenc, collaborated closely with his dear friend Darius Milhaud.

This particular sonata is one of the short sonatas, much like Milhaud's likening to Scarlatti.

Those are complete sonatas, but much shorter in their form. In fact, Milhaud would say that Francis Poulenc is music itself, which is a very bold statement indeed.

The first movement, Allegretto Malinconico, follows a basic ABA form with a coda at the end. 

The themes introduced at the beginning of the piece continue throughout the entire sonata. 

There is an absence of a key signature, which is very interesting, as modulating to other key areas impacts the overall form of the piece. The piece begins with a germ motif, a little pickup phrase, which is like a sip of champagne but offers challenges for the flutist. 

The execution of this requires a great deal of airspeed to get that figure going, and it occurs constantly throughout the piece. This requires sensitivity to play delicately.

poulenc flute sonata- allegro malinconico

It is crucial for the flutist to sense what they are doing with their air stream. 

It is also important to maintain the independence of the "bow arm" of the flute and the air being blown into the embouchure hole. 

Any hesitation would make it feel haphazard. The scales in the piece, specifically the ascending scales, are also challenging. It is critical to hear every note clearly, using a lot of air, while also maintaining the independence of air and tongue movement. 

The section ends with repeated figures which are quite challenging to place precisely. The rhythmic surge is of utmost importance, and a sense of timing is crucial.

The next section, number 4, is more playful, less melancholy, and has a childlike wonder about it, characterized by rapid tonguing, the complex movement of the tongue. 

We need to use a laser-like staccato at the beginning of this passage, with a precise attack and a lot of decay (think of the French word "tu"). A lot of air speed is necessary for the beginning of these notes.

excerpt from the poulenc flute sonata

The part is marked “léger et mordant” at rehearsal 4, so we need to play with weight and levity at the same time. These off-beat figures need a rhythmic punch without rushing. 

Moving into the B section of the piece, we are introduced to new thematic material, which will also occur later in the piece. 

It also consists of repeated, rhythmic forms using syncopation and some ostinato patterns in the piano, requiring a sense of effortlessness in performance style. Strive for the motion and levity to flow in an airborne-like manner, almost giving it a bird-like quality.

"un peu plus vite" - poulenc flute sonata excerpt

The section beginning at number 11 presents challenges, as it is in the middle range of the flute. 

We are asked to play generously in fortissimo, which requires a resonance of the entire body, especially the upper torso. 

This brings a bloom to the sound, and care must be taken not to be too sharp due to the vulnerability of the C. 

The tenderness is brought back at number 13, where the melancholy theme resurfaces following a return to the opening. 

The coda presents a blending of both themes, with a lilting pianissimo and a Picardy third bringing it to a finality. Keep the lightness while avoiding the common mistake of taking too much time. 

coda from the poulenc flute sonata
conda (continued) from the poulenc flute sonata

The trills in this movement must spin with some electricity. It is crucial to move one's fingers rapidly to give the trill that certain surprise element. 

The placement of these trills in a syncopated figure is equally significant, having them arrive at the end of the beat and released on the downbeat. It is crucial to repeat this process numerous times and perfect it gradually.

The pinky finger often proves to be a troublesome digit, hesitant to move quickly, so one must practice it well. It is crucial to ensure that there is no unnecessary tension in the neck, and the shoulder must release whenever trilling. 

The support mechanism situated low in the torso is the flutist's best friend. A quick tip to remember is the speed of the air, and one could say, "ha, ha, ha, ha," to remind themselves of this. This speed is comparable to when one laughs heavily or watches their dog flop onto the floor excitedly.


II. Cantilena: assez lent

Wincenc believes that flutists must familiarize themselves with Poulenc's vast vocal repertoire, for example, his epic Opera "The Dialogues of the Carmelites," to fully appreciate and teach the second movement, the Cantilena. It is exquisite and contains elements that require attention to detail.

Poulenc's "The Dialogues of the Carmelites"

The first two bars of the movement are almost a direct quote from another song by Poulenc, Les Ponts-de-Cé. 

The movement is heavily characterized by canonic movement, which means that the flute will be in tandem with the motivic material the piano plays in the first two bars.

The harmonies in this movement are moderately dissonant, but they still have a potent, gripping effect, almost grief-like. 

Players are encouraged to use whatever imagery they desire to embody the depth and warmth of the music while maintaining that vocal quality mentioned earlier. 

The breath emanating through the player is what is going to carry the music through these long, cantabile lines. 

Cantilena from the poulenc flute sonata

At number 3, during the sudden energetic caprice-style section, flutists must be meticulous with their intonation, especially when playing the open D-flat. 

The embouchure must be laser-precise so that the color of the notes resembles that of the violin or human voice with its floating quality. In moments of uplift, approaching the change in key, Wincenc encourages students to bring out sudden, high-energy sensations through their playing.

cantilena (continued) from the poulenc flute sonata

After that moment of uplift, the section at number 4 is dark and expressive. 

The challenge for the flutist here is the expansiveness needed in the low register to achieve a rich, resonating sound. 

This is very much related to the Marcel Moyse exercises, as well as opera-style projection of the voice. 

Wincenc encourages players to challenge themselves: how expansive can they make their sound in this section? 

Vibrato helps by lending a dramatic color, but we still have to have this very deep, almost cello-like sonority. 

To achieve this, we need to allow the jaw to relax to get a little more space in the mouth's interior. For instance, the low C at number 5 poses a significant challenge for the performer, especially right before a sudden jump to the high register. 

In contrast, the piece also features soft, high, floating moments that challenge performers to bring out a change in quality and color. 

En animant, at number 6, comes right out of that dark, low register, leading us right back to the return of the theme. From here, the notes jump up to the top register and then back to the low register. 

She encourages players to find balance between heavy, muscly-sounding notes with soft, floating ones. Overall, the piece requires great sensitivity, nuance, and control from the players to bring out an emotionally intense quality.

"en animant" from the poulenc flute sonata

The measure just before number 6 requires a richly legato approach. 

The challenge, however, is that we must transition immediately to a very articulate high note with a tiny grace note. 

It requires an artful projection of air to enable precise articulation, but switching back and forth to soft writing requires the engagement of a plethora of mouth muscles, making this a complex feat.

At number 8, the pianissimo subito "attacks" requires the muscles around the mouth to engage until perfection is achieved. 

At number eight, the call is for a sudden pianissimo, which lays everything bare for all to see. 

The high and exposed pianissimo attacks demand a jaw that is positioned forward, a tongue held high, and an uplifted chin. This way, the required laser-focused sound is achieved. 

rehearsal marks 8 and 9 from the poulenc flute sonata

III. Presto Giocoso

paris 1950, "le cabaret de la rose rouge" taken by marcel louchet

The third movement, the Presto Giocoso, is heavily influenced by popular Parisian music, such as cabaret and chansons. 

Wincenc highlights the lively and carefree atmosphere, and the simple harmonies accompanying this upbeat rhythm.

The movement is a fast-paced march, requiring both the pianist and the flutist to let go of their inhibitions and play more freely. It is in ternary form, ABA, as it introduces the opening material before transitioning into the B section, and then returning to the opening material. 

However, before arriving at a rousing conclusion, he reminds the listener poignantly of the melancholy of the second movement.

Playing this piece requires explicit placement of staccatos and articulations, as well as the maneuvering of the thirds. 

Wincenc points out that playing the flute requires careful consideration to prevent the air column from breaking and fracturing the sound. 

presto giocoso from the poulenc flute sonata

Passages with two-note slurs and two-note staccato figures are challenging to make seamless without jerking. 

She recommends working with the speed of the air to create an even, legato-like effect. To achieve this air consistency, she suggests consistent practice with articulation exercises. 

Wincenc notes that it takes a lot of effort to achieve the seamless sound needed for this piece. Consider using her favorite exercise, blowing beside the lip plate, which highlights the independence of the air by blowing from a relaxed position.

The magic here is the combination of air, support, speed, and the air's consistency. It requires a lot of work and focus, but with practice, the freedom and independence one can achieve is worth the effort.

The key to achieving that propelling feeling in the music can be described with the analogy of a plane taking off. 

Just as an airplane has engine thrust and air moving towards it to create buoyancy, the musician must collect the air behind the teeth to generate the desired resonance. This technique is especially crucial in the opening section of the music.

The performer must channel the joyous cabaret feeling of the Can-Can dance, similar to the New York Rockettes propelling their legs in unison (pictured). The music requires a blend of rapid staccato and piercing, short staccato, single eighth notes to achieve this effect. 

image of the can-can dance
excerpt (continued) from the poulenc flute sonata

As the music progresses, it becomes lyrical and melodic, emphasizing tenderness, similar to the first movement. 

The development section is particularly challenging, and the musician must focus on modulating from key to key seamlessly. There is a need to maintain a high tessitura, especially when playing accented figures and executing a high C. 

Players will want to make sure they aren't playing too sharp; consider pulling out the head joint a little extra for the last movement, and continue, as always, to think about airspeed all the time. 

Work on mindful execution of the arpeggiated figures, practicing them forwards and backward to achieve fluidity by "minding the gaps."

The end of the animated section will culminate with a loud, strident trill which must be supported to the end. 

The melancholic interlude requires the musician to emphasize the simplicity of the folkloric melody while ensuring the little binding 32nd notes propel the musician forward.

At Tempo Presto, at number 17, it's the pianist's responsibility to really tease and captivate the listener, throwing us into an intriguing, exciting, and energetic final section after having just experienced that sostenuto, melancholic interlude.

tempo presto I from the poulenc flute sonata

In summary, to achieve the desired sound, Wincenc recommends collecting the air behind the teeth, practicing forwards and backward, mindful execution of the arpeggiated figures, emphasizing simplicity, and maintaining the appropriate airspeed, among other techniques. 

The responsibility falls on Joy (the pianist) to captivate the audience after a stunning sostenuto ending. Bringing in an intriguing melody, the piece becomes lively and energized through its final bars. 

Poulenc's plea to maintain the high energy is achievable by utilizing the two trill keys and thumb B-flat. 

However, this approach has its hazards, and it's safer to play it as written.

The final three fortississimo notes require an explosive and generous sound from the flute player, but this can be achieved by engaging their core. 

The rapid thirds in the top register and octave below could be challenging as one needs a mobile and relaxed jaw to play them correctly. Physiologically memorizing the positions of the high G and E-flat notes is essential. 

The bottom register may also be challenging, but by reducing the flow of air, one can attain the desired tone. The accompanying figures in the piano part in the mezzo-forte passage also provide a rhythmic springboard that the flute feeds off.

final excerpt from the third movement of the poulenc flute sonata


The Poulenc Flute Sonata is one of the most important flute compositions of the 20th Century, and with such musical complexity comes a need to dialed-in interpretation and musical concentration.

Are you an active flutist looking to take your performance to the next level?

Be sure to check out tonebase Flute’s vast library of courses from the world’s best flutists, such as Jasmine Choi, Mark Sparks, and Carol Wincenc, whose course this post is based on.

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