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Hidden Gems of the NLS Collection: Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano

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Many of the Music Section’s most recent braille music acquisitions have come to us from libraries all over the world via the Marrakesh Treaty. Our latest round of new scores was recently made available to us from the National Library for the Disabled in Seoul, Republic of Korea. What has made these acquisitions so special is the fact that the transcriptions are derived from newly revised editions of music. One such work we’ve acquired is the 1994 edition of French composer Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano, edited by Carl Schmidt and thoroughly annotated with a detailed history and comprehensive commentary of the editorial process. A true gem!

The preface contains a wealth of information, including correspondence between Poulenc and those involved with the genesis of the work. What’s truly amazing is that the Sonata was commissioned by the Library of Congress through a grant from the Coolidge Foundation! In 1956, Harold Spivacke, Chief of the Music Division of the Library of Congress acting as spokesperson for the Coolidge Foundation, wrote  to Poulenc offering a commission for a piece of chamber music for a festival to take place that same year. Although Spivacke proposed a piece for two pianos, he left Poulenc the option of a different sort of work providing it did not exceed six instruments. Poulenc declined the commission on the grounds that he was just finishing the orchestration of his opera Dialogues of the Carmelites and that the premiere in Milan was too close. The next month, Spivacke again offered the commission, suggesting a sonata for flute and piano, dedicated to the memory of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. Poulenc agreed to Spivacke’s proposed terms of $750 and the gift of the original manuscript to the Library of Congress provided that he could reserve the premiere for the Strasbourg Music Festival in June 1957.

Harold Spivacke, Chief of the Music Division (1937-1972). Photograph dated 1946. From The Library of Congress Archives: Photographs, Illustrations, Objects.

Renowned flute virtuoso Jean-Pierre Rampal learned about the sonata in a phone call from Poulenc not long after the commission. According to Rampal’s autobiography that is quoted in the preface of the sonata, “`Jean-Pierre,’ said Poulenc, ‘you know you’ve always wanted me to write a sonata for flute and piano? Well, I’m going to,’ he said. ‘And the best thing is that the Americans will pay for it!’”.

Rampal and Poulenc would perform the world premiere of the sonata at the Strasbourg Festival on June 18, 1957. The audience was so appreciative that the duo had to play the second movement twice!  The unofficial premiere took place the previous day before an audience of one: composer Arthur Rubinstein. According to Rampal, “The applause we received from him was as memorable as at any concert I have played.” Poulenc also performed the English premiere on January 16, 1958, with renowned English flutist Gareth Morris. The American premiere took place in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress on February 14, 1958, with Rampal and pianist Robert Veyron-Lacroix performing. In 1998, Rampal performed the sonata again at the Library of Congress, in a concert celebrating the 40th anniversary of the American premiere and the 100th anniversary of the Music Division.

The work became immensely popular, and was later orchestrated. In 1976, the flautist James Galway asked the English composer Sir Lennox Berkeley, a good friend of Poulenc’s for many years, to orchestrate the sonata. This proved to be quite the challenge, as Berkeley wrote in his diary, “The task of orchestrating Poulenc’s Flute Sonata … proves as difficult as I had feared. The difficulty is the entirely pianistic nature of the accompaniment, extremely difficult to translate into orchestral terms.” Berkeley paid tribute to Poulenc’s genius with a carefully and faithfully crafted orchestration that became as popular as Poulenc’s original.

This is just a brief snippet of the information that is presented in the preface to this marvelous work. There are also annotations, performance suggestions, errata and further historical background. Along with our wonderful new acquisition of Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano, please enjoy these other selections from the NLS Music Collection that relate to this post. To check out the materials listed below, you can download the digital files through BARD, or borrow hard copies of braille music and talking books on digital cartridge. Call the Music Section at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected]. If you are new to BARD, you may find the following links helpful: Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access.


Barclay, Michael. Michael Barclay lectures on The Medium (with La Voix Humaine). The subjects of these two operas, from contemporary composers Menotti and Poulenc, deal with truth and reality. (DBM01417)

Johnson, Graham. Poulenc: The Life in the Songs. Biography of the French modernist composer Poulenc (1899-1963) from a professor and pianist. He shows that it is in Poulenc’s extraordinary songs, and seeing how they fit into his life–which included crippling guilt on account of his sexuality–that readers discover Poulenc’s heart and soul. 2020. (DB 100052)

Library of Congress Music Division. Saving Mary: Stabat Mater Settings from Pergolesi to Poulenc. Lecture presented by Nicholas Alexander Brown, Music Specialist at the Library of Congress. (DBM04267)

Rampal, Jean-Pierre. Music, My Love. Born in France in 1922, Rampal, the son of a flutist, was encouraged to pursue a medical career because his parents wanted security for him. But as World War II began to loom on the horizon, Rampal realized he would have more luck dodging the Nazis as a musician. By the mid-1950s, he had established himself as a musician with a keen sensibility, extraordinary technique, and a tone unlike any heard before. (DB 32626)

Thompson, Ann. Dialogues of the Carmelites: Chat by Ann Thompson. This opera by Poulenc premiered at Milan’s La Scala in 1957. Ann Thompson discusses the French Revolution and the Carmelite order. (DBM01398)


Galway, James. Three Nocturnes: Field, Chopin, Boulanger. Nocturnes by John Field, Frédéric Chopin, and Lili Boulanger arranged for flute and piano by James Galway. Transcribed in music braille by Roger Firman. Flute part only in single line format. (BRM36729)

Poulenc, Francis. Airs Chantés. For soprano voice and piano in line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM29009)

____ Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos. Volume 1 contains movements 1 and 2, and volume 2 contains movement 3. Both solo parts are scored in duet form in this transcription with orchestral cues. Bar over bar format. (BRM23130)

____ Dialogues of the Carmelites. From the play by Georges Bernanos. English version by Joseph Machlis. Braille libretto. (BRM24472)

____ Five Impromptus for Piano. Bar over bar format (BRM30898)

____ Quatre Motets pour le Temps de Noël. For unaccompanied chorus. SATB choir parts in line by line format and choral score in bar over bar format. (BRM36288)

____ Sonata for Flute and Piano. Single line and bar over bar formats. (BRT37696)

____ Sonata for Oboe and Piano. Section by section format. (BRM34147)

____ Thème Varié. For solo piano. Transcribed in music braille by Kathleen Cantrell and Christina Davidson. Bar over bar format. (BRM36806)

Large Print

Cavally, Robert. 24 Short Concert Pieces for Flute and Piano. Contains compositions by the following composers: Anderson, Bach, Bizet, Boisdeffre, Delibes, Donjon, Fauré, Godard, Gluck, Hue, Joncieres, Massenet, Molique, Mozart, Perilhou, Pessard, Quantz, and Schubert. (LPM00291)

Poulenc, Francis. Suite pour Piano. (LPM00880)

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