Chamber concert classics: Poulenc and Shostakovich

Last spring, the Interlochen Arts Academy orchestra participated in the second NY Phil Biennial. The Biennial is a celebration of new music; as such, the orchestra performed a program of the latest works by up-and-coming composers.

This spring, the collaboration continues with a chamber concert by Arts Academy musicians on Jan. 28. While the majority of the program again features works by modern composers—many with Interlochen connections—two “classic” pieces round out the concert: “Sextet” by Francis Poulenc and “Theme and Variations” from Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2 in A Major.

Francis Poulenc was born in Paris, France, on Jan. 7, 1899. Although Poulenc began playing piano at age five, he received relatively little formal training music, as his family desired him to pursue a career in business instead. [1] Undaunted, Poulenc published his first work, Rapsodie nègre, in 1917 at the age of 18. [2]

Unlike many musicians of his day, Poulenc rejected romanticism and recognized that he would never be a revolutionary. Instead, he embraced neoclassicism. [3] His works were relatively simple, and frequently borrowed themes from Mozart, Saint-Saens and his own previous works. Despite the simplicity of his works, he was heavily influenced by more modern composers such as Stravinsky and Satie, as well as the popular French vaudeville and jazz tunes of his era. [4] His work was also known for having undertones of wit and parody. [5]

“Sextet for Piano and Winds” was originally composed and debuted in 1933 and edited in 1939. The piece weaves traditional harmonic structures with modern jazz and ragtime influences and is considered by many to be a repertory classic. [6] Poulenc was particularly fond of composing for woodwind instruments: he had planned to compose a full set of woodwind sonatas during the later years of his life, but the work was unfortunately left unfinished by his untimely death in 1963. [7]

Although Poulenc never visited Interlochen, his works have been favorites with students and faculty musicians for many years. The “Sextet for Piano and Winds” was first performed at Interlochen by a faculty ensemble called the Interlochen Arts Quintet. The quintet performed the piece during their second televised performance on a local Traverse City station on Jan. 25, 1963. The same program also featured a dance called “Hector Smeddley in a Hat,” which was set to music by Dmitri Shostakovich.

More recently, Poulenc’s Flute Sonata has become a favorite of Nancy Stagnitta, the instructor of flute at Interlochen Arts Academy. “I happened to find [a recording of my college auditions] while helping my mom and dad move this summer,” said Stagnitta. “After not hearing that recording in years, we listened to the Poulenc Sonata! It has always been one of my treasured pieces, and I've performed it many, many times—but I had not remembered that it was on my college audition recording. It was amazing to hear my high school self playing this piece, and gave me such insight to working on it now with my Interlochen high school students.”

In contrast with Poulenc, Dmitri Shostakovich is best known for his symphonic works for full orchestra. Born in 1906 in St. Petersburg, Russia, Shostakovich frequently found himself at the mercy of the Soviet regime. [8] The young Shostakovich began piano lessons with his mother at age nine, and by 13 had been accepted into the Petrograd Conservatory. [9]

Shostakovich’s early works were heavily influenced by fellow Russian composers Stravinsky and Prokofiev, as well as the experimental trends in Western music. By 1936, he had produced two brash and humorous operas, The Nose and Lady MacBeth. Lady MacBeth so offended Joseph Stalin that Soviet publications denounced both the work and the composer, and Shostakovich fell out of favor. [10] Fearing for his life, he withdrew his Symphony No. 4, which was to debut later that year. [11]

In 1937, he redeemed himself with his more conservative Symphony No. 5, subtitled “A Soviet artist's creative response to just criticism.” [12] During this time, his output of chamber music drastically increased. The smaller audience of chamber music allowed him the freedom to experiment with new ideas and freely express his musical ideas. String Quartet No. 2 in A Major was written during this period of the composer’s life. [13]

Shostakovich’s style was as varied as his many influences. His early works were primarily experimental in nature and reflected the influences of Prokofiev, Tschaikovsky and Stravinsky. After 1936, his works became more conservative: his symphonies began to more closely resemble the works of Mahler. Free from the repressions of his larger works, his chamber works reflected a separate set of influences. His fugues and passacaglias evoked the works of Bach, while his later symphonies reflected the influence of Beethoven. His chamber works were generally of a more somber and reflective character and embraced experimentation. [14]

Like Poulenc, Shostakovich himself has no direct tie to Interlochen, other than through his music. Symphony No. 5 was the first work by Shostakovich to be featured in a concert at Interlochen: the Youth Symphony Orchestra performed the piece under the direction of A. Clyde Roller on August 8, 1965. A little over ten years later, in 1975, Byron Hanson conducted the finale from Symphony No. 5 to celebrate the opening of Corson Auditorium. In 1985, Maxim Shostakovich visited Interlochen Arts Camp to lead the World Youth Symphony Orchestra in his father’s Symphony No. 8. Shostakovich’s symphonies continue to make regular appearances on both Camp and Academy orchestral programs. This past summer, Joshua Weilerstein led WYSO in a lesser-performed Shostakovich work, his suite from the film The Gadfly.


[1] “Francis Poulenc Biography,”
[2] “Francis Poulenc,”
[3] Sewell, Amanda, “Program Notes: Sextet.”
[4] “Francis Poulenc,”
[5] “Francis Poulenc,”
[6] Sewell, Amanda, “Program Notes: Sextet.”
[7] “Francis Poulenc (Composer),”
[8] “Dmitry Shostakovich,”
[9] “Dmitri Shostakovich,”
[10] “Dmitry Shostakovich,”
[11] “Dmitri Shostakovich,”
[12] “Dmitry Shostakovich,”
[13] “Dmitri Shostakovich,”
[14] “Dmitri Shostakovich,”