April 10, 1963—The debut of Francis Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata turned into an unanticipated memorial at Carnegie Hall. With the 63-year-old French composer dying of a massive heart attack only four months before, Leonard Bernstein replaced him at the piano, accompanying featured soloist Benny Goodman.
Twenty-five years before, Goodman’s performance at Carnegie had been a brassy, joyous affair that gave the imprimatur of New York’s most serious musical venue to big-band jazz. In contrast, his appearance in the Poulenc piece took on a somber tone.
In terms of personality, Poulenc and the "King of Swing" could not have differed more. The American, for all the joy his music gave the Greatest Generation, was such a taskmaster that years later, musicians who once played for him spoke of what a martinet he could be. Poulenc, far more of an easygoing eccentric, also displayed far more duality: "something of the monk and something of the rascal," according to music critic Claude Rostand. Never entirely able to sublimate his homosexual orientation, he also was a devout Roman Catholic who wrote an opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites (1957), that stands a fair chance of becoming a staple of modern musical theater—even though it features no romance or melodrama, only an order of nuns martyred during the French Revolution.
In terms of music, however, Poulenc and Goodman evinced a similar crossover sensibility. From early in his career, Poulenc composed witty, jazz-inflected pieces as well as the melodic, Romantic-influenced works for which he was better known. By the 1960s, with bebop pushing to the side his own big-band sound, Goodman increasingly widened his musical perspective to take in classical works. In the next two decades, he would perform classical works with his daughters acccompanying him on the piano and cello, and he died in 1986 while playing a Brahms sonata on his clarinet in his New York home.
Goodman had commissioned this piece from Poulenc, and it turned out to be one of the last (if not the last) works the Frenchman wrote before his untimely death. Bernstein, another musician with crossover tendencies (Poulenc deeply admired his West Side Story), was honored to step in for his friend.
For a fine assessment of Poulenc’s career (the piece that got me interested in him in the first place), this one by Terry Teachout of The Wall Street Journal is the place to start. This YouTube clip, a performance by Anton Dressler on the clarinet and John Novacek at the piano, also gives a fine sense of Goodman’s fortune in commissioning this sterling late-career work.