Sonata op. 71 pour basson et piano by Charles Koechlin (1867-195)

Andante Moderato – Allegretto Scherzando

Charles Louis Eugène Koechlin was born in Paris, France, in November of 1867.  Being the seventh child in a large and wealthy family, he was taught social responsibility at a young age.  His father died when Koechlin was 14 and throughout his mother’s life he would interrupt whatever was happening in his life to spend August with her in the Swiss mountains.  This dedication to family value was carried into his own marriage to Suzanne Pierrard in 1903.  Sadly, his financial position was tenuous throughout his life since he spent most of his earnings trying to get his works played; Koechlin ran into extreme financial difficulties later in life.  Part of the reason for the financial hardship was his lack of a permanent university teaching position.  Interestingly, the “social conscience” that was instilled in him as a young child was not reflected in his music, which may have accounted for his inability to secure a tenured university position.  He is quoted numerous times throughout his life saying he composed for his own pleasure and not for the people.

One does not write for a public, just as one does not breathe or walk for a public.  One does not intentionally write for others, either for the effect or in order to please or to earn money; instead one writes in order to share one’s thoughts and to say what one loves and with one goal only, that of saying it as well as one can.1

Koechlin did a great deal of teaching but was never appointed to a salaried university position.  Instead, he made most of his money writing textbooks.  He wrote a textbook on music theory, one three-volume work on harmony, and his most known treatise, a four-volume work on orchestration. Additionally, Koechlin wrote numerous articles for journals and a biography on his famous teacher Fauré.

Koechlin is an extremely influential French composer, yet he is barely acknowledged by history.  Erik Satie invited Koechlin to join Les Nouveaux Jeunes, in 1918, which was superseded by Les Six.2  Koechlin was practically a member of Les Six, a group of French composers (Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc, and Tailleferre) that wrote in reaction to Wagnerism and Impressionism.  While learning at the Paris Conservatorium, he studied next to Ravel, another important French composer and became a close friend of Milhaud.  Koechlin was also the teacher to both Poulenc and Tailleferre.  These interactions gave him a great influence over French music in his life and left a legacy for others to follow.

Although he wrote over 220 musical works in his lifetime, very few are played frequently today.  The Sonate Op. 71 pour bassoon et piano, written in 1918 and revised in July 1919, is an exception.  Between 1911-1925 Koechlin wrote eight other sonatas, three string quartets, and a number of piano pieces.  Due to the content of this time period in Koechlin’s life, it is often referred to as his chamber music period.  The first performance of Op. 71 was in 1938 by M. Dhérin, bassoon, and J. Guieysse, piano.1  Shockingly, the first printed edition of the work wasn’t until 1990, 71 years after the completion of the work and 50 years after the composer’s death.

Of the nine instrumental sonatas written during Koechlin’s chamber music period, there is no adherence to the standard sonata form for the time nor is there a standard deviation Koechlin uses.  He is somewhat consistent in the length of sonatas he writes as most are three movement works with only the oboe sonata having four movements.  However, the tempo order for the three movement sonatas is not consistent among the works.  Many do not follow the standard fast-slow-fast that would be expected by tradition. The horn and clarinet sonatas do follow the traditional fast-slow-fast pacing; whereas, the flute and cello sonatas have a slow-slow-fast pacing that can be explained by the following quote from Koechlin:

Ah well, that’s just too bad!  I shall write what will give me pleasure; and if my song begins with an Andante or Adagio – as it did in Bach’s time – I shall have no fear of this novelty.3

The bassoon sonata, however, follows neither of the three-movement tempo structures: fast-slow-fast or slow-slow-fast.  The bassoon sonata is often characterized by historians as falling in with the horn’s and clarinet’s fast-slow-fast category of design.3  After all, the opening Andante Moderato could be classified as simply an introduction to the Allegretto Scherzando.  Contrarily, the first movement of the bassoon sonata reverts back to the slower tempo at the conclusion of the first movement which would make it fit in the slow-slow-fast category.  However, what makes this version not a standard slow movement with a fast middle is that both the Andante theme and Allegretto theme are played at the same time on top of each other when the original tempo returns.  The solo bassoon reverts back to the opening Andante at the original slow tempo while the piano plays the Allegretto theme as a new accompaniment to the original melody resulting in confusion over the classification of this movement.

Koechlin was influenced by two great composers while writing the accompaniment for Op. 71.  In the first movement, the accompaniment at the very beginning is the arpeggiated chords often associated with music of Fauré.  Koechlin studied with this great master and it is no surprise that Fauré influenced Koechlin’s compositional style.  The second great composer influencing Op. 71 is Chopin.  The second movement accompaniment (see Figure 1) has an ostinato bass pattern that is a cross between Chopin’s Barcarolle, Op. 60 (see Figure 2) and Nocturne, Op. 72 no. 1  (see Figure 3). Koechlin takes the two-ostinato patterns from Chopin and combines them; then places the ideas into a 13-quaver (eighth-note) meter giving it a modern feel and his own influence.   This homage to Chopin in Koechlin’s work dates from 1879 when as young boy Koechlin was exposed to the recitals of Charles-Wilfred Bériot.  These recitals inspired the young boy to take up piano in a desire to play the Chopin he had heard.3

Figure 1: Sonate Op. 71, Second Movement4

Works by Chopin




Figure 2: Barcarolle, Op. 60

Figure 3: Nocturne, Op. 72 no. 16

The bassoon sonata was originally to have four movements; however, Koechlin cut the fourth movement from the sonata and instead used the material in his Silhouettes de comedie, Op. 193 (1943), for bassoon and orchestra.  In addition to Silhouettes, Koechlin also wrote Trois Pièces, Op. 34 (1899), for bassoon and piano.  Sonate Op. 71 pour basson et piano was also later released as a work for horn and piano.

Koechlin influenced the French music scene but his rebel views ostracized him from the mainstream music society.  His music is inappropriately neglected, even today, with few of his works heard frequently.  Luckily, Sonate pour basson et piano is an exception and has become a staple to the bassoon repertoire.


1.    Music for bassoon [sound recording /]. Georgsmarienhèutte: CPO; 1998.

2.    Sadie S, Levy M. The new Grove dictionary of music and musicians. 2nd ed. London; New York: Macmillan; Grove; 2001.

3.    Orledge R. Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) : his life and works. Chur, Switzerland; New York: Harwood Academic Publishers; 1989.

4.    Koechlin C. Sonate, op. 71, pour basson (ou cor) et piano. Paris: G. Billaudot; 1990.

5.    Chopin F. Klavierstèucke. Urtext [ed.] ed. Mèunchen: Henle; 1978.

6.    Chopin F. Nocturnes : pour piano seul. Budapest: Editio Musica; 1981.

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