Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Giddy and joyful

Ermest Chausson, a little known French romantic composer, was born 160 years ago today. He died relatively young, after a bicycle accident, leaving behind but 40 or so significant compositions. Although he kept a diary, it has never been published in English, nor are there any English biographies of the composer. Nevertheless, a few extracts of the diary in English - showing the extent of his purposefulness - can be found on classical music websites.

Chausson was born in Paris on 20 January 1855, the son of a rich building contractor. He studied law, and was appointed a barrister for the Court of Appeals, though he soon found himself drawn to the artistic world. He dabbled in writing and drawing before deciding more seriously on music. He was taught by Jules Massenet at the Paris Conservatoire, and by César Franck who became a close friend.

In 1982, Chausson travelled with another composer, Vincent d’Indy to Bayreuth where they attended the premiere of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. The following year, he married Jeanne Escudier, and went with her to Bayreuth again. The couple would have five children.

Biographers identify Chausson’s early work as being influenced by Massenet, after which it became more dramatic, technically influenced by Wagner’s music. ‘In general,’ Wikipedia’s biography says, ‘Chausson’s compositional idiom bridges the gap between the ripe Romanticism of Massenet and Franck and the more introverted Impressionism of Debussy.’

Chausson attracted a wide circle of writers, musicians and artists to his Paris home, and he also gathered an important collection of paintings. In 1886, he was appointed secretary of the Société Nationale de Musique, a post he held until his death (due to a bicycle accident) in 1899. He was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, and his funeral was attended by many leading figures of the arts. He left behind only 39 Opus-numbered pieces of work. Further information is available from Wikipedia, or the websites of Naxos and Hyperion Records.

As far as I can tell, there are no published English-language biographies of Chausson, but French biographies refer to his diaries  - parts of which were published in Écrits inédits: journaux intimes, roman de jeunesse, correspondance (Editions du Rocher, 1999) - and some extracts have been translated and used on English-language websites. Naxos, for example, which sells a recording of Chausson’s Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet (Op 21), offers a description of it on its website, in which can be found this: ‘Inevitably, biographers focus on a passage Chausson jotted into his diary at the age of twenty: “I have the premonition that my life will be short. I’m far from complaining about it, but I should not want to die before having done something”.’

Further on, in the same text, Naxos says: ‘As his letters make clear, Chausson was exasperated at how slowly he finished [Op 21]; but its première in Brussels, on 26 February 1892, was one of the most decisive triumphs of his career. [. . .] Chausson remarked in his diary: “I must believe that my music is made for Belgians above all, for never have I enjoyed such a success. . . I feel giddy and joyful, such as I have not managed to feel for a long time . . . It seems to me that I shall work with greater confidence in future”.’

The Hyperion website also focuses its text about Chausson on the same diary entry, but with more analysis (and a different translation): ‘ “Never have I had such a success! I can’t get over it. Everyone seems to love the Concert. Very well played, with wonderful moments, and so artistically executed! I feel light and joyful, something I haven’t been for a long time. It’s done me good and has given me courage. I believe I’ll work with more confidence in the future.” This is Chausson’s entry in his diary (as yet unpublished) for 26 February 1892. Each phrase is telling; the reception which the audience in Brussels had given his opus 21 had made him “feel light and joyful” and had given him “courage” to continue with his work. As we all know, a sense of well-being can be very uplifting. Reading this diary, one can sense his enthusiasm and his desire to create. But this real triumph, which his modesty prevented him from broadcasting, was his first. Although he was already thirty-seven, with a sizeable catalogue of works to his name, he was practically unknown. Why?’

One answer to this question, the Hyperion article goes on to suggest, is that Chausson was not a product of the Conservatoire: ‘But there is undoubtedly another much more subtle reason why his compositions were so little-known: although not as well-off as has often been presumed, he was reasonably comfortable and thus shielded from financial insecurity. In fact his diary and letters, whether from friends or business acquaintances, reveal that he was constantly being asked to help out discreetly various impecunious colleagues, or (and one can quite see why!) to become Treasurer of the renowned National Society of Music. Add to these his abhorrence of being taken for an amateur, with his lofty artistic and spiritual aims - “I understand only that work, constant effort in all things, is always directed towards the same goal” (letter to Paul Poujaud in the summer of 1888) - and, in an earlier diary, his entry for 20 February 1892: “To attain self-belief is a life’s work.” Given all this, one can understand exactly how triumphant he felt when, for once, a new composition received unanimous praise. The audience had been captivated by the exceptional quality of the writing and the strength of the ideas, the work’s remarkable construction and development, and its instantly memorable tunes.’

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