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ClassicsOnline Home » CHAUSSON, E.: Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet / Piano Trio (Meadowmount Trio, Wihan String Quartet)
The première of Chausson’s Concert in D major was a major triumph for the composer. Not only had the great Eugène Ysaÿe performed on violin, but audiences and critics had recognised a work of exceptional intensity, passion and haunting beauty. Its actual genre may have proved elusive, as it is hardly a conventionally laid-out chamber work, but it remains one of the most important works in the French repertoire. The Piano Trio was written when Chausson was 26. Though somewhat indebted to Franck, it immediately evokes its own charged sense of atmosphere. The Wihan is one of the world’s leading quartets, and the Meadowmount Trio has been admired for its “exquisite beauty of tone and sparkling rhythmic energy.” (ClassicsToday.com)
Ernest Chausson (1855–1899)
Concert in D major, Op. 21 • Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 3
Violinists know Chausson as the composer of the Poème; singers, for the well-worn mélodie Le Temps des lilas. Fans of Debussy know him as the big-brotherly benefactor who helped the struggling composer over many a financial hurdle in the early 1890s; and everyone seems to know of his untimely death in a bicycle accident (a paradoxical end for one so overprotected in his youth).
Ernest Chausson was born into moneyed circumstances. His father was a building contractor during the makeover of Paris by Baron Haussmann. Having lost their first child (also named Ernest) in 1851, and their second (who was studying law) in 1865, the parents spared no expense in the safekeeping of their third. Whether in gratitude or feeling obliged to compensate his parents’ earlier losses, Chausson took a law degree in 1877, but he vacillated over the choice of a career, with music, drawing, and literature counterposing their claims to whatever calling he may have felt to practise law. In August 1879 he went to Munich to hear Wagner conduct The Flying Dutchman and The Ring. He enrolled in the Conservatoire within the month, studying composition with Jules Massenet while attending as an auditor the class of César Franck. After Massenet entered him, prematurely, in the Prix de Rome competition, Chausson dropped out of Massenet’s class but remained, for the next ten years, a member of Franck’s circle. He imbibed not only the master’s technical approach to composition—the initial “generative cell” and cyclical thematic recurrence, which combined to produce that uncanny sense, so characteristic of Beethoven, of everything being related to everything else, no matter what the affective contrasts involved—but also Franck’s spiritual approach to composition as a high moral calling. Both entailed more reverence for “abstract” symphonic and chamber genres than was typically shown in a capital crazy about opera and ballet, and they entailed certain musico-political affiliations as well; Chausson soon joined his teacher and colleagues in the Société Nationale de Musique, of which he became secretary in 1886.
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”. In truth, Chausson showed an extraordinary capacity for hard work. Yet, racked as he was by self-doubt, his creative output was relatively meagre. He laboured nine years to produce one opera (Le Roi Arthus). He finished one symphony and started another. Among chamber genres, he left one piano trio, one “piano sextet”, and one piano quartet, as well as an unfinished string quartet. The only genre he cultivated in any quantity was song, which fact he occasionally blamed for his protracted struggles with larger forms. The tone-poem was a congenial compromise between the literary and the symphonic; indeed, the closest Chausson came to writing a concerto was the Poème for violin and orchestra, inspired by Turgenev. As an artist, he was burdened not only with lack of facility but also with the crippling persuasion that most of his work was at best derivative (by comparison with Franck and Wagner). In a letter he confessed to feeling himself one of those “thousands of little ants who grind away, sweating conscientiously, without receiving any appreciation; what they do is of little consequence…and yet they cannot do otherwise”.
According to Jean Gallois, who examined the pertinent manuscripts, all the principal themes of the Concert, Op. 21, were sketched at once—not surprising, given the cyclic integration of the material—in May 1889. But the slow movement was the first completed, followed by the Sicilienne (in 1890) and, in the summer of 1891, the first movement and the finale. As his letters make clear, Chausson was exasperated at how slowly he finished the work; but its première in Brussels, on 26 February 1892, was one of the most decisive triumphs of his career. The performers were the renowned Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, the quartet of Ysaÿe’s pupil Mathieu Crickboom (then but 21 years old), and a young Parisian, Auguste Pierret, who had leapt in, at ten days’ notice, for the pianist originally scheduled. 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 obvious question with the Concert is, what genre is it, really? Certainly not a concerto in the nineteenth-century sense, but rather a concerted chamber work in the spirit (if not the manner) of Couperin and Rameau, based on the notion of friendly competition between heterogeneous elements, a solo violin, a string quartet, and a piano. By turns, the work is scored as a violin sonata, a piano solo, a string quartet or quintet, a piano quintet, or (when tutti) a piano sextet. It comprises four movements.
Listeners conversant with sonata form will recognize that basic structural pattern in the outer movements of the Concert. The first themes seem endlessly self-generating. The transitions sprawl, and each introduces a distinctive thematic episode before giving a foretaste of the lyrical second theme to come. The closes are so short as to be vestigial. The development sections review the themes of the exposition, more or less in order. The recapitulations build upon the developments (rather than retracing the expositions), and culminate in substantial codas.
In the first movement the generative cell is a three-note motto put into the musical equivalent of neon lights: parallel octaves, fortissimo, set apart by fermatas. One cannot help but relate whatever follows to this arresting initial gesture. After an extended rumination on the motto by the quartet and piano, the solo violin bursts out of the starting gate with the first theme proper, as if showing to what lyrical lengths the motto can be spun out. Variants of the motto recur at every structural juncture, initiating the transition, the two halves of the development (devoted to the first and second themes, respectively), and of course the recapitulation. The climax of the movement, however, is reached with the second theme, presented fortissimo in soaring double-stop octaves by the solo violin, reinforced by the cello and piano in an otherwise densely figured texture. Thereafter, the first theme and the motto return in a quiet benediction on the whole. We cannot know it now, but we will wait a long time for a return of the home key, D major.
The haunting A minor Sicilienne evokes a common Baroque movement type, conveying its “days of yore” atmosphere through obsessive rhythms and faintly antique harmony. Chausson’s friend Vincent d’Indy would later suggest that “it leads us…towards the gardens where bloom the charming fancies of a Gabriel Fauré”. Whatever specific connection d’Indy may have had in mind, Fauré’s Sicilienne, Op. 78, published only in 1898, can hardly have provided a model for Chausson. The structure of the movement might be described as rondo-like, but without sharply contrasting episodes. It ends serenely in A major, serving as a foil for the grief-stricken slow movement (Grave) in F minor, the traditional key of lamentation. This music seems all groans and sighs and ceaseless pacing (mainly by half-step) within constricted melodic space. After an initial threnody for solo violin and piano, the quartet enters and the mood blackens. A choleric second theme recalls (with its leap of a fifth) the motto of the first movement, but now in A flat minor and with the erstwhile pacing bass-line beginning to heave menacingly. And yet this closes into an island of D major calm, a utopian “ray-of-light” moment that we know cannot be the last word, if only because of the key. It is dashed soon enough by the development, which turns the pacing bass-line into a wounded-sounding melody before recasting the second theme in even note values (such transformations will recur in the finale). One might interpret the rest of the Grave as a recapitulation with the themes reversed, so that one hears the second theme (in its initial, rhythmically jagged guise) building up to a desperate climactic statement of the first theme. The subsiding conclusion is chilling in its effect. At the risk of drawing facile biographical connections, one might point to the especially bleak tone of Chausson’s contemporaneous letters, as he struggled with his libretto for Le Roi Arthus.
After the psychological nadir of the Grave, the finale sets off in D minor with an agitated theme that bucks the metrical patterns of 6/8 time. D’Indy rightly spoke of it as the sole theme, in so far as it provides the material for the jaunty transition episode (which none the less nods at the finale of Franck’s Symphony in D minor) and for the passionately surging second theme (in the key of B-flat). Indeed, toward the end of the transition, one can hear the first theme turning into the second, as it were, before one’s ears. It is in the development that themes from earlier movements begin to rear their heads, most prominently the choleric second theme of the Grave, first as a cantus firmus in even note values, then in its “unvarnished” form. Chausson’s manipulations of rhythm grow increasingly complex. At one point in the recapitulation, the principal theme is sounding at once in its initial form and as a slower-moving cantus firmus. By the coda (très vif), he has transformed the principal theme into a dizzying waltz, as if to mark the long-delayed return to D major. Faithful to the Franckish compulsion to stage a réunion des thèmes before the end, Chausson sweeps into a climactic recall of the Grave theme, then the first theme of the opening movement, finally the three-note motto, turned into a cadential figure.
The Concert is usually regarded as Chausson’s first “mature” chamber work. His very first chamber work, the Piano Trio in G minor of 1881, suffers unduly by implied comparison. Written as Chausson was shifting his allegiance at the Conservatoire from Massenet to Franck, the Trio seems a determined effort to learn from the latter master’s Piano Quintet, which had had its première the year before. Like the Quintet, Chausson’s Trio begins with an extended slow introduction. Against the gloomy backdrop of the piano accompaniment, Chausson introduces two distinct motives, one pained (cello), one elegiac (violin), that will recur not only in the main body of the movement but in the slow movement and finale as well.
However much he may have felt indebted to Franck’s Quintet, Chausson proceeded more boldly than his master in his treatment of received structural patterns. In the first movement, where the first key area is G minor, the second is not B flat but F major, marked by a lovely theme for the cello. The development, while revisiting the first and second themes, is increasingly haunted by the slow introduction, which it winds up restating in toto (in this respect, Franck had set the pace). The recapitulation brings the second theme in G major, but the prospect of any lieto fine is short-lived. The elegiac motive from the slow introduction storms back in G minor, and the ending is stark indeed.
The jollity of the scherzo in B flat (and, along the way, many another key) comes as a positive relief. Especially delightful is the chorale-like phrase given by the strings, whose faint holier-than-thou air is deftly undermined by the piano’s grace notes. This is the only movement undarkened by motives from the first movement; sharp ears, though, may detect hints of Mendelssohn and Brahms. The third movement seems to pick up where the first left off; it is dominated by permutations of the elegiac motive. Still, it works its way to a peaceful D major conclusion, marked by sonorities Chausson might have borrowed from Wagner’s Träume (Wesendonck-Lieder). The finale begins as a rondo-like succession of tunes, with a G major refrain that sounds uncannily like Dvořák in a folksy vein…until one realizes that it stems from the introduction to the scherzo. To be sure, the refrain is much changed from one statement to the next, and each statement seems to be derailed before it can arrive at a solid cadence. The central episode brings back transformations of the second theme and the transition motive from the first movement. One begins to sense that the movement may not be the cheerful walk in the park it first seemed. Still, it is hard not to feel mugged by the last pages. After a speeded-up version of the refrain, the first theme from the opening movement barges in, in A flat minor, with the pained motive close behind, then the elegiac violin theme soaring above a roiling bass. Before long, the slow introduction itself returns, its two motives gradually merging into one, in a mood of growing exhaustion, before the final, door-slamming gesture from the piano. It is all too tempting to impose a narrative template on these startling events, which have no precedent in the Franck Quintet. Whatever “programme” we imagine, it seems clear from the end that hope, Emily Dickinson’s “thing with feathers that perches in the soul”, has all too brutally been shot down.
Dr Steven M. Whiting
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