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Emmanuel Chabrier and his “Espana” Rhapsody

Alexis Emmanuel Chabrier (January 18, 1841 – September 13, 1894) was a French Romantic composer and pianist who was also associated with some of the leading writers and painters of his time including the painters Claude Monet and Édouard Manet. Chabrier was born at Ambert in Puy-de-Dôme, a town in the Auvergne region of central France. His father was an attorney. He began his music lessons at the age of six. The earliest of his compositions to survive in manuscript are piano works from 1849. His family moved to Clermont-Ferrand in 1852 where he prepared for a legal career, studied at the Lycée imperial, and had practical and theoretical music lessons with Alexander Tarnowski, a Polish-born composer and violinist. A piano piece from this period, Le Scalp!!!, was later modified into the Marche des Cipayes.

In 1856 the family made Paris their home, and the young Chabrier continued serious studies in both of his chosen fields. His musical training, however, was limited, and in the art of composition he was self-taught. Chabrier spent a year at the Lycée Saint-Louis, passed the Baccalauréat, and entered law school from which he graduated in 1861, and on October 29 that year began a career at the French Ministry of the Interior. Despite this, his passion was music. During the 1860s he composed a number of minor piano works. His interest in Wagner began at this time, and he copied out the orchestral score of Tannhäuser. From 1862 he entered the circle of the Parnassians in Paris, some of whom collaborated with him in his work. His interest in poetry lead to a long friendship with Paul Verlaine, who contributed librettos to two early operettas that he did not complete.

His parents died within a few months of each other in 1869. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) and Commune, Chabrier continued with his desk job as the ministry moved from Tours to Bordeaux to Versailles. In 1873, he married Marie Alice Dejean, with whom he had three sons, one of whom died in early childhood. He began several stage works during the 1870s. His first one to be completed was L’étoile (“The Star”), which achieved 48 successful performances at the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens in 1877, showcasing his light touch, musical aplomb, and comic wit. Chabrier’s friends from the artistic avant-garde in Paris included composers Gabriel Fauré, Ernest Chausson, and Vincent d’Indy. He composed the opera Une Éducation manquée (“A Deficient Education”), first performed with piano accompaniment in 1879. On a trip to Munich with Henri Duparc in 1879, he discovered Wagner’s masterpiece Tristan und Isolde. This event led him to realize his true passion for composition, and he quit the Ministry of the Interior in 1880. That year he composed his piano cycle Pièces pittoresques, of which the Idylle greatly influenced Francis Poulenc.

Chabrier plunged himself into the scores of Wagner, and became an important assistant to Charles Lamoureux in preparing concert performances of the German master’s works in Paris. As chorus master at the Concerts Lamoureux he helped to produce a concert performance of Tristan. In 1882 Chabrier visited Spain, which resulted in his most famous work, España (1883), a mixture of popular airs he had heard and his own imagination. His opera Gwendoline, set in England during the Anglo-Saxon period, was refused by the Paris Opera but was a success at its premiere at La Monnaie in Brussels under Henry Verdhurdt in 1885. However, it closed after just two performances because the impresario went bankrupt. Despite this major disappointment, he soon found a new lyric project to tackle – Le roi malgré lui (The King in Spite of Himself) – and completed the score in six months. On July 13, 1888, Chabrier was nominated to the order of Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.

Chabrier’s best music was written between 1881 and 1891, and some of his other works of this period include the piano pieces Dix pièces pittoresques (1880), Trois valses romantiques for piano duet (1883), and Bourrée fantasque (1891); the orchestral work Joyeuse marche (1888); and six songs (1890). In his final years, Chabrier was strained by financial problems caused by the collapse of his bankers, suffered from failing health brought on by the terminal stage of syphilis, and depression about the neglect of his stage works in France. He became obsessed with the composition of his opera Briséïs, which was inspired by a tragedy of Goethe and melodic echos of Wagner, but he completed only one act. At the Paris premiere of Gwendoline, which finally took place in December, 1893, the ailing composer in a box did not understand that the applause was for him. The last three years of his life were marked by both mental and physical collapse. He succumbed to general paralysis in the last year of his life, dying in Paris at the age of 53.

Chabrier’s best works reflect the verve and wit of the Paris scene of the 1880. His music, frequently based on irregular rhythmic patterns or on rapidly repeated figures derived from the bourrée (a dance of his native Auvergne), was inspired by broad humor and a sense of caricature. Although known primarily for two of his orchestral works, España and Joyeuse marche, he left an important though small corpus of operas, songs, and piano music as well. His melodic gifts were honed by performances of popular songs in Paris cafés-concerts. In his piano and orchestral works he developed a sophisticated Parisian style that was a model for the 20th-century composers Francis Poulenc and Georges Auric. His orchestration was remarkable for novel instrumental combinations. The following works by Chabrier are included in my collection:

Espana, Rhapsody for Orchestra (1882).
Gwendoline (1885): Overture.
Habanera (1888).
Joyeuse Marche Francais (1888).
La Roi Malagre Lui: Fete Polonaise.
Larghetto for Horn and Orchestra (1875).
Prelude Pastorale (1888).
Suite Pastorale (1880, from Dix pieces pittoresques).

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