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Ernest Chausson and his Symphony in Bb

Amédée Ernest Chausson (January 20, 1855–June 10, 1899) was a French romantic composer who died just as his career was beginning to flourish. Chausson was born in Paris into a prosperous bourgeois family and was interested in music from an early age. His father made his fortune assisting Baron Haussmann in the redevelopment of Paris in the 1850s. To please his father, Chausson studied law and in 1877 was appointed a barrister for the Court of Appeals; but in truth, he had little or no interest in the profession. In the same year, he wrote his first work, the unpublished song Lilas. He frequented the Paris salons, where he met celebrities such as Henri Fantin-Latour, Odilon Redon, and composer Vincent d’Indy. Before deciding on a musical career, he dabbled in writing and drawing. Chausson’s talent flowered in short order; a number of even his earliest published works — especially the song set Seven Melodies, Op. 2 (1879-1882) — have long been regarded as small masterpieces.

In October 1879, at the age of 25, Chausson began attending the composition classes of the opera composer Jules Massenet at the Paris Conservatoire; Massenet came to regard him as “an exceptional person and a true artist.” Chausson had already composed some piano pieces and songs. Nevertheless, the earliest manuscripts that have been preserved are those corrected by Massenet. At the Paris Conservatoire, Chausson also studied with César Franck. Chausson interrupted his studies in 1881, after a failed attempt to win the Prix de Rome. During 1882 and 1883, Chausson, who enjoyed travel, visited Bayreuth to hear the operas of Wagner. On the first of these journeys, Chausson went with d’Indy for the premiere of Wagner’s Parsifal, and on the second trip he went with his new spouse Jeanne Escudier (1862-1936), with whom he was to have five children.

The creative work of Chausson is commonly divided into three periods. In the first, which was dominated by Massenet, the composer exhibits primarily fluid and elegant melodies. The second period, dating from 1886, is marked by a more dramatic character, deriving partly from Chausson’s contacts with the artistic milieux in which he moved. From 1886 until his death, Chausson was secretary of the Société Nationale de Musique, an organization founded by Saint-Saëns and others to promote the performance of French instrumental music. In his own home, Chausson received a great many eminent artists, including the composers Henri Duparc, Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy, and Isaac Albéniz, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, pianist Alfred Cortot, violinist/composer Eugène Ysaÿe and the impressionist painter Claude Monet. Chausson also assembled an important collection of paintings. Chausson is believed to be the first composer to use the celesta. He employed that instrument in December of 1888 in his incidental music, written for a small orchestra, for La tempête, a French translation by Maurice Bouchor of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

From his father’s death in 1894 dates the beginning of his third period, during which he was especially influenced by his reading of the symbolist poets and Russian literature, particularly Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy. Several delicate and admirable songs came from Chausson’s pen. He completed one opera, Le roi Arthus (King Arthur). His orchestral output was small, but significant. It includes the symphonic poem Viviane; the Symphony in B-flat, his sole symphony, completed in 1890; the Turgenev-inspired Poème for violin and orchestra, from 1896, an important mainstay in the violin repertoire; and the dramatic, and haunting, song-cycle Poème de l’amour et de la mer. He also wrote a Concerto for piano, violin, and string quartet, Op. 21 (1889-1891), and the Piano Quartet, Op. 30 (1897).

When only 44 years old, Chausson died in 1899 while staying at one of his country retreats, the Château de Mioussets, in Limay, Yvelines. Riding his bicycle downhill, Chausson hit a brick wall and died instantly. The exact circumstances remain unclear; although apparently a freak accident, there has been the suggestion of suicide as he had been suffering from acute depression for some time. Chausson was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, his funeral attended by many leading figures of the arts, including Duparc, Fauré, Albeniz, Redon, Edgar Degas, Auguste Rodin, Henri de Régnier, Pierre Louÿs, and Claude Debussy. Not at all prolific, Chausson left behind only 39 opus-numbered pieces , owing to his late start and tragically short life. His work is deeply individual, but it does reflect some technical influences of both Wagner and his other musical hero Franck, along with stylistic traces of Massenet and even Brahms.

The following works by Chausson are included in my collection.

Poem for Violin and Orchestra, op. 25 (1896).
Symphony in BbM, op. 20 (1890).
Viviane, Symphonic Poem on a Legend of the Round Table, op. 5 (1882).

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