Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Chausson on a Summer Evening

This weekend, violinist Odin Rathnam and pianist Michael Sheppard will join the Fry Street Quartet at Market Square Concerts' Summer Music 2009 on Saturday night at the Glen Allen Mill. The concert begins at 8:00

The program concludes with work generally regarded as one of those “why don't we hear this work more often” kind of pieces: the Concerto in D for Violin, Piano & String Quartet by Ernest Chausson.

Chausson got a late start, not writing his first piece, a little song called “Lilas,” until he was 22. At that age, Schubert (presumably) wrote the Trout Quintet, the 667th piece in his catalog of complete (and incomplete) works; Mozart, his “Paris” Symphony (No. 31), about half-way through his catalog; Mendelssohn, having written the Octet when he was 16, wrote most of his Italian Symphony when he was 22, though it was not his 4th Symphony except according to the time it was published many years later. Only Beethoven at 22 had yet to find his voice, just arrived in Vienna: the list of his major works was yet to begin. There are over 135 opus numbers on that list: for Chausson, only 39.

Chausson also had not intended to follow a career in music. To please his father, he studied law and that first little song wasn't written until after he'd been sworn in at the bar. Another two years passed before he decided composition even interested him: he had gone to Munich and heard a performance of Wagner's Flying Dutchman and later came under the spell of Vincent d'Indy, one of France's major composers and teachers. In a short amount of time, Chausson entered the Paris Conservatoire, studied with Jules Massenet and sat in on Cesar Franck's classes. Franck's mysticism and chromatic style was perhaps more in tune with Chausson's spirit than the more classically honed Massenet, though both of these styles – very different in their day – became part of his own language. By the time he was 30, he was becoming a leading light of the Paris musical establishment: younger composers like Debussy and performers like Ysaye met and mixed with musicians of the older generation.

In France, especially following the disastrous years following the Franco-Prussian war when France had been defeated by the German forces, it was considered unpatriotic to espouse anything German. Yet here was young Lawyer Chausson traveling to Munich to hear Wagner's operas – The Flying Dutchman, the complete Ring, Tristan und Isolde and, in 1882, to Bayreuth to hear the world-premiere of Parsifal. The following year, newly married, Chausson took his wife on a honeymoon to Bayreuth to hear Parsifal a second time.

A couple of years into this period of his life, Chausson was composing a number of large-scale compositions simultaneously. From 1886-1895, he worked on the opera, King Arthur, directly inspired by Wagner's Tristan, except for its overall pessimism. His song cycle, Poème de l'amour et de la mer (Poems of Love and the Sea), involved him between 1882, the year of Parsifal's premiere, and 1893. He wrote his Symphony in B-flat – like his teacher Franck, he wrote only one – in 1889-1890. In 1891, he completed The Legend of St. Cecilia. Between 1889 and 1891, he also composed a piece of chamber music that cannot be classified as a Violin Sonata or Concerto or a Sextet despite the fact it's sort of “all of the above.”

The Concerto in D Major for Violin, Piano & String Quartet is sometimes referred to, combining the original French with English, as the Concert in D, but “concert” in this case should be pronounced in French with the accent on the 2nd syllable which would appear to mean “concerto,” anyway.

Six players aside, it's not really a sextet because not all of the parts are actually equal: the violin soloist and the pianist are clearly more soloistic than any part of the quartet but the quartet isn't always in the background like a reduced orchestra for a concerto, either.

At the time, Chausson wrote to a friend saying that “De-Wagnerization is necessary” even though he had clearly adopted certain Wagnerisms like the chromatic modulations and harmonic procedures (which Franck had already inherited), certain orchestrational details as well as Wagner's use of leitmotives (or “signature tunes”), a more lyrical and dramatic language. From Franck who borrowed it from Beethoven, Chausson borrowed the “cyclical form” in which themes from previous movements recur climactically in the final movement of a large-scale piece, as Beethoven did at the opening of his 9th Symphony's finale and as Bruckner was doing in his very dense, very Germanic symphonies.

Critics of the day regarded Chausson's music as “vague, disjointed, incomprehensible, harmful – in a word, Wagnerian.” On the whole, Chausson realized French music was not going to finds its national voice by imitating German accents – his literary sources were more the old Gallic ideals of the medieval legends, or the spirit of the French Baroque masters like Couperin and Rameau. In fact, his title for this work for violin, piano and string quartet – Concert – is more in the obscure sense of an 18th Century “work for a concert.”

He also wanted to prove that a sonata or a string quartet could contain “as much music as a whole opera.” So it was amusing to see Odin mentioning on Facebook that he “is having great fun re-studying Chausson Concerto....What a piece!!!” One pianist-friend commented “a great piece with way too many notes!” to which pianist Michael Sheppard responded “TELL me about it. Yeeesh.”

As Lucy Miller Murray points out in her notes, there's also a certain sadness that pervades much of this piece. Perhaps, she says, “The source of the sadness was probably one all too common among creative people born in comfortable circumstances,” mentioning a strong father who had discouraged the serious study of music – unsuitable, no doubt, for a family of their income bracket – when Chausson was a young man going off to study law. It's curious that soon after after Chausson's father died in 1894, Chausson completed perhaps his most performed work, the Poème for Violin & Orchestra. His musical style was taking another, both more mystical and more refined turn, moving away even further from his own interpretations and syntheses of Wagner's style, to something more distinctly his own.

Unfortunately, we'll never know where this path might have taken him: the string quartet begun in 1897 (often described as “austere”) was left unfinished when he died in 1899, just five years after his father died around the age of 90. He was 44 when on a beautiful spring day he died in a freak accident, losing control of his bicycle on a downhill slope at his country estate, running straight into a brick wall, dying instantly.

Another example of the old “What-If” game, wondering what French music might have been like since it seemed he was poised to become the leading composer of the generation between Franck and Saint-Saëns and the next generation of young talent, what longer-lasting influence he might have had on Faurè, Debussy and perhaps Ravel.

Incidentally, another work left on the sketch pad when he died was another “Concert” - this one for piano, oboe, viola and string quartet! Hmmm... I'm thinking “there's Odin, who plays a dynamite viola, and oboist Gerard Reuter, one of my favorite oboists of all times, who'd played earlier on the program, pianist Michael Sheppard already warmed up and the Fry Street String Quartet all set to go for Chausson's Concert No. 2 - if maybe he'd worn a helmet that day...”

- Dr. Dick

Photo credits: Odin Rathnam's press photo by Sean Simmers; Michael Sheppard's, from his website.
P.S. You can find free full scores to download on-line for the Concert in D by Chausson at the International Music Score Library Project portal.
Disambiguation: for information about the French breakfast pastry, the apple chausson, click here...

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