Chausson, Ernest

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His chronic insecurity and tragic early death combined to curtail Ernest Chausson’s creative output. However, says Jessica Duchen, what he did produce was often distinctively original as well as being utterly beguiling

Ernest Chausson

The prevailing mood of Chausson’s music is an entrancing melancholy…expressed in terms of the utmost sensitive refinement, beauty and aristocratic distinction of manner.’ The composer Kaikhosru Sorabji was summing up the rarified wonders of Ernest Chausson’s output – limited in quantity by his perfectionism and his untimely death, yet capturing the ‘zeitgeist’ of fin-de-siècle Paris, with its languor and heady mysticism, perhaps more strongly than his contemporaries.

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Who was Ernest Chausson?

Chausson,was a sensitive and somewhat tortured character: beset by self-doubts, he was easily daunted by the magnitude of the tasks he undertook and haunted by what he termed ‘the red spectre’ of Wagner. His life was cut short in a cycling accident in 1899, at a time when he had only recently achieved some measure of creative fulfilment. Most notably he had managed to turn his own weaknesses into strengths; feeling at sea in the larger-scale genres that he tackled, he invented, perhaps inadvertently, strikingly original forms for his more compact works. His most famous composition, the Poème Op. 25 for violin and orchestra – a one-movement miniature concerto – took shape in part because he found the idea of writing a whole violin concerto too alarming.

When was Ernest Chausson born?

Ernest Chausson was born on 20 January 1855, the youngest and only-surviving of three sons. Chausson was blessed with one advantage over his peers. His father was a successful contractor who had worked on the construction of Haussmann’s grand boulevards that still dominate Paris today. This wealthy background meant that Chausson – after qualifying as a lawyer to please his parents – was free to devote himself to composition. Yet that made little difference to his state of mind. ‘I know very well that I’m what people call fortunate, almost frightfully so. And doubtless, I would be too much so without this wretched, uneasy and violent brain of mine.’

Both Chausson’s elder brothers died young, one at 22, the other at only six. Perhaps as a result, his parents guarded their youngest son over-zealously; and Chausson, who tended to bookishness, grew up mixing largely with people older than himself, missing friends his own age. Many of his elder companions, however, were creative artists of the highest level – for example, one regular chamber music companion was the artist Odilon Redon, 15 years his senior, who played the violin to Chausson’s piano. More than a few aesthetic similarities existed between painter and composer, the soft, luminous, ineffable quality of Redon’s late pastels matching the rich and lyrical melodies, contemplative tempos and sensual, luxurious harmonies of Chausson’s finest works.

Ernest Chausson’s friends and influences

Steeped equally in literature, music and art, and talented in all three (he even drafted a novel), the young Chausson had some difficulty in deciding which path to pursue, further hindered by his parents’ demands to become a lawyer. When he recognised music as his real vocation, he became a pupil of Jules Massenet, who thought highly of him and entered him (unsuccessfully) for the Prix de Rome; but Chausson found his true mentor in César Franck, the Belgian-born organist, composer and teacher whose blend of religious mysticism and generosity of spirit held considerable magnetism for a circle of young composers who became known as the Bande à Franck. Among them were Henri Duparc, Vincent d’Indy, Pierre de Bréville and, later, Franck’s last pupil, Guillaume Lekeu.

Chausson took on much of the heady, ‘decadent’ language of Duparc’s great Mélodies such as ‘L’Invitation au Voyage’ and ‘Le manoir de Rosamonde’, and created with it a world of his own; he also absorbed Fauré’s sinuous melodic elegance but not his wit.

Did Ernest Chausson compose an opera?

In his set of songs Op. 2 Chausson had achieved a high degree of mastery but the question that hung round the neck of every composer in the late 19th century was how anybody could compose in the wake of the Ring cycle. 

For a man who would later feel that writing a violin concerto was in some way beyond him, the gargantuan scale of composing an opera could not be overestimated. His chosen subject was Le roi Arthus – King Arthur. The story bears obvious resemblances to Wagner’s operas, with the courtly, mythical setting and the doomed, love of Lancelot and Guinevere recalling Tristan and Isolde. Chausson never apes Wagner, but seeks to break free of him while creating a lyric drama of a personal nature.

He worked on the opera for nine long, years of angst, from 1886 to 1895. But he was never to hear Le roi Arthus performed: its premiere took place in Brussels in 1903, four years after his death. It suffered in the shadow of Debussy’s more ground-breaking Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) and, despite its rich, characterful and French beauty, it has vanished from the repertoire, along with Chausson’s grand-scale work, his only Symphony, Op. 20.

What are Ernest Chausson’s most famous pieces?

By contrast, one of Chausson’s most enduring works is his Poème de l’amour et de la mer (finished in 1890) – among his smaller-scale masterpieces exploring a new freedom of form. This work took him eight years to perfect. More than a song, less than a song cycle, it is an extended monologue for mezzo-soprano and orchestra on words by the Symbolist poet Maurice Bouchor. It falls into two sections chronicling the flowering and death of love, linked by an orchestral interlude showing Chausson at his darkest, most languid and most exquisite.

Chamber music brought Chausson his most immediate acclaim. His Concert for violin, piano and string quartet, with its unusual instrumentation and title, stood out from the crowd. Seeking a truly ‘French’ expression in the wake of France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, a group of young composers led by Saint-Saëns had formed the Societé Nationale de Musique. Some looked back to the golden age of the French Baroque era; in Chausson’s Concert (emphatically not a misnomer for a Concerto), the violin and piano mingle with the string quartet rather like Baroque ‘concertante’ soloists. This work, with its powerful opening, its filigree, pastel-hued sicilienne, its intensely poetic slow movement and a finale that, for Chausson, is energetic and upbeat, was so warmly received at its premiere in 1892 that it provided a tremendous boost to Chausson’s confidence. Other chamber works, including a Piano Trio and Piano Quartet, the latter among his sunniest compositions, are still neglected.

The great Belgian violinist Ysaÿe led the Concert’s premiere and was a crucial figure to Chausson.It was for Ysaÿe that Chausson created his most celebrated work, the Poème Op. 25.

Chausson was an avid reader of Russian literature and had been much taken with Tolstoy’s story The Kreutzer Sonata. In the Poème, he effectively reversed that story’s process, basing a piece of music on a literary work. He chose a popular supernatural story by Ivan Turgenev, The Song of Triumphant Love, in which a young woman is seduced, in a mystical shared dream, by a former admirer in possession of a magic violin. Ysaÿe’s input was invaluable in the violin writing.
But another composer contributed to the Poème’s long-term success: Isaac Albéniz, who paid for its publication, and managed to keep this secret from Chausson. Modest as ever, Chausson was overjoyed to see his music in print.

Chausson’s music may have contained a rooted sense of sorrow, yet his personal life contradicted this entirely after he met his wife, Jeanne Escudier. To her he dedicated his symphonic poem Viviane. The Chaussons had five children; and at their beautiful home on the Boulevard de Courcelles they collected both art and artists, their weekly salon virtually a who’s who of French culture. Painters, musicians and poets – Degas, Fauré, Mallarmé, Ysaÿe and countless others – rubbed shoulders amid walls adorned with Chausson’s massive collection of paintings by Delacroix, Manet, Gauguin, Hiroshige and more. Friendship, something he had lacked for so long in his youth, was a crucial source of inspiration to Chausson. Debussy, seven years his junior, confided in him and referred to him as an ‘elder brother’, until Chausson’s disapproval of Debussy’s tempestuous personal life led to a break between them.

When did Ernest Chausson die?

One horrible irony remained. In 1879 he wrote: ‘There are moments when I feel myself driven by a kind of feverish instinct, as if I had the presentiment of being unable to attain my goal, or of attaining it too late.’ This proved uncannily accurate one terrible day in 1899 when, cycling in the countryside he struck a wall and died instantly. The handful of masterpieces he did complete serve as powerful reminders that this ‘Mallarmé of music’ is still probably the most underrated figure of his generation.

Ernest Chausson compoising style

Harmonic and melodic luxury

Chausson’s harmonic personality is exceptionally strong. From his teacher Franck he absorbed an intensely chromatic language which, though rooted in tonality, migrates through intricate modulations and is constantly decorated and enriched by imaginatively inflected chordal extensions. His strong melodic lines shine out vividly against this subtle, perfumed background. 

Polished instrumentation

Chausson’s orchestration has a refined, transparent quality despite its opulence. Part of this may be derived from Wagner, especially Parsifal, and may have been an influence on Chausson’s younger friend Debussy. The instrumentation of his chamber music is equally sensitive, as
in the Concert’s sicilienne. 

Literary sensitivity

Chausson’s music was undoubtedly enriched by his passions for literature and painting. He had exceptional talent for the creation of atmospheres, especially the hot-house eroticism that dominates the Poème Op. 25 as well as Poème de l’amour et de la mer. Many of his striking works have literary associations
(the Concert is an exception). 

Decadence and despair

These qualities are characteristic of Chausson’s day and age, especially the Symbolist movement with which his music is aligned. But his music seems to ache perennially with the despair of lost or unattainable love and a sense of gloom verging on depressiveness. Posthumous psychoanalysis being impossible, the origins of this have never been satisfactorily explained.

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Illustration by Risko