'This superb disc is a revelation' (The Guardian)
'Ripely affectionate performances from the Chilingirians, beguilingly recorded, and expertly annotated by Roger Nichols' (Classic CD)
'Very fine performances' (International Record Review)
'The Chilingirian Quartet provides the perfect guide to these seldom-heard works … utterly compelling' (The Strad)
Grave – Modéré [12'25]
Très calme [7'32]
Gaiement, pas trop vite [8'18]
Lent et calme [9'10]
Assez modéré [6'27]
Assez lent [9'56]
Vincent d'Indy, once one of Franck's pupils, completed three string quartets in his lifetime and left one incomplete on his death. He used traditional forms of sonata structure, lied, dance form and rondo for the four movements and with traditional emphases on rhythmic development and key contrasts, but followed Franckian, so-called 'cyclic' techniques of melodic transformation, designed to unify the work as a whole. The first quartet is based around a four-note motif found in Mahler's Symphony No 1, which d'Indy almost certainly would not have known, and as the Bell motif in the first act of Parsifal (which he certainly did know).
Ernest Chausson died when his bicycle crashed into a wall. Among the various projects he left behind were some orchestral overtures, a violin sonata, a second symphony and this string quartet. He had finished the first two movements of the quartet and was nearly at the end of the third when the accident happened. D'Indy completed the third movement and it is for this reason it seems appropriate to couple the two works on this recording.
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The philosophical distinction first proposed by Immanuel Kant, between the ‘sublime’ with its tendencies to wildness, ruggedness and excess and the ‘beautiful’, more controlled and polite, was implicated in the efforts of many late-nineteenth-century composers. Early in the twentieth century the English critic W J Turner stated that ‘it is the sublimity of the soul that makes the music of Beethoven and Bach so immeasurably greater than that of Wagner and Debussy’. Similarly, at a lower level, lay the distinction between the ‘beautiful’ and the ‘pretty’: the French bass Doda Conrad, taken as a nine-year-old to the first concert performance of Le Sacre du printemps in 1914, complained to the middle-aged lady with him ‘Je n’aime pas ça—ce n’est pas joli!’ and was much impressed by her reply: ‘Non, ce n’est pas joli, c’est beau!’.
A Frenchman writing a string quartet after 1870 was likely to be carrying a double burden of sublimity. In the first place, the thrust of the new French music, exemplified by the newly formed Société nationale under its motto ‘Ars gallica’, was to meet German music on its own terms, and this was done largely through the medium of chamber music which aimed to get as far away from the spirit of opérette as possible. Early Fauré works such as the First Violin Sonata and the two Piano Quartets showed this tendency at its most successful.
The second burden was that of the string quartet medium itself, trailing, as it did, clouds of Beethovenian glory. Certainly it was possible to write a quartet that eschewed Beethoven and all his works, as in the posthumously published example by Gounod, but then at the end of his life Gounod was not trying to prove anything. Any French composer in his middle years, and without Faust behind him, would almost inevitably be drawn into some kind of dialogue with the man disrespectfully known by Ravel as ‘le vieux sourd’.
‘Respect’ as an artistic principle has, needless to say, its good and bad sides—both Debussy and Stravinsky being quick to point to the latter. But for a man of d’Indy’s family and upbringing, not to show respect where he felt it was due would have been like blowing one’s nose at the dinner-table without averting one’s head. Paul Marie Théodore Vincent d’Indy was born in Paris on 27 March 1851 into a Roman Catholic, aristocratic family whose men-folk had been soldiers for three centuries. To adapt the words of Bernard Shaw, patriotism, religion and discipline were mother’s milk to him. Who can say for sure what he suffered from the death of his mother in giving birth to him, or to what extent the severe regime of his grandmother, the formidable Comtesse Rézia d’Indy, inclined him to regard rules as the best way of getting through life?
Compared with Fauré, who did not dare venture on a string quartet until he was in his late seventies, d’Indy could be called an early starter. But in 1890, at the age of thirty-nine, he already had an impressive body of work to his name. From 1873 he had been one of Franck’s pupils and was to be the most assiduous of them all in promoting his teacher’s principles, but it would be grossly unfair to see him as any kind of Franckian clone. His three orchestral overtures collectively called Wallenstein (1881) display a martial energy more Wagnerian than Franckian, while his Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français (1886) celebrates the great outdoors of the Cévennes mountains in a way that would probably have been beyond the reach of the ‘pater seraphicus’.
Some idea of how d’Indy approached quartet-writing can be gained from the notes later taken by students from his composition courses at the Schola Cantorum, a conservatoire he helped found in 1894. Although his Second String Quartet of 1897 was the one he himself chose as an example, the parallels with the First Quartet are close: in particular, he stayed with the traditional forms of sonata structure, lied, dance form and rondo for the four movements and with traditional emphases on rhythmic development and key contrasts, but followed Franckian, so-called ‘cyclic’ techniques of melodic transformation, designed to unify the work as a whole. Not only that, but the universality of the cyclic motifs for each of these two Quartets proves that d’Indy was concerned to place both works very much within the hallowed Germanic tradition. For the Second Quartet the motif is the one Bach took for the E major fugue of Book II of ‘the 48’ (which S S Wesley called ‘Saints in Glory’) and which Mozart re-used for the fugal miracles in the finale of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony, while this First Quartet is based around another four-note motif (descending fourth–rising tone/semitone–descending fourth/fifth), found in Mahler’s First Symphony, which d’Indy would almost certainly not have known, and as the Bell motif in the first act of Parsifal, which he certainly did, having travelled to Bayreuth for the premiere in July 1882. We know that he was annoyed by Delibes saying he liked the Flower Maidens ‘because il y avait des petites femmes and that’s always fun’; it is also possible that he resented Debussy’s borrowing of the Bell motif for his song about fair roundabouts, Chevaux de bois, and determined to make more respectful use of it.
Before the sonata structure proper of the first movement, the Bell motif ushers in a slow introduction. If this represents the sublime, with its rugged octaves and chromatic bending of the interval of a fourth, the soft, high answer can be taken as representing the beautiful (d’Indy, writing at a time when such things were still permitted, would identify such contrasts as masculine versus feminine). The sonata structure proper, based in D minor, tries to some extent to reconcile these two elements. The falling fourth can still be heard in the first theme, but the smooth second theme has shaken free of it—an almost operatic melody over a pedal bass and with that long note in the middle of the bar which was a fingerprint of Franck pupils. From here the progress of the sonata structure is easily followed, with the development section signalled by a return of the Bell motif now ‘correctly’ in perfect fourths. After a premature flirtation with D major (the Rondo will continue from this aborted premise), the bells end the movement in gritty, sublime fashion.
In the second movement, in the traditionally ‘relaxed’ flattened submediant B flat major, d’Indy takes this sublime motif and beautifies it: in the fifth bar the first violin is even marked ‘solo’, an unusual occurrence in the chamber music of a composer who disliked display above all things. This solo continues through a quicker section in G minor to a simultaneous sounding of these two ideas on first violin and cello in which d’Indy’s masterly control of counterpoint conjures up sublimity with no hint of ruggedness or excess. The movement ends with a longer exploration of the Bell motif in which attempts to undermine the tonic note B flat are ultimately resisted.
The structure of the third movement is an intriguing mixture of lied and rondo forms, most conveniently expressed as: A–B–C–A'–A'+B–A. At the risk of imposing an unduly personal view on this movement, I hear ‘A’ as the reassuring, modal song of a Russian nurse (d’Indy does mark it ‘with the feeling of a popular song’ and all things Russian were popular in Paris in the nineties) and ‘B’ and ‘C’ as the antics of her young charges (a number of rude G sharps in the context of D minor represent the apogee of their wild behaviour), until they are finally brought to heel with a cadence on the dominant.
The start of the last movement shows d’Indy bidding for the sublime by the inclusion of opposites, in the manner of Shakespeare or the Beethoven of the Ninth Symphony. The first violin begins the movement with a recitative (thus indicated) which burgeons into a mini-development taking in not only the Bell motif but other material from the introduction and the first movement. For some moments the nature of the ensuing finale is called into doubt: will it be heroic, tragic, intellectual, or a light-hearted throwaway? In fact no single adjective could suffice. In choosing to develop the aborted flirtation with D major from the end of the first movement, d’Indy seems at first to be opting for throwaway, but judicious reminders of the Bell motif together with false climaxes and two successive accelerations from quaver through triplet quavers to semiquavers. These all serve to keep us on our toes right to the end. As a personal judgment on the work as a whole I would venture that there is very little that is merely ‘joli’, rather more that is ‘sublime’ and a great deal that is ‘beau’.
The Ysaÿe Quartet gave the first performance of this work in Brussels on 24 February 1891. A few weeks later, on 4 April, another quartet gave it its first Paris performance at a Société nationale concert in the Salle Pleyel. Since both Chausson and Debussy were members of the society, it is highly probable that they both attended. It is also probable that the final upward scale of the d’Indy gave Debussy the idea for the similar ending to his own Quartet, likewise premiered at the Société at the end of 1893. Whether Chausson liked the d’Indy Quartet we do not know, but certainly he disapproved of Debussy’s, as we can tell from a letter Debussy sent to him early in 1894. Admitting he’d been upset by Chausson’s comments, Debussy wrote:
Anyway, I’ll write another one which will be for you, in all seriousness for you, and I’ll try and bring some nobility to my forms (‘anoblir mes formes’). I’d like to have enough influence with you to be able to grumble at you and tell you you’re heading in the wrong direction! You put such strong pressure on your ideas that they no longer dare present themselves to you, they’re so afraid of not being dressed in a way you’d approve of. You don’t let yourself go enough and in particular you don’t seem to allow enough play to that mysterious force which guides us towards the true expression of a feeling, whereas dedicated, single-minded searching only weakens it.
Debussy was not alone in feeling that Chausson tended to take himself too seriously. Probably a psychoanalyst would put it down to guilt over inherited money: Chausson’s father had made his fortune as a contractor for Baron Haussmann’s new Paris boulevards. At all events the serious tone of Franck’s music and teaching found a ready home in this mature pupil, who was twenty-five when he left Massenet for Franck in 1880. The struggle between the sublime, the beautiful and the pretty, intermittently evident in d’Indy’s œuvre, was central to Chausson’s and was made no easier to solve by the composer’s own absolute clear-headedness. In 1884 he wrote to a friend: ‘What is mostly lacking is ideas; also the general view is that beauty consists rather in taking half a bar and developing it for twenty pages’. Chausson’s opposing inclinations, to conform to this general view and yet at the same time to set a due value on characterful musical ideas, lie at the heart of Debussy’s complaint quoted above.
But time and hard work went a long way to achieving a satisfactory synthesis. In 1895 Chausson finally completed his opera Le roi Arthus after nine years’ work and the following year Ysaÿe played the solo part in his Poème for violin and orchestra, of which Debussy wrote in 1913 that it ‘contains his best qualities. The freedom of its form never contradicts its harmonious sense of proportion’, and that it ‘leaves aside all description and anecdote’. Had Debussy ever heard Chausson’s unfinished String Quartet, he would probably have felt that the first remark was relevant here too, but not the second.
Chausson died on 10 June 1899 when his bicycle crashed into a wall. Inevitably, given his disposition, various commentators have wondered whether this was suicide, but it is hard to believe that such a deeply moral man would have chosen to kill himself while riding behind one of his daughters and on the way to meet the rest of his family at the railway station. He was known to look awkward in the saddle and anyone in doubt about the dangers of early cycling has only to read Michael Holroyd’s account of George Bernard Shaw similarly engaged.
Among the various projects he left behind were some for a second opera, some orchestral overtures, a violin sonata, a second symphony and this String Quartet. He had finished the first two movements of the Quartet and was nearly at the end of the third when the accident happened. D’Indy completed the third movement and in this form the work was given its first performance at the Société nationale on 27 January 1900, in a concert which also included the first performance of Ravel’s songs D’Anne qui me jecta de la neige and D’Anne jouant de l’espinette.
Formally the first two movements are conventional. In the first, the initial slow theme on the cello is the material for the whole movement, Chausson here managing most successfully to marry the two principles of melodic characterfulness and developmental energy; in the second the emphasis is all on lyricism, which was always Chausson’s strong suit. More puzzling, though, are the quotations which he includes in each.
In the first movement he quotes, at pitch and with the same harmonies, the opening phrase of Debussy’s String Quartet, Debussy’s G minor fitting easily into the C minor tonality. Any explanation for this must, I think, remain speculative. After some nine months of close friendship and deeply personal correspondence on the lines given above, in March 1894 the two composers quarrelled over Debussy’s engagement to a singer and, more exactly, over the revelation that Debussy was simultaneously living with someone else. The quarrel was never made up. Are we to hear this quotation as a coded plea for reconciliation? Or was it, more prosaically, intended as a lesson to Debussy as to how he might better have used this promising material?
Equally strange is the less accurate but still unmistakable quotation in the slow movement of the Tarnhelm motif from Das Rheingold. To link this motif of invisibility with Chausson’s supposed suicidal tendencies would surely be going too far. More likely it was an unconscious reference to ‘that frightful Wagner who is blocking all my paths’, as he had complained ten years earlier, and perhaps derived from the old adage ‘if you can’t beat them join them!’.
Formally the third movement, beginning in the subdominant F minor, is the most interesting of the three. The dotted rhythms are irregularly set against each other, leading to quite complex textures. In contrast the second theme is smooth and conjunct, again with that Franckian long note in the middle of the bar which pervades much of the Quartet. Chausson shows particular skill, as the American scholar Ralph Scott Grover points out, in creating ‘a balance between both sections to the degree that where the angular first theme with its components contains every type of variant except rhythmic, the second theme (except for small alterations) retains its essential melodic shape but is subjected to rhythmic changes’. Grover also points to the likelihood of his movement deriving from the third movement of Beethoven’s Quartet Op 127 although, as he says, it was not in Chausson’s make-up to match Beethoven’s gruff humour.
Understandably, d’Indy felt that in writing the last four pages of this movement, from a few surviving indications by the composer, he had to bring the music back to the key of C in which the work began, whereas Chausson’s original plan would in all probability have been to remain in F. But whatever one’s reservations about this, we cannot doubt that d’Indy was the right man for the job—he even qualified to deal with Chausson’s five-in-a-bar through his use of the same metre in his own Second String Quartet of 1897. I would say that Chausson’s Quartet contains even less that is ‘joli’ than d’Indy’s. But in their embrace of ‘le sublime’ and ‘le beau’ they became far more than mere sycophantic successors to their revered teacher, as well as exemplifying a moral side to the French character which Anglo-Saxons, with their fixations on the Impressionists and the naughtiness of the nineties, have all too rarely judged at its true artistic worth.
Roger Nichols © 2000