The Essential Hyperion 2
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Movement 1: Décidé
Movement 2: Sicilienne
Movement 3: Grave
Movement 4: Finale
This is Chausson’s entry in his diary (as yet unpublished) for 26 February 1892. Each phrase is telling; the reception which the audience in Brussels had given his opus 21 had made him ‘feel light and joyful’ and had given him ‘courage’ to continue with his work. As we all know, a sense of well-being can be very uplifting. Reading this diary, one can sense his enthusiasm and his desire to create. But this real triumph, which his modesty prevented him from broadcasting, was his first. Although he was already thirty-seven, with a sizeable catalogue of works to his name, he was practically unknown. Why?
First, he was not a ‘product of the Conservatoire’. Born in Paris on 20 January 1855 into a well-off family (his father was a public works contractor), he was sworn in as a barrister on 7 May 1877 to please his parents, who wanted him to have a ‘proper job’. But at around the same time he also composed his first mélodie, Les Lilas, and asked for private lessons with Massenet. The latter, recognizing the young man’s obvious flair, soon took him in to his class at the Conservatoire—as Franck was to do shortly afterwards—and encouraged him to enter for the Prix de Rome. It was his lack of success on this occasion (13 May 1881) which brought about a change in him, both psychologically and musically; the result was his wonderful Trio in G minor, Op 3, composed during the summer at Montbovon in Switzerland. During the same period Chausson also composed seven others works which went unnoticed: the Mélodies comprising his opus 2.
Having graduated from law school (like so many of Franck’s pupils!), having failed to follow the usual route of studying at the Conservatoire, and, additionally, having come late to music—after all, he was over twenty years old (which, not surprisingly, imbued his writing with a rare maturity)—Chausson appeared to be out on his own, neither bohemian (like Verlaine) nor conventional like so many others, writing more for his own amusement than for that of the public, and earning himself a reputation for being ‘difficult’ and the ‘Mallarmé of music’!
But there is undoubtedly another much more subtle reason why his compositions were so little-known: although not as well-off as has often been presumed, he was reasonably comfortable and thus shielded from financial insecurity. In fact his diary and letters, whether from friends or business acquaintances, reveal that he was constantly being asked to help out discreetly various impecunious colleagues, or (and one can quite see why!) to become Treasurer of the renowned National Society of Music. Add to these his abhorrence of being taken for an amateur, with his lofty artistic and spirtual aims—‘I understand only that work, constant effort in all things, is always directed towards the same goal’ (letter to Paul Poujaud in the summer of 1888)—and, in an earlier diary, his entry for 20 February 1892: ‘To attain self-belief is a life’s work.’ Given all this, one can understand exactly how triumphant he felt when, for once, a new composition received unanimous praise. The audience had been captivated by the exceptional quality of the writing and the strength of the ideas, the work’s remarkable construction and development, and its instantly memorable tunes.
They were equally impressed by the tautness of the score, possibly due to the fact that it had been written quickly. It is often thought that the four movements of the opus 21 were written in the following order: third movement, May 1889, second movement, October/November 1890, first movement, June 1891 and fourth movement, July 1891. The reality is very different, because the sketches prove conclusively that all the themes were written within the month of May 1889, which explains the work’s perfect cohesion. The crossings out, changes and erasures are merely the hallmarks of the composer’s endless quest for absolute perfection.
The result is superb. From the first bars of the Décidé, the rhythm is established by the first three repeated chords. At bar 35 the first motif is introduced on the violin over a piano appoggiatura: this is the motif which links each movement. After a section of tortured self-doubt, the second theme enters in B flat minor. The development unfolds in the classical style, giving prominence to the first theme, with the emphasis in the repeat being very much on the second. After this bitter confession the Sicilienne appears rather like a rainbow embracing a stormy sky: the colours are unreal, curving elegantly in their crystalline iridescence, dispelling the most vivid anxieties. The following Grave remains one of the most beautiful slow movements ever written, sombre, tragic, developing in a stark, chromatic line. However, the last movement leaves us in no doubt: a triumph of head over heart, swept in by a very animated 6/8 theme pulsating with energy. The second subject, given to the piano, leads back to the clear tonality of D major while simultaneously returning to the principal elements already heard in the preceding pages. The pace broadens and it is in the luminous key of D major that the Concert ends. Chausson has come full circle, with his hopes and doubts, his disenchantments and his most lyrical aspirations intact.
from notes by Jean Gallois © 1997
English: Celia Ballantyne