Movement 1: Grave – Modéré
Movement 2: Très calme
Movement 3: Gaiement, pas trop vite
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, 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.
from notes by Roger Nichols © 2000