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Poème, Op 25
1896; arrangement for violin, string quartet and piano by the composer

'Chausson: Chamber Music' (CDA67028)
Chausson: Chamber Music
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Track 1 on CDA67028 [15'48] Last few CD copies remaining

Poème, Op 25
For admirers of Ernest Chausson’s music, the discovery of this arrangement for violin, string quartet and piano of the Poème, Op 25 originally for violin and orchestra, will not come as a total surprise. As with the Chanson perpétuelle, Op 37, Chausson produced three versions of the Poème: one with orchestra, one with piano accompaniment and the third with string quartet and piano. Of course, one is also reminded of the Concert, Op 21, the fruit of his previous collaboration with Eugène Ysaÿe, to whom both works are dedicated, and whose instrumentation probably served as a companion piece to this present version of the Poème. Although Chausson uses the same combination of instruments, it is worth noting that in this arrangement, the role of the piano is only small, intervening rarely to imitate the harp or timpani.

It is also important to realize that Chausson wanted to bring together in this arrangement two ideas which were dear to him; that of a concertante work ‘à la française’, of which the Concert is a good example (it is truly a concert, as distinct from an Italian concerto, which harks back to Rameau, whose Pièces en concert Chausson had just arranged and which Ysaÿe often played on the same occasions as the Concert); and also that of a musical form free from the constraints of the romantic concerto of the preceding generation.

‘I really believe that there is something to be said for this sort of piece for violin and orchestra, which is very different from anything which has appeared before.’ (Letter to Vincent d’Indy, August 1895)
‘I hardly know where to begin with a concerto, which is a huge undertaking, the devil’s own task. But I can cope with a shorter work. It will be in a very free form with several passages where the violin plays solo.’ (Letter to Eugène Ysaÿe, 7 July 1893)

These letters from Chausson reveal that the genesis of the Poème (1896) dated from after the success of the Concert (1892). The Poème was written for Ysaÿe at his behest and with a little assistance from him. ‘My—your poem’, Chausson wrote to Ysaÿe, who collaborated on the writing of certain passages, notably the long cadenza at the beginning and the passages of double-stopping. The second manuscript, kept in France’s National Library, shows Ysaÿe’s annotations in the passages where his advice was sought and his suggested alternatives, enabling the solo line to come through the heavy orchestration. Ysaÿe even tried to revise these passages, which still pose problems for the soloist, when Chausson told him that the German publisher Breitkopf had changed his mind and wanted to publish the Poème. In fact, it was thanks to the intervention of Albéniz, who paid Breitkopf generously out of his own pocket, that the version with orchestra was published. Chausson certainly knew nothing about it. ‘It’s ridiculous, but I’m delighted to have made three hundred marks’, he wrote. However, Ysaÿe’s final corrections, although approved by Chausson, were not to be published until much later by Ysaÿe’s son in Brussels. Other arrangements by Ysaÿe still exist, notably one with organ. The violin part in the present arrangement is the one published by Breitkopf, written by Chausson himself, which resolves the balance problems by using a quartet instead of an orchestra. Certain things work much better here because the balance betweeen violin and string quartet is so much more even.

The Poème was inspired by a short story by Turgenev, Le chant de l’amour triomphant. Although Chausson’s music can stand on its own, it is easy to follow the storyline, set in Italy in the sixteenth century. The artist Fabius wins the heart of the beautiful Valeria and marries her. His rival, the musician Mucius, leaves Carrara in despair. Some years later the musician returns with a Malaysian servant and a magic violin as his only possession. One night, the servant pours a potion with strange powers into Valeria’s cup. Mucius then plays his love song on the violin, on the neck of which is carved a serpent. During the next few nights Valeria dreams that she hears this music and, no longer able to resist, goes in search of Mucius. Fabius, who has followed his wife, stabs the musician through the heart with a dagger. Some time later while Fabius is painting her, Valeria, who is seated at an organ, senses Le chant de l’amour triomphant enter her spirit and, while she plays, feels stirring within her the beginnings of a new life …

Turgenev was passionately in love with the singer Pauline Garcia-Viardot, whom he had met in Moscow in 1841. A few years later, however, she married Louis Viardot in France. Subsequently, Turgenev had a house built next to that of Viardot and visited his neighbours almost every day. Pauline Viardot had a collection of exotic musical instruments, including an African violin with a snake engraved upon it (which she bequeathed to the museum of the Conservatoire in Paris). Although Chausson probably never met Turgenev, he often entertained the Viardots and it is likely that he was aware of the poignant, if obscure, autobiographical origin of this tale.

The freedom of its form never goes against its harmonious proportion. The sense of dreamy gentleness is at its most touching at the end when, leaving aside all trace of description and anecdote, the music becomes that very feeling which inspires its emotion. Such moments in the work of an artist are very rare.

These lines, which Debussy wrote in 1913 twenty years after he himself had worked with Ysaÿe and was writing the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, are testimony to the affection in which he still held Chausson, to whom he had been very close.

This arrangement of the Poème allows us to recreate something of the musical flavour of the period. In this version, intended for a private gathering, the strength of the work lies more in its evocative power than its actual rendition. A sentence from Vinteuil in À la recherche du temps perdu can almost be compared to one in Le chant de l’amour triomphant: ‘It had awakened in him pleasures which he could never have imagined if he had not heard it; he sensed that this alone would be able to reveal them to him, and what he had felt was something like unspoken love.’ (Marcel Proust, Du Côté de chez Swann).

from notes by Philippe Graffin © 1998
English: Celia Ballantyne

Track-specific metadata
Details for CDA67028 track 1
Recording date
28 September 1997
Recording venue
La Galerie des Franciscains, Saint-Nazaire, France
Recording producer
Arnout Probst
Recording engineer
Tom Peeters
Hyperion usage
  1. Chausson: Chamber Music (CDA67028)
    Disc 1 Track 1
    Release date: April 1998
    Last few CD copies remaining
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