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Ernest Chausson's music has always seemed, to those who love it, a 'special case'. So ready are French-song enthusiasts to praise and celebrate Duparc and Fauré, Debussy and Ravel, that the quiet, self-effacing man hiding behind a beard is all too easily overlooked.
These two compact discs contain all of Chausson's published solo songs (and two duets) for voice and piano, as well as the Chanson perpétuelle with string quartet. Also included are several unpublished songs transcribed from manuscript sources in the Bibliothèque Nationale. There are 43 songs altogether, several receiving their first recording. Dame Felicity Lott and Ann Murray need no introduction but the disc also represents the recording debut of baritone Chris Pedro Trakas who has won many plaudits for his concerts and operatic work in his native America.
Ernest chausson and the décadence
Chausson’s music has always seemed, to those who love it, a ‘special case’. So ready are French-song enthusiasts to praise and celebrate Duparc and Fauré, Debussy and Ravel (all of whom were active in Chausson’s lifetime) that the quiet man hiding behind a beard is all too easily overlooked. Camille Mauclair (a poet whose work features on these discs) spoke of Chausson as having the appearance of someone ‘rising from the middle of a dream and taking a step towards reality…he was one of those who concern themselves all their lives with their inner existence’. Chausson thus holds himself aloof, not out of arrogance but with the diffidence of someone exquisitely well-mannered who feels that the word ‘genius’ applies only to his more distinguished friends; he prefers to pay for the gathering, a perfect host, than stand in the centre of the room as its celebrant. His other-worldly self-distancing was admired by those who were sensitive enough to perceive a welcome difference from the narcissism of many creative artists. There is even a rather Anglo-Saxon, not to say Victorian, quality about Chausson’s self-effacement, and one is surprised to discover that, despite a passion for Shakespeare, he was never able to read the Bard in the original.
It is true that Chausson is not one of the four or five unarguably great mélodie composers. Painfully aware of his limitations, he would have been the last to claim for himself a place on Parnassus. This modesty, however admirable on the human level, is indicative of a painful lack of self-confidence which coloured many of his creative endeavours. Mauclair speaks of a ‘latent defeatism’ against which Chausson continually struggled. From 1894, some five years before the composer’s tragically early death, there were signs of a new strength and determination, and we can hear this changed mood in the outpouring of vocal music from 1898. The senseless cycling accident which killed him at the age of forty-four was a song-cycling disaster. It undoubtedly robbed us of much fine music, possibly of a stronger and more daring kind than we associate with his name. But although he took a long time to find his self-confidence, Chausson always sounds like Chausson. Most of the time his music could not be by anyone else, and this is, surely, one of the signs of a composer with an authentic voice. It is true that the earlier output is influenced by his two teachers Massenet and Franck (names which in themselves imply a certain musical conflict) and it bears a certain family resemblance to that of Duparc. Those who know Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande might figure that the exquisite Maeterlinck song settings, the cycle Serres chaudes, were by the same composer. But there is something of the earthy voluptuary and merciless street-fighter in Debussy, for all his dreaminess. Not so Chausson; he was born wealthy, raised in a protective cultural cocoon, and the city streets with their haphazard colours and dangerous impurities were for him unknown landscapes. As a result there is something unearthly about Chausson’s music. His heartfelt outpourings are too sincere to be merely entertaining, too delicate and discreet to be Wagnerian (despite his debt to the harmonies of Tristan und Isolde), far too reflective to be mistaken at any point for the scintillating music from the naughty 80s and 90s of the French décadence. Chausson’s are never show songs.
If Chausson has a fault (and it is difficult to find fault with a man of such humility, kindness and selfless probity) it is probably that he is not naughty enough. It was his destiny, however, to come to his maturity amidst a generation of aesthetes, his artistic colleagues, some of whom were very naughty indeed. Here is the anomaly: a less willingly decadent person would be hard to imagine, and yet his music is veiled with an ennui that suggests the languid excesses of the hot-house: A rebours of J-K Huysmans comes to mind, as well as the obsessive, neurotic industriousness of Marcel Proust in his cork-lined room. Chausson’s art is thus burdened with the enervating costs of decadence, and enlivened by none of its forbidden and rapturous excesses. Or a least none that we know of, and few that we can hear. All through his generous life he settled other people’s bills and, in taking on the sorrows of his poets while not partaking of the wild joys from which they retreated into lassitude, he seems to be paying the costs of other people’s pleasure. The admirable life of an utterly faithful husband results in fewer expressions of pure joy than one might suppose (Cantique à l’épouse is rapture of a very contained kind, but rapture nevertheless). He was a good man in every sense, both enlightened and highly religious, and those who knew him well mentioned a calm radiance in his personality—which reflected these things. But in professional matters he was tortured by self-doubts, and his music reflects the struggle. This is no Beethovenian, fist-brandishing confrontation, but the tossing and turning of an high-minded perfectionist, fighting the waves of depression which threaten to engulf him and silence his fragile muse. One imagines that there are grounds for this poor self-esteem—a deeply buried guilt going back to his childhood perhaps—but if this is so his biographer s have been unable to unravel the reasons.
The Chaussons were a beautiful couple. Madame Octave Maus describes them thus: ‘she delicate, slim, with light-golden hair, and eyes of childish blue; he with eyes of a deeper blue…beard and brown hair, aquiline nose, a magnificently constructed head and that serious face, brightened at every moment by an affectionate and jovial; smile’ . The composer seems not to have had an enemy in the world. He was loved for his kindness, his generosity to young and financially needy musicians, his exquisite manners, his quiet sense of humour, and his practical sense of service to the Société Nationale de Musique. But one cannot help wondering what would have happened to hi m and his music had he been born earlier, a contemporary of Bizet, Chabrier or even Fauré, a composer who was only ten years older. A lighter and less selfconscious artistic and literary Zeitgeist have brought him out of himself, but he was born with a temperament that happened to be in tune with his surroundings. Berlioz is perhaps the greatest example in French music of exactly the opposite: this led to a life of almost unbearable struggle with the forces of bourgeois philistinism, and the musical results of this being out of step with the times are spectacular. In contrast, Chausson’s creative life coincided with a period of fin de siècle pessimism which fitted his nature like a black velvet glove. He was a far from cynical person, and he never consciously placed himself above the common herd, but he found himself working in a milieu where ‘escapism, boredom, weariness, and disillusion are understood and accepted as significant contributors to the Zeitgeist’. It is the presence of these qualities in Chausson’s music which sometimes seem to sap its energy. (One might argue that at exactly the same time Johannes Brahms was caught up in the pessimism of a similarly down-at-mouth spirit of the times.)
In his study of French Symbolist literature, Edmund Wilson refers to the majority of the Symbolist poets as ‘pessimists, renunciants, resignationists…poetry had become for them a refuge , the only escape from the hideous realities; they threw themselves into it with a desperate fervour…Divesting life as they did of everything they considered mere vain delusion, doubtful whether it were ‘worth living’, it was not astonishing that they should have supplied no new ethic…but only an aesthetic’. This too-brisk and over-simplified dismissal of an entire literary school exactly mirrors the unfriendly criticisms that have been made over the years concerning Chausson’s music. One can cite Eric Blom’s verdict of 1956: ‘technically unexceptionable…singularly flavourless’. This nadir of Chausson’s posthumous reputation has thankfully passed as the world has come to know more of the music , and to value him more for his unique role as a musical bridge between the very different styles of Duparc and Debussy. Added to this it is unarguable that of all the Franck pupils (apart from Duparc)—and here one thinks of such names as D’Indy, Lekeu, Ropartz, Bordes, Magnard—Chausson’s mélodies have held the stage with the greatest ease.
Chausson was privately educated at home, and this lack of contact with children of his own age (an elder brother died when Ernest was ten) emphasised his introspective nature: ‘This relative solitude, along with the reading of a few morbid books, caused me to acquire another fault: I was sad without quite knowing why but firmly convinced that I had the best reason in the world for it’. We thus discover a tendency to withdraw from the mainstream at an early age. As a married man, Chausson was constantly shifting addresses to different peaceful country retreats (the composer’s palatial Parisian home was at 22 Boulevard de Courcelles, but the family was always on the move) seems to be the result of the same indecision which made him constantly revise and polish his work. Arthur Symons, again writing about Symbolism , refers to ‘an over-subtilizing refinement upon refinement’ and this perfectly describes the effect of Chausson’s continual musical revisions . The practice of withdrawing music almost as soon as it had been written, the smothering of first thoughts and the distrust of spontaneity, stemmed from an ongoing feeling that he was unworthy to be a musician, that unless he aspired to the very highest standards he would be taken to be merely an amateur and dilettante. His younger friend Claude Debussy disagreed:
I would like to have enough influence on you to be able to scold you and to tell you that you are fooling yourself! You exert so much pressure on your ideas that they no longer dare appear before you for fear of not being dressed up properly. You do not let yourself go enough and, above all, you do not give free rein to that mysterious thing which makes us find the impression of a feeling that is just right, when persistent and obstinate research is bound only to weaken it. I am so thoroughly convinced that you have within you all the desirable expression that I am pained when I see you enervate yourself in useless struggles…Perhaps I don’t have the right to speak to you this way, but forgive me and see in it only a great desire to see you what you should be and that as much as possible, because you are more capable of it than anybody…I would simply like to give you courage to believe in yourself.
Here is a composer who knew what it was to seize life by the throat writing to another who did not. In 1893 Debussy wrote to Chausson saying: ‘The one thing I would like to see you lose is your preoccupation with undertones’. And Chausson replies (regretful? defiant?): ‘You are a thousand times right in what you say about my preoccupation with undertones’. The story of the friendship between the two men tells us much about them both. Debussy found shelter and affection and genuine inspiration in the Chausson household. He dedicated one of his Verlaine settings (La mer est plus belle) to•Chausson, and one of the Proses lyriques (De fleurs) to Mme Chausson. There are photographs of Debussy at the piano, en famille with the Chaussons, and the open and friendly criticism between the two men went both ways. In his letters, Debussy’s tone is particularly affectionate in regard to the older man. But their two very different lifestyles prised them apart. On one side was Debussy’s broken engagement to a close friend of the Chaussons, the singer Therese Roger; on the other was Chausson’s high standards of behaviour as an irreproachable family man and a devout Catholic. Debussy went back to his mistress (whom he was later to leave for someone else) and it seems that Chausson had made a loan to Debussy on the basis of his engagement and forthcoming wedding that was never repaid. This doubledealing, emotional as much as fiscal, would have perplexed and saddened the older composer who was attached to bourgeois values which no doubt seemed irrelevant to the younger. It is notable, however, that despite the break between them, Debussy was one of the mourners at Chausson’s funeral. Another mourner was a mutual friend of the two composers, the poet Pierre Louys, who wrote the following to the bereaved Mme. Chausson:
There was never a more excellent man than your husband; I knew it and hardly ever proved to him how much I was struck each time by his frank look, his firm handshake, and by the admirable goodness which manifested itself in all his gestures. At every moment of his life he needed to make people happy. Everybody loved him. At least, speaking for myself, I loved him very much, believe me. And I have never told him so; we always think there is time and that we will always see again those who are young.
In these words there is the unmistakable feeling that Chausson has been overlooked by his friends—taken for granted . And the same is the case with his listeners today. It is all too easy to forget Chausson and his music . There may be all sorts of excuses for doing so then as now, but the fact is that this composer has an important and indispensable place in the history of French music, and in the history of the mélodie in particular. Earlier in this essay it was suggested that the composer’s personality had certain English qualities, but in terms of his music this comparison is no longer tenable. Chausson’s fugitive art is the epitome of what France and the French have given to music: incomparably individual in its understatement and its refusal to court the approval of the masses, haunting in its gentle evocation of the fin de siècle, and uncompromising in its integrity and its highly personal search for truth. With historical hindsight we can see something clearly that Chausson and the Symbolists seems to have understood: that this fin de siècle was sadder than anyone realised at the time, the end of a way of life, the deceptively comfortable threshold which was soon to lead to Armageddon. Listening to Chausson’s songs can be like paging through a volume of sepia photographs where hands waving goodbye are caught in poses that seem unbearably poignant: the happiness of smiling faces seems overlaid with melancholy because of what we know, and they do not. Melancholy and pudeur are sepia emotions perhaps. This ‘elegiac gracefulness which makes Chausson’s personality recognisable among all others’ (as Henri Gauthier-Villars put it) may not be something we wish to encounter every day, but our listening is much impoverished if we refuse to hear—yes, Debussy was right—the undertones.
The life and work of Ernest Chausson: A chronology
On 20 January, Ernest Amedee Chausson is born in Paris, the son of a wealthy building contractor, Prosper Chausson. He is the third child; the second son dies at the age of six and this may account for the over-protective attitude of the boy’s parents. Privately educated by the scholar Brethous-Lafargue, Ernest displays early talents as a writer and painter as well as a musician. (Chausson’s was later to own a pair of Corots, eight pastels of Degas, drawings of Delacroix, two Gaugins, a large Manet and Morisot. two wonderful Renoirs, and works by Carrière, Redon and Vuillard. Only Chabrier among French composers could rival this private art collection.) One of the most important influences on Chausson’s life is Madame St Cyr de Rayssac (whom he dubbed his ‘godmother’) whose salon Chausson visited from the age of fifteen. There he meets such artists as Odilon Redon and Fantin-Latour, as well as the young Vincent d’Indy. At this stage his musical education has a heavily German slant—Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schuman n—as opposed to the lighter home-grown works favoured in less rigorously intellectual environments.
Camille Saint-Saëns: L’attente and La cloche
1875 (aged 20)
Bending to the wishes of his father, Chausson enrolls as a law student, finishing his studies in 1877 when he is sworn in as a barrister. (As it happens, many in the Franck circle began their lives as lawyers.) Chausson never practices law; after agonising for some time he decides to make a life in music. In 1877 he composes his first song, Les lilas (Bouchor), sn 1, which has remained unpublished.
Gabriel Fauré: Au bord de l’eau
1878 (aged 23)
Chausson begins his studies in orchestration with Jules Massenet at the Conservatoire. From this period date the songs Chanson (Bouchor), L’âme des bois (Bouchor) and Le petit sentier (Bouchor), all ‘sans nombre’.
Fauré: Nell; Automne; Poème d’un jour
1879 (aged 24)
Chausson continues his studies with Massenet at the same time as attending the classes of César Franck as a listener. He finds the latter more in tune with his own idealistic personality and eventually abandons Massenet’s class. Chausson visits Munich to hear Der fliegende Hollander and the ‘Ring’. From this year date: 14 May—Le rideau de ma voisine (Musset); October—L’albatros (Baudelaire) and Le charme (Silvestre).
Henri Duparc: Le manoir de Rosemonde: Fauré: Les berceaux; Notre amour
1880 (aged 25)
Chausson hears Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for the first time in Munich. 6 June—Les papillons (Gautier) and La dernière feuille (Gautier); 18 June—Nanny (Leconte de Lisle); 26 June—Sérénade italienne (Bourget). The following year, 1881, is a year of chamber music (the Piano Trio in G minor Op 3) and an unsuccessful attempt to win the Prix de Rome.
Duparc: Sérénade florentine
1882 (aged 27)
Chausson visits Bayreuth for the premiere of Parsifal. He begins work on the Poème de l’amour et de la mer. Chausson publishes his Opus 2 songs and works on the tone-poem with an Arthurian theme, Viviane, Op 5. This work is dedicated to his bride-to-be, Jeanne Escudier. Le colibri (Leconte de Lisle); 24 June—Hébé (Ackermann); 22 August—Amour d’antan (Bouchor); 31 August—Nous nous aimerons (Bouchor).
1883 (aged 28)
20 June—the composer marries Jeanne Escudier and takes her to Bayreuth for a honeymoon performance of Parsifal. (Fortunately the bride is musical). His friends d’Indy and Duparc are also there. He also makes his first visit to Italy. The Deux Motets Op 6 are composed. The composer endures a short period of military service in the artillery. 4 September—the duet La nuit (Banville); 23 September—Printemps triste (Bouchor).
Duparc: Testament; Lamento
1884 (aged 29)
April—Chausson’s eldest daughter, Etiennette, is born. In this year he also sketches two unpublished songs Le mort maudit (Richepin), sn 22, and the duo for soprano and tenor, Chansons de noces dans les bois, sn 21.
Duparc: La vie antérieure; Fauré: Fleur jetée; Franck: Nocturne
1885 (aged 30)
11 July—L’aveu (Villiers de L’Isle Adam); 8 September—Apaisement (Verlaine); October—the birth of Chausson’s second daughter, Annie.
1886 (aged 31)
Chausson becomes secretary of the Société Nationale de Musique, a time-consuming job where he regularly places the interests of other member-composers before his own. The Chausson biographer Jean Gallois sees this year as the beginning of Chausson’s ‘second period’ where a closer acquaintance of other professional composers makes him set his sights on larger and more complex projects. During the few months of the year Chausson allows himself to spend in Paris, his luxurious and spacious residence at 22 Boulevard de Courcelles (decorated with frescoes by the painter Maurice Denis) houses a celebrated salon. Among the guests are the painters Odilon Redon (an old friend) as well as Manet, Degas and Rodin. Among the writers are Mallarmé, Henri de Régnier (how sad we are that there are no Chausson settings of either of these poets!), Gide, Collette, as well as Mauclair and Bouchor. Among composers visitors include César Franck, Duparc, Fauré (for whom Chausson has a very high regard), Ropartz, Magnard , Koechlin and Satie. The violinists Ysaÿe and Thibaud and the pianist Cortot are also welcome guests. Chausson begins work on an opera to his own libretto, Le roi Arthus. 20 March—Nocturne (Bouchor); 15 July—the duet Le réveil (Balzac). Le temps des lilas, which was later to form the basis of the orchestrally-accompanied Poème de l’amour et de la mer, is composed for voice and piano. The Hymne védique (Op 9) and Hélène, a drame lyrique (Op 7) are also written, both to words by Leconte de Lisle.
1887 (aged 32)
24 June—Sérénade (Lahor); 12 July—La cigale (Leconte de Lisle); 14 July—La caravane (Gautier).
Fauré: Clair de lune, Les présents
1888 (aged 33)
April—the death of Chausson’s mother. 3 May—Les morts (Richepin); 26 June—La pluie (Richepin); 28 July—Nos souvenirs (Bouchor). Also composed in this year are the Chant nuptial (Leconte de Lisle), Op 15, for four female voices, and incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest (translated by Bouchor), Op 18.
Debussy: Ariettes oubliées; Fauré: Larmes; Spleen; Au cimetière
1889 (aged 34)
In a letter written in this year Chausson tries to describe what is hindering his compositional impulse: ‘I no longer dare to get up in the morning thinking of the frightful day I am going to spend…in my lucid moments I try to recognise my malady. And I have found it all of a sudden. It comes from my songs. Ah! how I detest them now and I hope never to write any again. All of them bad except Hébé perhaps and fifteen bars of Nanny…’ It is perhaps no surprise that this year signals the beginning of a gap of some seven years before Chausson composed mélodies with anything like his former enthusiasm and regularity. The composer’s son Michel is born and Chausson visits Bayreuth for the last time. Debussy is also there, although the two composers had probably met some months before. Chausson is concerned now to write serious works for bigger forces. The result is the beginnings of the Symphony in B flat, Op 20, and the virtuosic Concert for piano, violin and string quartet (completed 1890 and 1891 respectively).
1890 (aged 35)
The death of César Franck. Chausson helps to finance the printing of a sumptuous edition of Debussy’s Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire. 22 May—Chanson de clown (Shakespeare, trans. Bouchor).
Debussy: Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire; farmyard songs of Emmanuel Chabrier; Saint-Saëns: Guitares et mandolines
1891 (aged 36)
July—Chanson d’amour (Shakespeare, trans. Bouchor), Chausson also composes the Trois Motets Op 16 and an unpublished Tantum ergo, sn 25.
Fauré: Cinq mélodies de Venise
1892 (aged 37)
The year is a fallow one as far as composition is concerned. Mme de Rayssac dies, and the Chaussons spend time in Fiesole in Tuscany at the beginning of t he year. The premiere of La légende de Sainte-Cécile (Bouchor) takes place in January in Paris and is a fiasco. La Vie Parisienne prints a cutting review: ‘What would you say of a poet who employs nothing but the imperfect subjunctive all the time; that might perhaps be correct, but it would certainly be exasperating and disagreeable to listen to. Such is the music of M. Chausson’. In contrast, the Concert receives a highly successful first performance in Brussels which is to be the scene of many a Chausson success.
1893 (aged 38)
January—birth of Marianne Chausson, the composer’s fourth child. 31 (sic!) June—Lassitude (Maeterlinck); 7 July—Serres d’ennui (Maeterlinck ). Poème de l’amour et de la mer (Bouchor) is completed.
Debussy: Proses lyriques
1894 (aged 39)
April—Chausson’s father dies, and this is the beginning of the composer’s ‘third period’. This chimes with words Chausson wrote at the time concerning death: ‘The most positively real instant of our existence…not an end but the beginning of a re-beginning’. His association with the Symbolist poets intensifies, and his discovery of the Russian authors Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky reinforces his own pessimistic tendencies. This year is more or less given over to the completion of the opera Le roi Arthus in short score. The composer briefly meets Maurice Maeterlinck at Gand. This personal contact with the author of Serres chaudes probably stiffens the composer’s resolve to continue work on the cycle.
Fauré: La bonne chanson; Prison; Soir
1896 (aged 40)
Another stay in Tuscany. A visit to Rome results in an audience with Pope Leo XIII. This pleased Mme Chausson, the children and the nurse, but the composer is disturbed by the pomp and circumstance surrounding the Pontiff, and finds that this worldly old man does not accord with his conception of the spiritual life. February—the song Oraison (Maeterlinck) is begun. Otherwise the year is given over to the orchestration of Le roi Arthus. Paysage Op 35.
1897 (aged 41)
February—the completion of the Serres chaudes cycle begun in 1893 and continued in 1895: Serre chaude (Maeterlinck), Fauves las (Maeterlinck) and Oraison (Maeterlinck). July—the birth of Laurent, the youngest of the composer’s five children. 4 December—Chanson d’Ophélie (Shakespeare, trans. Bouchor). Also completed are the Poème for violin and orchestra (modelled on a Turgenev story and composed for Ysaÿe) and Quelques danses Op 26 for piano.
1898 (aged 42)
Once again the Chaussons spend a great deal of time in Tuscany. During this productive year, the Op 28 Shakespeare settings are rounded off with a choral Chant funèbre. 13 March—Ballade (Mauclair); 5 September—Les couronnes (Mauclair); 22 September—Les heures (Mauclair). Also composed in 1897 is the Dante setting for four voices (Ballata Op 29), the Pièce for violoncello and piano Op 39, the remarkable Piano Quartet Op 30, the Vêpres Op 31 and the unpublished Pour un arbre de Noël Op 33. Isaac Albeniz, always grateful for Chausson’s help in his poverty-stricken early days in Paris, now repays it in fullest measure: on a visit to Germany he secretly pays Breitkopf und Härtel to publish the Poème, and even adds 300 francs as a royalty to be paid over to the composer by the publishers. This subterfuge brings Chausson, who never discovers the truth, the greatest joy. From this seeming sign of success on an international scale comes much of the growing confidence that we encounter in Chausson’s work in the last two years of his life.
Debussy: Chansons de Bilitis; Fauré: Le parfum imperissable; Arpège
1899 (aged 43)
This is a veritable year of songs. 26 May—Marins dévots à la vierge Marie (Fort); 18 June—La chanson bien douce (Verlaine); 23 June—Cantique à l’épouse (Jounet); 28 October—Dans la forêt du charme et de l’enchantement (Moréas); 18 November—Le chevalier malheur (Verlaine). 17 December—Chanson perpétuelle (Cros) for voice accompanied by string quartet and piano. The symphonic poem Soir de fêtes Op 32 was also completed in this year.
1900 (aged 44)
Chausson is working on his String Quartet Op 35 when he is killed in a cycling accident (he lost control of his bicycle and crashed into a wall) on June 10. He had been haunted from time by time by premonitions of premature death. The mourners at the funeral make an artistic Who’s Who of the time: Duparc, Fauré, Dukas, Debussy, Magnard, Bruneau, Koechlin, Messager, Albeniz, Degas. Rodin. Régnier, Pierre Louys among many others.
In Ernest Chausson—The Composer’s life and Works ( 1955, p. 122), Jean-Pierre Barricelli and Leo Weinstein write: ‘Like Hugo Wolf it seems that Chausson cherished the idea of composing cycles of songs from the works of various poets: Verlaine, Leconte de Lisle, Gautier, Maeterlinck, Shakespeare, Mauclair etc.’ Accordingly the mélodies on these two discs are grouped not according to their opus numbers (the constituent parts of which were, as in the case of Schubert, often composed over a number of years) but according to their poets.
The composer and his poets
There is something Schubertian about Chausson’s relationship with his poets. He was acquainted with the great poetry of the past, but he was even more enthused by the writing of his contemporaries, work which had came hot off the press still glowing with the power to ignite his creative fires. The composer was an avid reader, and he had the financial means to build a remarkable library; his songs reflect this careful cultivation. Like Schubert he had an enthusiasm for Shakespeare, and like Schubert a respect for the earlier literature of his mother tongue. However, unlike almost every other composer of French song, Chausson showed little enthusiasm for time-travelling or stylisations—thus there are no catchy pastiche settings of sixteenth-century poetry, and no Spanish boleros. There is however an ‘Italian’ serenade (Bourget’s Sérénade italienne) which shows the younger composer’s debt to the tastes of Massenet and the Conservatoire, and the mighty La caravane where Chausson’s mu sic encompasses a mood of eastern grandeur. In setting Louise Ackermann (Hébé) and La cigale of Leconte de Lisle the composer suggests the world of antiquity, using modal harmony to evoke the music of the ancient Greeks. But this is as far as it goes. On the whole, the composer is interested in texts that are written in the here and now, and he aims to find a musical language relevant to his own age.
In Schubert’s case a similar interest in contemporary poetry led to certain conflicts between friendship and poetic talent. Not all of his poetically-inclined friends were gifted writers. We now judge Schubert’s eccentric mentor Johann Mayrhofer to have been a much finer poet than was once supposed, but it is doubtful whether the literary world will ever revise their unfavourable verdict on Chausson’s Mayrhofer, the poet Maurice Bouchor. Chausson was a close friend of Bouchor and was steadfastly loyal to him for a decade of songwriting (1878-1888). There are no less than eight Bouchor songs containing some of the most typical Chausson, for better and worse. There are four much finer poets whom the composer set three times each—Gautier, Leconte de Lisle, Verlaine and Mauclair—although he was close friends only with the last. In the case of the first three, Chausson selects poems in very different moods from those to be found in the more famous settings by other composers. (He was one of the first to appreciate Verlaine, having discovered him before either Fauré or Debussy.) The poet of his longest, and arguably most important song cycle, Maurice Maeterlinck, was but a passing acquaintance, but who knows what clinching role Chausson’s decision to set Lassitude in June 1893 played in Debussy’s finally approaching that poet in August of 1893 for permission to set Pelléas et Mélisande? He attempts one Baudelaire song, and one by Jean Lahor, but these poets are Duparc’s matchless province, and the former was also appropriated by Debussy. After a single duet, Banville is abandoned; he was avidly set by the young Debussy, a name which was as yet unknown to the older composer. After setting one poem by Armand Silvestre, Chausson leaves the rest of that poet’s work to his teacher Massenet, and to Fauré. Chausson set Villiers de L’Isle Adam only once (there are two Fauré mélodies to this poet’s texts) and here a close friendship between poet and composer made no difference to the tally of songs.
In some cases we are grateful to Chausson for revealing to us poetic talents who are otherwise poorly represented in the song repertoire: Paul Fort, Jean Moréas (cruelly mocked by Poulenc in his Airs chantés) and Charles Cros are all substantial figures in French literature, and Albert Jounet, a minor poet but estimable, makes his only appearance in song. An oddity is the single appearance of Honoré de Balzac as a poet.
If we regret the absence of other names—Chausson’s friends Mallarmé, Henri de Régnier, Jules Laforgue, Albert Samain—we can only imagine on what pathways literature might have led this composer had he survived Symbolism and lived long enough to be confronted by the literature of the twentieth century. The thought of Chausson setting the poems of Guillaume Apollinaire is a tantalising one.
Graham Johnson © 2001