Chausson’s Legacy: The Composer
Amédée-Ernest Chausson (20 January 1855–10 June 1899) was a French romantic composer, born into an affluent, though distinctly middle class, Parisian family (Classical Net, 1995; Wise Music Classical, 2021). Arguably, Chausson was the most distinctive voice in “French music in the generation immediately preceding Debussy's” (Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, 2021). While Chausson had no artistic background, he did convey an interest in music from a young age (Durand Salabert Eschig, 2016; Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, 2021). Perhaps due to his loneliness, as he “was brought up as an only and solitary child,” Chausson also found solace in all forms of artistic expression, with literature, painting, and drawing included (Durand Salabert Eschig, 2016). It was not until 1879, at the age of 25, that Chausson decidedly embarked upon a musical career (Wise Music Classical, 2021). He would entirely dedicate himself to composing, later becoming “a full-fledged member of the Parisian musical community” (Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, 2021).
Despite his seemingly comfortable life and surroundings, as a composer, Chausson “was beset with crippling self-doubts” and struggled to “express his feelings with as much emotional honesty and satisfying artistry as possible” (Hart, 2020). It was observed that, for an extended period of time, he “was indifferent to the spread of his works; he never spoke of them, did nothing for them” (Jean-Aubry, 1918). The melancholy of his music was often ascribed to “a profound empathy with the suffering of others” and a “deep apprehension that critics would dismiss him merely as a wealthy amateur imitating Franck and Wagner” (Hart, 2020). Collectively, his works could serve as a reflection of his internal suffering, as they were “frequently poignant and sometimes violent,” despite the fact that Chausson was outwardly a “level-headed man” (Durand Salabert Eschig, 2016). Chausson eventually found his vocation as an orchestrator and melody writer, creating works that were “both dramatic and lyrical albeit freed from romanticism” (Durand Salabert Eschig, 2016). For many observers, it is believed that Chausson found his own voice by the late 1890s, particularly with his 1897 Piano Quartet (Hart, 2020). In total, Chausson composed works for voice, orchestra, choral music, and several operas (Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, 2021). Unfortunately, due to Chausson’s late start and shockingly short life, only 39 numbered works were left behind (Classical Net, 1995). Chausson’s sudden death, as the result of a bicycle accident, seemed to have occurred “at a moment when his gifts seemed to have attained their full powers” (Jean-Aubry, 1918). This has convinced many that “for though what he has left us is enough to save his name from oblivion, the path he was following might have led to still greater things” (Jean-Aubry, 1918).
Chausson’s Growth as a Musician: Major Influences and Figures
After several trips to Germany, particularly Bayreuth, Chausson found himself “seduced and overwhelmed by the works of Wagner” (Durand Salabert Eschig, 2016). Arguably, he had become an “ardent Wagnerian” (Hart, 2020). Chausson would be held under the influences of this composer for many years to come, later admitting that he needed to “dewagnerise” himself (Durand Salabert Eschig, 2016). It was around this same time, from 1886, that Chausson was appointed the position of secretary of the Société Nationale de Musique, an organization founded and dedicated to promoting the performance of French instrumental music (Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, 2021). This enabled him to provide “a home to many great eminent artists of the time” (Wise Music Classical, 2021), some of which Chausson developed close relationships with (Hart, 2020). Chausson’s salon attracted prominent figures, including composers, pianists, painters, and novelists. Some of these figures included Alfred Cortot, Claude Debussy, Claude Monet, Eugène Ysaye, Gabriel Fauré, Henri Duparc, Issac Albéniz, Ivan Turgenev, and Stéphane Mallarmé (Classical Net, 1995; Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, 2021; Wise Music Classical, 2021).
By 1890, Chausson began his journey towards a more artistic vision, producing his singular Symphony in B Flat Major (Classical Net, 1995). With the creation of his 1896 Poème opus 20, he “finally found the key to his aesthetics” (Durand Salabert Eschig, 2016). While he “tried his hand at different styles,” chamber music seemed to be his most successful practice (Jean-Aubry, 1918). Oddly, it was the “inclination that his nature possessed towards a delicate exchange of confidences, towards intimacy or reserve, [that] led him to seek out in narrower limits all the qualities that could be drawn from individual instruments instead of the handling of great orchestral masses” (Jean-Aubry, 1918). It is likely that, if Chausson had lived longer, he would have eventually gravitated towards these types of performances. Although Chausson’s music was rather individualistic, traces of his mentors and idols can be seen in a number of his works (Classical Net, 1995). From these influential figures, he got a “sense of longing for the summits, a purity of soul, an angelic freshness,” along with a “penetrating subtlety, a liking for fleeting impressions cleverly seized upon, a taste for new tone-colour, the desire to mix plastic or literary impressions with musical refinements” (Jean-Aubry, 1918).
Chausson’s Education and Career
Given that his father was a civil engineering contractor and his mother was the daughter of a lawyer, Chausson’s family initially pushed the composer to study law (Classical Net, 1995). Although Chausson did obtain his law degree in 1876, later becoming a barrister for the Parisian Court of Appeals, he held little interest in the profession (Hart, 2020; Wise Music Classical, 2021). Even during his studies, Chausson progressed with some doubts and hesitations (Durand Salabert Eschig, 2016). He would come to disregard this field in his pursuit of other interests (Durand Salabert Eschig, 2016). Notably, Chausson did not immediately pursue a career in music, as “he attempted careers in writing and drawing” prior to this transition (Wise Music Classical, 2021). While attending a performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, held in Munich, Chausson met Vincent d'Indy, a disciple of Wagner and professor at the Paris Conservatory (Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, 2021). Chausson would enroll at this school the following year, immediately taking “a course of private tuition with Massenet” (Durand Salabert Eschig, 2016). The latter portion of his formal education was “rounded out by private study with César Franck” (Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, 2021). However, by 1881, Chausson would halt his studies, mainly in a failed attempt to win the Prix de Rome (Wise Music Classical, 2021).
Creating Compositions: Opera and Myth
Given that Chausson suffered from self-doubt for a majority of his musical career, it is likely that he was attracted to the “contradictions inherent in the genre” of Arthurian legend, particularly between emotion and decision-making (Ziegler, 2020). This is apparent in his only opera, Le Roi Arthus (1895), which took nearly a decade to complete, using his own libretto and numerous mythic qualities, including the “reliance on historical and fictional elements” and a “position in between past and present” (Ziegler, 2020). It could be assumed that Arthurian legend served as an “ideal site” for Chausson to question abstract ideals, creativity, posterity, as well as national consciousness (Ziegler, 2020). While this opera is technically an adaptation, many of its aspects (e.g, characters), stylistic factors, and plotline choices evoke the facets of Tristan (Stove, 2014). However, other critics have suggested that, by examining the two scores closely, their differences can be made clear. One such critic, Benoît-Otis, asserts that:
“these musical allusions to Tristan have the paradoxical effect of distinguishing with unmistakable clarity the first from the second. For if Chausson retains certain elements (formal and melodic, but above all harmonic) of the musical vocabulary developed by Wagner and associated with an all-powerful passion, it is to give them a very different meaning in the framework of a dramaturgy resolutely anti-Tristanesque” (quoted in Stove, 2014).
The differences between these two works are also compared by Benoît-Otis, suggesting that for Chausson, forbidden love does not triumph in his piece. Rather, it is the “values of fidelity, sincerity, and honour pronounced by the Round Table” that emerge victorious (quoted in Stove, 2014). Potentially, this is indicative of Chausson’s desire for peace and justice, whether with society or with himself.
Like every composer from his generation, Chausson simply had to write an opera (Durand Salabert Eschig, 2016). This, however, did not guarantee success. Initially, this opera was not considered an approachable conception. Despite being written for the Paris stage, it never performed at the capital (Ziegler, 2020). Unfortunately, attempts made during Chausson’s lifetime, so as to provoke the interest of opera house managers, all failed (Stove, 2014). It would not be until after his death that the opera would be produced. Granted that the opera was met with popularity after its premiere in Brussels (1903), the opera was rarely performed outside of this city (Ziegler, 2020). Critics were “unfailingly polite about what they heard,” while the general public remained “lukewarm” (Stove, 2014). Curiously, subsequent stagings and recordings (e.g., 1949 and 1986) have been few and/or presented as concert versions (Stove, 2014; Ziegler, 2020). Contemporary productions of this opera have been met with both praise, for their performance quality, and skepticism, for their staging and designs (see Carlin, 2015; Mudge, 2015).
Hart, B. J. (2020). Ernest Chausson. Oxford University Press.
Jean-Aubry, G. (1918). A FRENCH COMPOSER: ERNEST CHAUSSON. The Musical times, 1904-1995, 59(909), 500-501.
Stove, R. J. (2014). Ernest Chausson, Le Roi Arthus, et l'opéra wagnérien en France.
Ziegler, C. J. (2020). Opera and Myth: Ernest Chausson's Le Roi Arthus (Doctoral dissertation, Johns Hopkins University).