CHABRIER: Espana / Joyeuse marche / Suite pastorale
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'My first concern is to do as I please; seeking above all to give reinto my individuality; my second is not to be a damned bore'
Emmanuel Chabrier in a letter to his publisher, Costallat,
'A man of exquisite gentleness and sudden exuberance', 'the soul of asentimental girl in the body of a water carrier', Emmanuel Chabrier is thegreat forgotten man of French music. With a passion for poetry and painting asmuch as for music, among his friends he could count Verlaine, Edmond Rostand,Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Manet (whose canvasses he was one of the first tobuy), Faure, Duparc and Chausson. Beneath the laughing, chubby exterior theredwelt a roguish tenderness, an infinite passion for music: 'No artist will everhave worshipped music, nor striven to honour it more than I, none has sufferedmore for it and I shall suffer for it eternally', he wrote to Charles Lecocq.
Emmalluel Chabrier was born at Ambert, in the Auvergne, on 18th January,1841. The only child of Jean Chabrier, a lawyer, and Evelina Durozay, he showedan early aptitude for music and at the age of six was taking piano lessons withthe town's teacher, Manuel Zaporta, a Carlist refugee who perhaps created inhim his taste for Spain. However, Emmanuel had to follow the family way andstudy law, devoting all his free time to his musical education. At the age oftwenty, following his father's wishes, he went into the Ministry of theInterior. Civil servant by day, artist by night, he frequented the clubs andsalons of Paris. From this period came nine unpublished melodies, pieces forpiano, two operettas based on Verlaine's librettos which were never finishedand a plan for the opera Jean Hunyade. 1869 was marked by the death ofboth his parents within a week. He had always been very close to them, but nowonly his former governess, Nanine, was to watch over the destiny of 'Mavel' andhis future family. Following the enforced movements of the Ministry during theFranco-Prussian War, he had little inclination to compose and it was not until1873 that there came an Impromptu for piano dedicated to Manet's wife.
In the same year, Chabrier married Alice Dejean. Two sons were born of thishappy union.
Alice soon had eye problems, gradually losing her sight. It was at thetime, in 1874, that Chabrier wrote Lamento, a relatively short symphonicpiece which remained an unpublished manuscript until its rediscovery a fewyears ago. Chabrier, who used to revise his work time and time again, seems tohave written it in one go, with no subsequent alterations; according to YvonneTiennot, it was performed at the Societe Nationale that year, then themanuscript seems to have been lost. Herve Niquet describes the extraordinaryeffect of this poignant work as the equivalent in sound of graduallydeteriorating sight, the tones becoming thinner, the mass of sound fading awayby degrees. A year later, Chabrier wrote a Larghetto for horn andorchestra which was performed in 1878 at the 'Societe des compositeurs'. True recognitioncame in 1877 with the success of his operetta L'Etoile. ThereafterChabrier was acknowledged by his peers. In 1880 he finally resigned his post atthe Ministry of the Interior to devote himself entirely to music.
Two years later, Chabrier and his wife visited Spain, a four month staywhich had an appreciable effect on the composer's life and which is the sourceof his most well known orchestral work: Espana. His letters are full ofexuberant wit, cheerfulness and mundane delights. 'In the evening we areforever in the bailos flamencos, both of us surrounded by toreros intown clothes, with black felt hats split down the middle, hip-length jacketsand tight trousers showing off sinewy legs and the shapeliest of buttocks. Andthe gypsies singing their malaguenas or dancing the tango, and the manzanillawhich is passed from hand to hand and which everybody is obliged to drink.'(21st October, 1882). Later he writes again 'I don't need to tell you that I'vemade notes on lots of things; the tango, a way of dancing where a womanimitates a ship's pitching with her behind is the only one in duple time; allthe rest, everything, is in 3/4 (Seville) or 3/8 (Malaga and Cadiz); in theNorth, it's different, there's a very odd 5/8 one. The tango's 2/4 is always ofthe habanera type...' Performed on 4th November, 1883 at the Societe des NouveauxConcerts founded by Charles Lamoureux, the rhapsody Espana (Allegro confuoco) is conceived for a full, colourful orchestra where the harp takes onmelodies, the horns, trombones and tuba sing, the woodwind dazzle. All iscontrast and delight. 'The musical qualities of both north and south aremingled or superimposed.' Chabrier used the rhythms and motifs noted in Spainwithout ever seeking to copy them exactly.
In 1895, he again took inspiration from Spain and from this verydistinctive habanera rhythm for a short piece for piano which he laterorchestrated felicitously. Dedicated to Marguerite Lamoureux, the conductor'sdaughter, Habanera was first heard at Angers on 4th November, 1888.
After the unfortunate interruption of the performances of Gwendoline,an opera steeped in Chabrier's profound admiration for the Wagnerian, thecomposer from the Auvergne turned to light opera. Le Roi malgre lui wascompleted in 1887. The Opera Comique fell victim to fire a week after thepremi?¿re. The Fete polonaise opens the second act Brilliant, withirresistible momentum, it takes us into the ball where Count Laski, plotting todepose the king, has assembled his conspirators. The rhythms of mazurka andwaltz are interlaced in a whirl of daring harmonies. Somewhere between amazurka and fast polonaise, Danse slave appears at the start of thethird act.
The concert of 4th November, 1888 staged by the Angers AssociationArtistique had seen not only the first performance of Habanera, but alsothat of the Suite pastorale, the Prelude pastoral and the Joyeusemarche. Chabrier had conducted with his customary fire and the success wasinstant. The four scenes of the Suite pastorale are taken from Dixpi?¿ces pittoresques composed for piano in 1881. As was often the case,Chabrier next created an orchestration full of subtlety and vividness forcertain pieces: Idylle (No. 6 transposed up one tone) with the flute'stranslucent limpidity, Dan,e villageoise (No. 7) which switches betweenminor and major, Sous-bois (No. 4) with its softened nuances and Scherzo-Valse(No. 10) with its utterly rustic exuberance and joy. The Preludepastoral is, according to the review in the Patriote de l'ouest ofthe day, 'a superb piece whose Wagnerian tones in no ways diminish our esteemfor the French master's very individual powers'.
Chabrier considered his Joyeuse marche (originally entitled'Marche fran?ºaise' then 'Marche joyeuse') 'idiotically comical; the musicianswere in stitches'. Dedicated to Vincent d'Indy, this 'masterpiece of highfantasy' is, according to Debussy, filled to overflowing with bold andcolourful innovations, and with the good-natured humour characteristic ofChabrier. Let us hope that the audacious harmonics, the novel and quirkyinstrumentation, the almost grotesque consistency of sound, the constantrhythmic invention, at last do justice to this composer loved and admired byhis peers and misunderstood by the public at large.
Translation: Wil Gowans