CHAUSSON: Symphony in B Flat Major / Poeme / Viviane
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Ernest Chausson (1855-1899)
Symphony in B flat major, Op. 20
Po?¿me for Violin and Orchestra, Op, 25 Viviane,
Symphonic Poem on a Legend of the Round Table, Op. 5
Born in Paris on 20th January 1855. Ernest Chausson grew up in the protectiveenvironment of a well-to-do family that was aware of contemporary artistictrends, in the Paris drawing-rooms of Fantin-Latour, Odilon Redon, the AbbeLacaria and one who would become a confidant and friend throughout his life,Vincent d'Indy. He chose to study law, doubtless to please his family, orperhaps through his own indecision. Attracted by painting and literature, heknew that he was destined for music, but undecided and hesitant by nature, hewaited until he was twenty-two before daring to reveal his ambition. He becamean advocate officially on 7th May 1877, a profession that he never had theoccasion to practise before entering the Conservatoire in Massenet's class on2nd October 1879. He also followed the courses of Cesar Franck, for whom hethereafter entertained the deepest admiration, joining there Franck's previousstudents, Henri Duparc, Vincent d'Indy, Joseph-Guy Ropartz and Sylvio Lazzari.
There "he learned to discover the poetic feeling of great compositions, toappreciate their comprehensiveness and the logic of their structure. There, inthis group of convinced artists... he learned to work slowly, without hope ofmoney and fame. He was also not slow to win a special place in the affections ofthe man that his students, with respectful familiarity, called Father Franck,one whose goodness and devotion he took as an example in life. Later appointedsecretary of the societe Nationale de Musique, he contributed, over a longperiod, to the development of its concerts, always welcoming the work of youngcomposers... and happy at their first successes." (Gustave Samazeuilh. ErnestChausson, in La Revue Musicale, December 1925). Debussy, whom he hadhelped during a difficult period, had this to say, fourteen years afterChausson's death. "Ernest Chausson, on whom the Flemish influence of CesarFranck weighed so greatly, was one of the most delicate artists of our time. Ifthe influence of the Liege Master has undeniably been of service to somecontemporary musicians, it seems rather to have done Chausson a disservice, inthat to his natural gifts of elegance and clarity it opposed this sentimentalrigour that is the basis of the Franckian aesthetic." (Claude Debussy, societeIndependante de Musique, 15th January 1913). It is true that Chausson had anundeniably independent spirit, which showed itself clearly from the compositionof his Piano Trio, Opus 3, until his failure in the entry competition forthe Prix de Rome. In spite of his many stays in Bayreuth, he refrained fromundue endorsement of the Wagnerian aesthetic, always seeking creative proceduresthat suited him. Chausson died in his prime, at the age of forty- four, after abicycle accident.
Symphonic music had been part of German tradition in the nineteenth century,marked by the influence of Beethoven. France shared more sparingly in thispurely orchestral aesthetic. Of course there was Berlioz, with his Symphoniefantastique and Harold en Italie, but it was necessary to wait untilthe second half of the century for the appearance of the symphonies of CamilleSaint-Sa?½ns and of Bizet. With the establishment of the societe Nationale deMusique, orchestral music found a new audience, curious to hear the OrganSymphony of Saint-Sa?½ns in 1885, the Symphony in G minor of Lalo in1886 and the Symphony on a French Mountain Song, the Symphonie Cevenole ofVincent d'Indy, in the same year. Chausson was not to be outdone. As was hiscustom, he left Paris to devote himself to composition and it was in the Northof France, at Arras, that he revealed his ideas to Henry Lerolle, hisbrother-in-law and future dedicatee of the symphony: "If there were notthis dirty black mud and miles of houses along the roads, this could be pretty,but this mud is terrible. All this speaks of industry, unclean progress. I wouldrather be murdered and eaten by a handsome savage than always live among thesepoor colourless faces, blackened and sickly. Just looking at them you canunderstand strikes, revolutions, murders... Back home again, when the symphonyis not going forward, I am ashamed to grumble...", but the symphony wasgoing forward "...Here my study is charming; I am trying to finish therethe two first movements of the symphony. At present it is not yet finished, butperhaps it will come. I ought to be used to retouching things, since I do it somuch. But every time I find the same difficulties. Actually I think the thing isvery difficult." (Letter to Henry Lerolle, La Revue Musicale, 1925).
Started in September 1889, the symphony was finished in December 1890, with theidea of performance at the Concerts Lamoureux. The first reading of the worktook place on 17th February, to the satisfaction of Chausson, who declared thathe had had no great surprise. "It seems to me that it sounds as I wanted,with perhaps too much fullness of orchestration all the time. But that couldperhaps disappear with adjustment... This finale, it seems to me, is the one ofthe three movements that gains most from the orchestra." (quoted by JeanGallois, Ernest Chausson, 1994). On 18th April 1891, in the magnificentSalle Erard, the symphony was given its first performance, conducted by thecomposer, a work that had taken fifteen months to write. In the audience werehis constant friends, Lalo, Boucher, Chabrier, Massenet and Besnard. The Symphonyin B flat major, Opus 20, has three movements, Lento-Allegro vivo, Tr?¿slent and finally Anime, with an orchestra that in addition to thestrings includes triple woodwind, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, atuba, timpani and percussion, with two harps. The introduction starts with aslow, serious 4/4 theme in the strings, without violins, clarinets and horns,its length and modulatory nature suggesting the school of Cesar Franck. A rapidascending passage in the violins and woodwind announces the triple-time Allegrovivo, which starts at once, in the bassoon and horn, with a theme makingprincipal use of the interval of a third, then another rhythmic theme that findsits counterpart in a lyrical melodic phrase. These last two, contrasting incharacter, are developed and combined in clever counterpoint "wherebrilliance vies with ingenuity and assurance of the material" (Jean Gallois).
The second movement, Tr?¿s lent in D minor, certainly taxed the composerthe most, as his sketches show. It is, as Jean Gallois says, "a greatlament, sometimes near to despair... built on two melodies, the first of whichdoes not reach its full flowering until the second has been completelyrevealed." The third movement, Anime, remains faithful to theFranckian principle in quoting more or less explicitly the themes and motifsheard earlier, in a free enough sonata-form, with the recapitulation replaced byone of the most extraordinary pieces of orchestral writing, a chorale oftwenty-two bars for brass alone, particularly difficult to perform, a real hymn,leading to the brighter key of D major. Chausson's Symphony has oftenbeen compared to that of Cesar Franck, three years before. While thesimilarities cannot be denied, there are, equally, many differences, as theexcellent book by Jean Gallois, published by Fayard, on the life and work ofErnest Chausson shows. It must not be forgotten that "there is a phrase ofSchumann that is terrible and that resounds always in my ears like the trumpetof the day of judgement' 'One is not master of the thought