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Exploring Music: Rich And Passionate /Ernest Chausson

The MHS Review 394 Vol. 11 No. 16, 1987

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David M. Greene


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The fate of Ernest Chausson always puts me in mind of a friend of mine, who is likewise a musician. In his younger years, said friend was addicted to speedy motor vehicles. An affair with a motorcycle won him a smashed thorax and a hospital stay. Then he ran a succession of sports cars in­to rigid objects such as utility poles and bridge abutments with, as I remember, varying but somewhat less serious conse­quences. Eventually, in the calm of mar­riage and middle age, he graduated to do­ing at least local travel on a bicycle, which would appear an eminently sensible solu­tion and proof that years bring mature wisdom.

Late one afternoon, on his way home from work, he took a path through the woods--one that he (presumably) travel­ed regularly. Somehow the vehicle went out of control and careened into a tree, breaking his leg in three places. The woods, apparently, had an unsavory reputation as a hangout for drug dealers and beer­-partyers, and so his cries for help went unheeded. In the end, he had to drag himself some distance to the nearest road. Fortunately he was up and around not long afterwards.

Ernest Chausson was neither so daredevil nor so lucky. He was born in the lap of luxury in Paris in 1855. His life was a model for the affluent bourgeois. He had a private tutor who, together with Ernest's parents, saw that his tastes and talents were inclined toward the Right Things and that he moved in the right social circles. He wrote, sketched, and composed as a talented amateur according to the Castigleonean precepts of the gentleman. When the time came he went obediently to law school and was admitted to the bar (legally speaking). Rather than rush into marriage, he waited until he was 28 to wed Jeanne Escuder, with whom he was to pro­duce a brood of five.

Meanwhile, having grown a beard and otherwise declared himself a man, he entered the Paris Conservatory to study with good old middle-of-the-road Massenet. But increasingly he was lured by the presence of Franck and by the siren song of Wagner from across the Rhine, which called him several times to Ger­many. Then he settled down in Paris, to compose slowly and carefully (he often destroyed his work, and his King Arthur opera took him ten years), and to serve as a sort of focal center for the artistic pro­gressives. (He was one of the first to col­lect Impressionist paintings--which you could get for 10 francs a dozen then.)

Consistent with bourgeois affluence, the Chaussons had a summer estate downriver from the city at Limay, near Mantes. On the 10th of June, 1899, they were expecting house guests, and that morning Ernest hop­ped on his bike to go down to the depot to meet them. As he pedaled down the driveway full speed, something went wrong. Perhaps it struck a stone, but anyhow the vehicle veered as it neared the gate, and Chausson went headfirst into the stone wall that surrounded the yard. He was DOA.

Considering his scrupulosity and the brevity of his life, it is not surprising that Chausson left only a handful of large-form works: the opera, a symphony, a couple of orchestral poems, a piano trio, a piano quartet, an unfinished string quartet, and this double chamber-concerto. The last was written (painfully) at about the time he was also working on the symphony. His initial judgment on finishing it was that it was a mess, but he evidently thought better of it when the steam died down, for it was premiered in 1892 by its dedicatee, the great Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye, the pianist August Pierret, and the Crickboom Quartet, so called from its characteristic sound. (I lie! It was named after its founder.)

It is a rich and passionate outpouring, and one supposes that its relative un­familiarity has to do with the unusual forces called for. (Is there any other such work?) To judge from this record, it ob­viously recommends itself to the Russian temperament, and the performers obvious­ly give it their all here. Russian digital recording is so effective you'd think they invented it, as they did baseball.

Review of Ernest Chausson /concert in D Major for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet, Op 212 Pg 55

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