Emmanuel Chabrier

1841 1894

Emmanuel Chabrier



Chabrier was a 19th century French composer, best known for his orchestral piece España. His output is small, but of a very high quality and includes songs, piano and stage works. His works greatly impacted the French composers of the early 20th century.

Emmanuel Chabrier was born in the small village of Ambert, though he moved with his family to Paris in 1856. He came from a family of jurists and tradesmen. At the age of six he began piano lessons and soon after tried his hand at composing, mostly short dances for the piano. Chabrier’s famous wit is already evident in hisAïka (c1954), which features the description pola-mazurka arabe.

In Paris, Chabrier studied harmony and composition with Thomas Semet, among others. He also studied piano with Edward Wolff, eventually becoming a piano virtuoso. Chabrier established hisgrande valse, Julia (1857) as his opus 1.

Despite his passion and talent for music Chabrier was bound by the family tradition to study law, which he began in 1858. He gained employment at the Ministry of the Interior, where he worked for nearly 20 years. Despite his full-time job, Chabrier continued his musical pursuit. He studied many scores and completed the ninemelodies in 1862, which were inspired by Parnassian poets. Among the poets was Paul Verlaine, with whom he collaborated on two operettas in 1864,Vaucochord et fils 1er and another entitled Fisch-Ton-Kan, a vulgar French pun. The former was never performed in his lifetime, and the latter just once.

With the poet Catulle Mendès, Chabrier collaborated on many works, such as Gwendoline (1886) and Briséïs (1888-91). He also worked with the poet Jean Richepin forLa sulamite (1884), a Scène lyrique for mezzo-soprano, female chorus and orchestra.

Chabrier was enthusiastic about Wagner’s music, even copying the entire score ofTannhäuser is 1862. This enthusiasm was shared with the poets with whom he worked.

Chabrier began composing the large-scale opera Jean Hunyade in 1886 but abandoned the project in 1867. Further works include some piano works and songs, including a setting of Baudelaire’sL’invitaation au voyage (1870) and a Larghetto for horn and orchestra (1878). While still working at the ministry he was commissioned by the Bouffes-Parisiens to write the operettaL’étoile (1877). This operetta was not an immediate success and only enjoyed a short run in the theatre. It is now considered a gem among operettas. The operetta exposed him to the public and to the publishers Enoch & Costallat. During this period he also became a member of the Société Nationale de Musique.

In 1880, Chabrier became notorious for his uncontrollable sobbing during the opening cello melody ofL’étoile and was for this reason teased for many years. 

One year later, Chabrier resigned from the ministry to pursue his musical career, more specifically theGwendoline project. He was also occupied with the 10 pièces pittoresques (1881) for piano, which has become one of the pinnacle piece of the 19th-century French piano repertory.

In addition to composing, Chabrier worked as a choir master and répétiteur for a new music series under Charles Lamoureux. During these concerts, many of Chabrier’s works were also programmed and premiered, including the rhapsody for orchestra,España (1883) and fragments from Gwendoline (including the famous Habanera) and La Sulamite.

After Gwendoline failed to rouse interest among theatres, Chabrier began to compose the comedyLe roi malgré lui (1887) in 1884. Around this time he became known among the public for hisEspaña, which was frequently arranged and performed in various settings. 

Finally in 1885, Chabrier was promised that Gwendoline would be staged at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels under Henry Verdhurt, but due to bankruptcy it remained unperformed.

His comedy, Le roi malgré lui however would be premiered at the Opéra-Comique, though with considerable changes to fit the tone of the opera house. A fire broke out at the Opéra-Comique a week after the premiere of his work, resulting in a gap in the show’s run. After much confusion, the departure of one of its star singers andEduard Lalo’s popular Le roi d’Y’s (1888), Chabrier’s opera ceased to run. A new production was overseen in 1929 by Albert Carré.

Chabrier’s following opera, Briséïs , was also serious in nature. At the same time he wrote songs that strongly contradicted this serious style, such as Villanelle des petits canards, Ballade des gros dindons, and Pastorale des cochons roses. These songs are part of his collection 6 mélodies (1890). Chabrier once complained that the singer, Mily-Meyer, who sang theVillanelle des petits canards took it far too seriously and even ‘tightened her little buttocks’ while singing.

Premonitions that he would not live to complete Briséïs, resulted in him orchestrating the first act before drafting the rest of the opera. By this point he was suffering greatly from a nervous disorder, most likely caused by syphilis.Richard Strauss conducted the premiere of the work in 1899, several years after Chabrier’s death. His only substantial composition from 1891 was his piano pieceBourée fantastique. The German conductor, Felix Mottle created a successful orchestration of the work shortly after its completion.

Chabrier’s dream finally came true in 1893; The Opéra announced its plans to stageGwendoline. However, Chabrier’s condition was so advanced at this time that he did not even recognize his own music. He died the next year, after suffering from paralysis.

It was after Chabrier’s death that his music was widely celebrated. Composers such as Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc owe much to Chabrier’s music, and his connection to the style of Les Six was also quite strong, especially his humouristic side, displayed by his statement, ‘I shape my musical rhythms with my Auvergnat clogs’.

There is general agreement among musicologists that Chabrier played a crucial role in expanding the harmonic language of French music at the end of the 19th century.