Ernest Chausson

1855 1899

Ernest Chausson



Chausson was a French composer of the second half of the 19th century. His music reflects the teachings ofMassenet and Franck in addition to Wagnerian influences and later his friendship withClaude Debussy.

Ernest Chausson was born into a very protective and reasonably affluent family in Paris, France. Ernest lived most of his childhood apart from other children and spent most of his time at cultural events with adults. Despite the overprotective nature of his parents, both of Ernest’s older brothers died young, at the ages of 22 and six. Instead of attending school, Ernest was tutored by Brethous-Lafargue who exposed the young boy music and art, encouraging him to read, draw and make music.

By the age of 16, Ernest Chausson was able to see the inside of a number Parisian salons where he met a number of important figures including Fantin-Latour, Odilon Redon, Chenavard, the Abbé Lacaria and a youthfuld’Indy . These concerts introduced him to the music of the great Romantics such as Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn in addition to some of the music of J.S. Bach and Beethoven.

Ernest Chausson found it very difficult to choose a career path; he was drawn to music, literature and drawing. In addition, his family pressured him to study law, which he did, beginning in 1875. Chausson went as far as to obtain a doctorate in law and was also sworn in as a barrister for the Parisian court of appeal, but he never practiced.

Instead, Chausson chose to pursue his love for music at the Conservatoire, on the advice of Madame de Rayssac. In 1877 he composed his first song,Lilas, which has never been published. At the Conservatoire from 1879 to 1881, Chausson studied under Massenet, who described him as ‘an exceptional person and a true artist’. He also sat in onCésar Franck’s lessons.

Chausson quit school in June of 1881 after having failed to win a prize at the Prix de Rome. To prove his professional capacity as a composer he composed his Piano Trio in G minor, Op.3 which, while paying homage to Massenet, includes many harmonic and structural techniques acquired fromCésar Franck. During his studies, Chausson travelled to Munich to hearWagner’s Der fliegende Holländer and the Ring in 1879 and again the next year for Tristan und Isolde. He sawParsifal twice in Bayreuth, once in 1882 for the premiere and again in 1883 on his honeymoon.

Despite the fact that Wagner’s music differed in nearly every way to what he was learning from Massenet, Chausson’s own writing benefited from his discovery of Wagner’s work.

Chausson’s first period of composition contains the works from about 1878 to 1886. These works are simpler and show the formation of his musical style, which was directly influenced by Massenet. The mood of his works from this style is primarily sober, though he used elegant harmonies and finely shaped melodic lines. These works, including the songsLe charme (1879), Les papillons (1880)Sérénade italienne (1880) are more superficial in nature than his later compositions.

A change in Chausson’s compositional style can already be observed within his first period of composition, likely due to Wagner’s influence. Chausson began exploring richer harmonies in addition to timbres and sonorities akin to Wagner and Franck.  An example of Wagner’s influence on Chausson’s orchestration can be heard inViviane (1882) while Franck’s influence can be heard in a number of works, including the songsNanny (1880), La dernière feuille (1880), the Quatre mélodies Op.8 (1882–8), Hymne védique (1886) and La caravane (1887).

The emergence of Chausson’s second period of works was partially a result of him becoming more involved in Parisian culture and music, as he was appointed secretary of the Société Nationale de Musique in 1886. While secretary of this society, founded in 1871 bySaint-Saëns, Bussine, Franck and Castillon, Chausson developed a more intellectual and elaborate style, one that was also more emotional. It is possible that this change in direction was a result of self-doubt, something he was constantly plagued by, about his original style and ideas in comparison with the other composers in the society.

The majority of Chausson’s works from this period are great dramatic works, composed on a large-scale such as thePoème de l’amour et de la mer (1882–93), La légende de Sainte Cécile (1891) and most importantly his opera Le roi Arthus (1886-1895). Chausson set his opera to his own libretto, which featured sophisticated language which, together with the music, expressed Chausson’s thoughts about life. Though the work shares many characteristics ofTristan, the spirit of the work is much less pessimistic.

In addition to these larger masterpieces, Chausson also composed some smaller works including theChant nuptial (1887-8), Trois Motets Op.16 (1888-91), Tantum ergo(1891) and incidental music in 1888 and 1889 for Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Aristophanes’The Birds, respectively. Other works that occupied Chausson throughout the years he composed his opera were the Symphony in B♭ Op.20 (1889-90) and the Concert Op. 21 (1889-91) for piano, violin and string quartet. These works are highly representative of Franck’s influence regarding the frequent modulation, lyricism and form.

After the death of his father in 1894, Chausson took his compositions in a new direction, marking the beginning of his third period. At this time Chausson became acquainted with the literature of the Russian authors Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Chausson’s works from this period are also quite pessimistic. Early works from this period include the song cycleSerres chaudes (1893-6) on poems by Maeterlinck. The late 1890s resulted in works such as the Chansonperpétuelle (1898) for voice and orchestra (can also be performed with piano quintet) and thePoème Op. 25 (1896) for violin and orchestra, based on a story by Turgenev.

Chausson had a great appreciation for Debussy’s compositions, and with his encouragement, Chausson began to rid his music of all external influences to exude more clarity and conciseness. With this goal, Chausson returned to his beginnings with the chamber music genre, composing such works as the Piano Quintet Op. 30 (1987) and the unfinished string quartet (1897).

Chausson’s life was cut short in 1899 after a tragic cycling accident. The number of years he spent as a composer were quite limited, due to both his late start and early death. Despite this, Chausson managed to write in nearly every genre and show progression and a following ofCésar Franck’s ideals. Due his rapid evolution as a composer, Chausson still left behind an impressive number of works that are varied and worthy of frequent performances.