Ernest Chausson


Op. 25

About this work

On being asked by his friend, the renowned Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, for a violin concerto, Chausson dithered. The demands implied by the form, coupled with his high seriousness, loomed oppressively just as he was entering a new phase of freedom, fluency, and aureate fancy. It has been suggested by Chausson's biographer, Jean Gallois, that the Poème -- with which he eventually answered Ysaÿe's request -- was prompted by a Turgenev tale of jealousy and death in which the novelist's thwarted passion for the French mezzo-soprano, Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), is transposed into a fabulous Renaissance setting fraught with a magic potion, a violin whose music ravishes the soul, and a lover returned from the legendary orient. Chausson knew and frequently entertained Mme. Viardot -- she who had created the role of Fidès in Meyerbeer's Le Prophète, who was an accomplished composer, painter, and writer, and upon whom Berlioz in his last decade had a lingering crush -- and her husband. Thus the elements of what might have been the strangest of grand operas were in place. It is a mark of Chausson's genius that he eschewed the commonplaces of narrative to transmute those elements into a seamlessly compelling work for violin and orchestra -- for the Poème is not program music. Rather, its high fantasy -- superbly sustained -- relies upon deftly dovetailed but clearly distinguished episodes, thematically linked.

Lento e misterioso, a harmonically rich introduction, rippled with thematic premonitions, immediately casts forth an enveloping aura of the fantastic, exalted, and exquisite, before the solo violin enters with a slow, elegiacally beguiling, doubly arched melody, echoed by the orchestra in a sensuous chorale. The violin answers with a solo variation in which the melody is accompanied by rapid scale and arpeggio figures, punctuated by frequent double stops, to magical effect. The orchestra responds with an extended Animato shimmer which the effusively varied violin theme seems to mesmerize as it soars aloft in ever more ecstatic flights. In a Molto animato gasp, the orchestra lunges over the theme's contours to begin a hectically syncopated accompaniment to the violin's riveting sorcery in rapid thirds, fourths, and sixths. For a brief, hesitating moment, passion seems exhausted. With a triplet-coiled ascent of three octaves, the violin rouses the orchestra, which responds again with the theme's chorale-like enunciation as it is slowly enchanted into another spate of enraptured shimmer over which the violin, with a lacing, lashing, feverishly entrancing new melody, brings all to a sudden climax. The chorale returns, vehement but giving way to weary finality as the violin croons and surges aloft to sink in chains of trills, spent, to a sumptuous cadence.

Composed between mid-April and mid-June 1896, the Poème was given its première at the Nancy Conservatoire on December 27 of that year by Ysaÿe, to whom it is dedicated. In a sublime gesture, Chausson's friend, Isaac Albéniz, secretly arranged for Breitkopf to publish the score, paying for it from his own pocket, to buoy the composer through one of his periodic bouts of self-doubt.