Ernest Chausson: Symphony in B-flat, op. 20

performed by the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal under Charles Dutoit, or as below with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Yan Pascal Tortelier

(cover image by Aaron Burden)

Amédée-Ernest Chausson was born on January 20, 1855 in Paris “into an extremely affluent bourgeois family.” He was, according to Wikipedia, “the sole surviving child of a building contractor who had made his fortune assisting Baron Haussmann in the redevelopment of Paris in the 1850s.”

In order to please his father, Chausson studied law, but was not at all interested in the profession. Instead, in his free time, he frequented the salons of Paris, where he met, among others, Vincent d’Indy, and eventually decided on a career in music.

In 1879, at 24 years old, he began attending the Paris Conservatoire, taking composition classes from Jules Massenet, also studying with Franck, who became a close friend. In total, Chausson left the world only 39 published works, including one symphony (and sketches for a second), a string quartet, a piano quartet, a poeme for violin and orchestra, and a song cycle.

More interestingly, Wiki tells us that “Chausson is believed to be the first composer to use the celesta. He employed that instrument in December 1888 in his incidental music, written for a small orchestra, for La tempête, a French translation by Maurice Bouchor of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.” Who knew?

Today’s symphony dates from 1890, the same year as Magnard’s first effort. It premiered on April 18, 1891, under the composer’s baton, and was dedicated to the painter Henry Lerolle, the husband of Chausson’s sister-in-law. The work is in three movements, as below, with a playing time of a little over a half hour:

  1. Lent- Allegro vivo
  2. Tres lent
  3. Animé

Wikipedia says:

The first movement follows a personal adaptation of sonata-form, dividing the development section into several sections, with a highly dramatic slow introduction, introducing the solemn main theme of the symphony.

It’s sort of cyclical, presenting both the triumphant and the somber. The opening is gloomy and broad, almost gothic-sounding at times, with plaintive expressions from trumpet or bassoons, buttressed by lush strings. This broad, heartfelt, rather expansive, lengthy introduction is really breathtaking, and shows beyond any shadow of a doubt that at least in this vein, Chausson is gifted.

But it doesn’t end there. After the Lent, there is the Allegro vivo, the proper beginning to the work, that’s suddenly bright and optimistic, an almost blinding contrast to the introduction, like tearing off heavy curtains to let sunlight flood into a dimly lit room. The music here is also, by contrast, undeniably more modern, with its rhythms and more chromatic harmonies and melody. It’s absolutely ebullient. The development, which we won’t discuss in detail, is absolutely inspired, with masterful handling of major- and minor-key conflict.

The second movement seems to return to the melancholy seriousness of the first movement’s Lent, in D minor, and as dedicated to and skilled with the moodiness as the composer is, this movement, too, does lighten up ever so slightly. Whereas the first movement’s introduction was brooding, the darker shades of this movement reach a bit more toward majesty, and as we shall see, eventually attain it. There are pastoral, very French elements to me, like the softness of the orchestral sound, the texture, and the color afforded by the touch of woodwinds here and there. Surprisingly, after a movement that sort of lays low and only warms slowly to greatness, it reaches a climax more than sufficient for the symphony overall.

However, there’s still another movement left, the longest of the three. It begins with an unmistakable turbulence, brass shouting out over a stormy sea. There’s danger afoot. Strings dominate in the first subject, brass in the second, which almost sounds like it’s treading on American soil. The French, even Debussy-esque, nature of the music, something akin to his La Mer, still presides, though.

Amid, or in contrast with, all this excitement, we get a moment of almost solemn pause, with a brass chorale, which many attribute to the influence of Franck. It’s beautiful, but the entire business of the closing passage seems… just the slightest bit overlong, with a bit of tension (in all senses of the word), as it spreads out to cover the entire scope of this symphony. It’s effective, though; it doesn’t bore. The result is that it doesn’t go for any big theatrics, rather opting for the slightly more subtle, majestic, like a sunset rather than a fireworks show.

The writing in this symphony, from the handling of the orchestral sound to the structure and presentation of the music, is superb and satisfying, remarkably well done for a first symphony. He left only this one completed symphony, and sketches for another that date from 1899, but the quality of this sole effort makes me very curious to be able to see what his symphonic trajectory would have been, his growth and evolution were we to see later symphonies from him. But, alas, there are none.

We do, though, have two more symphonies this week from other French composers you’ve likely never heard of unless you’re a pretty dedicated music person. They’re both names I’d seen around before but never listened to their music… until this series. Our next piece will be the first from the 20th century, and things get yet more interesting from there, so please do stay tuned and thank you so much for reading.

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