Ernest Chausson was a unique and individualistic voice among
the late 19th century French composers. His output was relatively
small, in part due to the great amount of time he invested in each of his
compositions, but also the result of his career being tragically cut short.
Yet, he nevertheless formed a distinctive bridge between the Wagnerian-infused
music of Cesar Franck and the introspective Impressionism of Claude Debussy.
Born into a prosperous family in Paris on January 20, 1855,
Chausson had an early interest in music. However, like some composers before
him, his path, much influenced by his father, took him to a study of law and in
1877, he was appointed a barrister for the Court of Appeals. This same year
also saw the completion of his first composition—the song Lilas. Chausson had little interest in law, and after some dabbling
in writing and drawing, he set himself upon a course to become a composer. In
October 1879, he enrolled in the composition classes of Jules Massenet at the
Paris Conservatoire. Massenet recognized Chausson's burgeoning talent. Some of
the earliest of the young composer's manuscripts are preserved, bearing
corrective marks in Massenet's hand. Chausson, however, chose to interrupt his
studies with Massenet after a failed attempt to win the prestigious Prix de
Rome. During 1882-83, he traveled, including a sojourn to Bayreuth to attend
the premiere of Wagner's finale opera, Parsifal.
In 1886, Chausson was named secretary of the Société
Nationale de Musique, an organization founded by Saint-Saëns and other
likeminded musicians for the promotion of French music. With this appointment,
he became a permanent member of Paris's artistic circle. His home became the
frequent meeting place of artists, such as Henri Duparc, Gabriel Fauré, Claude
Debussy, Stephané Mallarmé, and Claude Monet. During the following years,
Chausson's career as a composer began to take root and flourish. However, an
apparent accident tragically ended his life in 1899. On June 10, while staying
at the Château de Mioussets in Limay, Yvelines, he was killed instantly when he
struck a brick wall while riding his bicycle downhill.
Though he produced only thirty-nine opus-numbered works in
his career, Ernest Chausson music nonetheless possessed a unique and
distinctive style and passion, even if it has never attained a place among the
greatest composers of French music. He completed only one opera, Le roi Arthus (King Arthur); his
orchestral output was small, but includes his lone Symphony in B-flat and the Poème for violin and orchestra, an
important piece in the repertoire of the violin. He composed many songs, which
along with his chamber works, continue to this day to make occasional
appearances on concert programs.
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