August 9 Concert - Chausson's Concerto in D Major for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet, Op. 21

Ernest Chausson (France; 1855-1899) 
Concerto in D Major for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet, Op. 21
Composed 1889-1891

Ernest Chausson

Ernest Chausson

“Never have I had such a success! I can’t get over it. Everyone seems to love the Concert.” Ernest Chausson wrote this joyous comment in his diary after the premiere of his Concerto in D Major for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet, Op. 21 in Brussels in 1892. It was the composer’s first critically acclaimed work. It is an amazing, emotionally charged composition, constructed meticulously; a masterpiece of cohesion and instrumental color.

Why does the French composer use the word Concert? A simple, lightly tossed off explanation, would be that Chausson was very French and chose to name his piece using his native language. For the record, the word concert, Fr., or concerto, It., meaning a composition written for solo instrument(s) and orchestra or instrumental chamber-sized group, derives from the Italian word, “concertare” meaning “…agreement, accord, harmony, join; of two or more in a design or plan…” To thoroughly confuse you, the words have troubled music historians for centuries as they have also been attributed to Latin, where the derivation is quite the opposite. It comes from the combining of “conserere", meaning to join, and “certamen”, to compete or fight. Actually this duality fits the form to a tee. The soloist(s) and the orchestra are called upon to perform in harmony and in opposition within most concertos. After all this explanation, I will tell you that this chamber work is not a concerto, not even a double concerto. It is more of a duet for violin and piano, and an accompanying string quartet. It is a team effort. The duet is predominantly in the foreground and the quartet backs it up. Chausson called the main instruments “projections against a quartet background.”

Once again, I look at Adam Neiman’s programming. Schubert’s beloved String Quartet in A minor, D. 804, known as the “Rosamunde”, fills the first half of the concert. Is there a tie-in? For sure, although the two composers, wrote these two major chamber works almost 70 years apart. Fatally ill, Schubert was aware of his impending death at the time he composed the work and greatly depressed that he had no time to enjoy life and compose. He felt lonely and apart from the world as the illness claimed his body. Chausson foresaw his early death and was morbidly and constantly obsessed by thoughts of his demise. Unfortunately, he saw his future correctly. He died at the age of 44 after crashing his bicycle into a garden wall.

On a more cheerful note, and more to the point, both composers were champions of melody and both concentrated on writing art songs. They looked to authors and poets for the basis of their music. Schubert’s output was enormous; some 600 songs, 6 completed symphonies, (His most famous, is the Unfinished.) several string quartets, quintets and an octet along with piano compositions and choral works. Consider this: he died at the age of 31! Chausson wrote less than 40 pieces, most of them were songs. He completed a symphony, many mélodies, (settings of poetry for piano and voice) some religious motets, and a few chamber works.. Perhaps the constant correcting and changing of these works is the reason for his small catalogue.

A look, or rather a hearing of both of the chamber works, reveal them to be romantic, moody, sometimes optimistic in tone, very often despairing. The timbres (the particular colors or tones produced by an instrument) and the melodic content of their materials are at the heart of the works. Each composer’s approach to instrumental texture is highly personal. Harmonically they speak a different language. A listener will immediately sense the melancholy and despair, and even anger, they felt though expressed in such different musical terms. Their feelings are projected by the dynamic and rhythmic intensity of their thematic materials and the emotional force of their melodies. The sheer beauty of their instrumental textures and the mood changes that unfold within them, are wonders in each piece. I found it fascinating to listen and compare to the two four movement works one after the other. The musical declarations of so much longing and sadness, Schubert’s self pity, and Chausson’s fear of failure are clearly described, though very differently. Adam has given us a beautiful pairing of works. They are so poignantly similar in their emotional energies, yet so far apart in their expression of these feelings.


Chausson, unlike Schubert, was never in need of money. His parents were successful comfortable Parisians. He was home schooled. Though he went to Law School, to please his parents, he never practiced law. He did not have to compose to earn a living. He chose to be a composer. After Law School he went to the Paris Conservatory as did the two French Composers, Gaubert and Jolivet, whose works you will have heard at the Concert on August 2nd. He studied with Massenet, absorbing the melodist teachings the opera composer had to impart. Chausson wrote one opera, Le roi Arthus, (King Arthur) that was well received. He studied composition with César Franck and became skilled in the art of cyclical composition, Franck’s primary methodology.  Chausson admired Wagner. He went to Bayreuth to hear his operas, but consciously avoided using Wagnerian hyperbole. He was indebted to the German composer for the use of repeated motivic phrases to represent emotions. Chausson’s harmonic settings so infused with chromaticism, certainly showed the heavy influences of Franck and Wagner. 

It is of interest, I believe, that the centralization (for lack of a better term), that evolved from those committed to the Paris Conservatory and teaching, formed a focus of learning and pride of culture specific to the French artistic world. Franck, Faure, Dukas, Massenet, and those who came before were part of this group of musicians.  The emergence of opera and ballet as popular and respected art forms and for that matter, the presence of great organs in Paris churches helped to establish a forceful musical French voice outside of the strong German influence of Wagner and Brahms. Assuredly, the Franco- Prussian War heightened the animosity that existed between the two countries culturally as well as politically. 

Chausson, Degas and Debussy

Chausson, Degas and Debussy

With great pride, Chausson served as Secretary of the Société National de Musique. He was a good friend of the artists Degas, Redon, and authors, Gide, Mallarmé, Collette, and Satie, and Debussy and many other musicians who attended his salons in Paris. Though he kept company with the famed composers, writers, and artists, he was filled with self-doubt concerning his own works and as previously mentioned, spent endless hours rewriting and editing and even destroying pieces that he had written. The young Debussy, in a wonderful letter, reminiscent of the Russian composers, Tanayev’s and Tchaikovsky’s correspondence, begged Chausson to believe in himself. The composer was filled with what is referred to as the pessimism of the “fin de siècle” and the aesthetics of introspection and escape from reality that was the philosophy of the “symbolist” movement. (Very simply and basically; in literature and music “Symbolism” is the use of an object or reference to provide deeper meaning to what is actually being described. Refer to the poets Baudelaire and Mallarmé and in music, Wagner and Debussy.

Chausson was an “old fashioned” gentleman. HIs music is conservative, as music commentator, Ron Staff wrote, correctly, I believe. He stated, “Chausson’s music forms an elegant, if swaying, bridge between Franck’s lush, Wagnerian Romanticism and the sensuous impressionist language of Debussy.” The Concerto for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet is a marvelous example of this observation. The first movement is marked, Décidé, and indeed it is! Three octave pronouncements of a three note phrase open the work. Piano arpeggios and quartet statements of the opening motif are propelled forward by the piano. A calmer section follows, marked, Calme. First the piano reveals a beautiful melody, that is then taken up by the solo violin. The quartet is quiet. Eventually the three note phrase returns, deeper in sound as the cello is heard. The piano ripples some agitated figures; this short motif is played by the rhapsodic solo violin. The piano reasserts it itself sounding the opening phrase once again. The quartet instruments have their go at the phrase. Wandering high, the violin sad and despondent, leads to the repetition of the calmer melodic passages. They slowly build in intensity towards a racing section, Animé. The pace slackens, returning to a complex weaving of the themes; all the while the violin and piano continue their conversation. The two instruments allow the quartet to participate in the passionate music. The piano covers the keyboard before the music fades. The piano and violin sadly play a melancholy passage; it is the three note phrase and the beautiful second theme together, heard one final time. The final notes rise to the highest reaches of the violin and the piano closes the movement.
 The second movement is a Sicilienne. The term is applied to a musical genre included in Baroque Suites. It is an Italian dance performed most often with waving handkerchiefs. As part of a larger work it is a cheerful, lyrical movement, usually a rocking, pastoral music. This short movement is a lovely respite from the dark mood of the previous movement, though it has wisps of melancholy. The piano is restless and once again sweeps over the keyboard, as the solo violin circles above the other instruments, always proclaiming its prominence. The harmonies are unsettled and watery, looking back at Jolivet and forward to Debussy.

Noted as Grave, the third movement is a lament. As heard in Jolivet’s, Chant de Linos, at the last concert, the dragging threnody weighs heavily on the instruments. The piano drone and the solo violin sliding in semitones, cry a lonely, pathos filled song of despair. It is a sound of wandering; a lost atmosphere prevails. The quartet joins in as the mood becomes even more mournful. The intruding dark tones of the viola and cello voices join the solo violin. The theme from the first movement is heard in a new key. A new theme is heard, For a moment the music turns calmer. A development ensues that casts the themes in ever more tragic phrases. Then strangely the second theme precedes the first theme of the movement in a reverse recapitulation. The piano mournfully, but assertively, plays a passage of single notes that proceeds lower and lower on the keyboard. The violin carries a steady high note as the dirge ends.

The Finale, Très anime, begins with a furious passage for the piano. It is syncopated, euphoric, exhilarating in its energy and joy. The violin immediately joins in. The piano introduces another a buoyant and melodic passage; the strings join in on the energetic romp. A moment of calm follows; there are a few seconds for the “duet” to become romantic and moments for recalling the passages from the first movement. The pace picks up and it is off to the races once again! The three note motif reasserts itself, the piano again bubbles and dashes over the keyboard. The tension mounts. A huge crescendo (a gradual increase in loudness or force in music) and wonderful dance rhythms follow. Once again the violin and quartet bring back the thematic treasures from the previous movements. Now the sound is a mad mix of instrumental texture and past materials. It is always a music that is thoroughly rational in its cyclical design. The movement becomes a swirl of melody with new amazing staccato utterances from the piano. There is escalating fervor as the instruments gather for the finish. One final look back at the repeated opening notes of the work and a brilliant flourish bring the remarkable work to a stunning close.

- Fran Rosenthal

Further Reading

Ernest Chausson Biography