Rachel Kolly d'Alba

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“Fin de siècle” -Two major chamber works, 1886–1891

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The setting: France at the close of the nineteenth century. Amongst artists and writers the fin de siècle was perceptible—a sense of the old order coming to an end and new, radical departures; an impression of degeneration, and at the same time hope for better things to come. The fin de siècle “spirit” was prominent in France in the 1880s and 1890s, and it spread virally to many European countries. In the last decades of the century, over two hundred essays were written in English alone concerning the general pessimism of the time.

The Germans used the term “Weltschmerz”—the “spirit of the age” or “spirit of the time” — with reference to the prevailing mood known in France as le mal du siècle. It implied ennui, disillusionment, discouragement, sadness, melancholy, mutability, beauty and decay, torment and reassurance… The two masterpieces presented on this recording reflect that spirit.

While the Romantics encouraged physical traits to be viewed as indicative of the inner self, the fin de siècle artists saw value even in the unconventionally beautiful. The famous painting The Scream by Edvard Munch (1893) is typical of that period, as is At the Moulin Rouge by Toulouse-Lautrec (1892/95). That belief in beauty in the abstract led to the obsession with symbolism, through which artists could evoke sentiments and ideas in their audience without having to rely on an infallible general understanding of the world or of different trends. Chausson and Franck in their use of a cyclical form (in which thematic material is carried over from one movement to the others) transferred that to music: themes are used as symbols, phrases shift, emotions fluctuate, while the thematic material often remains the same from one movement to another without the listener at first being aware of the fact, the aim being to give the work greater unity in its form and dramatic content and confer a semantic value on the themes. The emotional state of the initial interval of a third, which is used throughout Franck’s A-major Sonata, changes constantly, as composer and organist Charles Tournemire observed.

Du côté de chez Franck
César Franck’s Sonata for violin and piano is striking, first of all, in the richness of its expression. Written in just three weeks in the summer of 1886, it is one of the most frequently recorded of all chamber works and one of the most representative of the violin-piano combination. Although Franck produced only three chamber compositions (this work and his Quintet and Quartet), they inspired his contemporaries, earned him the respect of his elders and changed the musical landscape in France.

In Du côté de chez Swann (volume 1 of the famous À la recherche du temps perdu) we read: “How charming the dialogue which Swann now heard between piano and violin at the beginning of the last passage! … At first the piano complained alone, like a bird deserted by its mate; the violin heard and answered it, as from a neighbouring tree. […] It was as at the very beginning of the world, as if as yet there were none but these two upon the earth, or rather in this world closed against all the rest, so fashioned by the logic of its creator that in it there should never be any but themselves; the world of this sonata.” Marcel Proust tells us more in these lines than any musicologist could do about the essence of this sonata, and especially its last movement.

Hitherto in French chamber music only the violin sonatas of Lalo (1855), Saint-Saëns (1872) and the first sonata of Fauré (1876) had made their mark. It was the latter that inspired Franck to compose his own such work—and what perfection from the start, the “crowning achievement of the genre” (Robert Jardillier, 1929)! Typical of the fin-de-siècle spirit, Franck’s sonata became a milestone in the history of chamber music, hugely successful through the support of the great violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, who kept the masterpiece, dedicated to him as a wedding present by the composer, in his repertoire for the next forty years, promoting and popularising it on his highly acclaimed tours. It gave the violin new lyricism; even the most sceptical lovers of Classicism were struck by its originality and force of emotion. Often performed in concert, taken into the core repertoire of major violinists, it became a model.

Analysis shows that the work follows Beethoven's Opus 101 Piano Sonata quite closely: same keys, same metre, same four-movement structure. A “rather lively” movement in A major and in triple time, short, with no repeats, precedes a highly developed, bi-thematic and symmetrical allegro (D minor/ F major), followed by a slow third movement (no key signature) marked “Quasi recitativo” (referring to the voice), then finally a fast movement (A major) in canonic imitation.

Franck originally marked the opening movement Allegro moderato, but Ysaÿe, feeling that a slightly slower tempo would be better, convinced him to change it to Allegretto ben moderato Franck’s humble reply, to a friend taken aback by the violinist’s tempo, was: “His rendering is so beautiful that I leave him free to do as he wishes; furthermore, I think he is right.” Ysaÿe played the work through on his wedding day (26 September 1886). In a letter to Franck, Ysaÿe described the first movement as “one long caress, like a delightful awakening on a summer’s morning”. There is still controversy over the tempo that should be adopted for this movement.

In the Allegro the piano part is expanded and the violin (an idealised substitute for the human voice) unfolds a broad, tense melody. Franck, a pianist himself, wrote the piano part straightaway in ink in one session; however, the violin part proved more difficult: it took him time to find the right voice, register and melodic pattern. But that is undetectable in the end result, with its very rich piano part and a violin that is transcendent, inspired.

The original third movement, again clearly influenced by the voice, hence the title Recitativo-Fantasia, posed the composer no particular problems. Note the ending, like a cry, which resolves the theme previously stated in various forms in the second movement (Franck’s famous cyclical process).

The whole structure of the sonata boils down to a simple interval of a third and three main themes. But what does that tell us about the essence of the work? Not as much in fact as Swann’s “little phrase” — the first phrase of the final Allegretto poco mosso, heard in canonic imitation between the instruments — which helps Swann in À la recherche du temps perdu to recover the fusional intensity of his love for Odette. For Proust, as for Franck, the music speaks for itself. This “little phrase” has the power to define the time of happiness, the time of suffering. And the same could be said of the whole work. Again, we notice the reappearance of the “cry” heard in the two previous movements, which reaches its climax before the repeat of the canon.

Finally, let me just quote the words of the composer Louis Vierne, relating his impression at the age of eleven when he attended mass for the first time at the church of Ste Clotilde in Paris and heard César Franck play: "Faint premonitions of the true meaning of music arose in me. I could not express it in precise terms, but when my uncle asked me what I had felt and what it had done to me, I replied, ’It is beautiful because it is beautiful; I do not know why, but it is so beautiful that I would like to play such music and die immediately afterwards’.”

À la recherche de Chausson
Love, torment, fever, ecstasy… Ernest Chausson, be it in his Concert or his famous Poème for violin and orchestra, and also in his devotion to absolute standards, represents a link between Wagner’s music, which he loved, and the French spirit. He was influenced by Massenet and Franck, and also by the Impressionist painters with whom he often rubbed shoulders. With César Franck he shares the cyclical form and the fact that his music “goes straight to the depths of the soul, seeking out the sorrow that is eating away at us”, to borrow Stendhal’s definition of “la bonne musique”.

Chausson’s body of compositions is small, covering the years 1878 to his death in 1899. He turned to music only after qualifying as a barrister to please his parents, and he died prematurely in a freak bicycle accident at the age of forty-four. He began to compose on discovering the music of Wagner, Schumann and Beethoven, and in that, he is unique among French composers of his time. Rather than the simple transparency that is (sometimes wrongly) associated with certain French composers, he seems to inspire a deeper, more complex interpretation.

Coming from a comfortably well-off family, he was freed from the constraint of having to live by his music and was thus able to focus on his quest for an ideal. His works, as a result, are masterpieces. Bold in his orchestration; inspired by the Russian Symbolists or by the poets and painters who attended his salon; enjoying an extraordinarily stimulating artistic and intellectual terrain; working slowly (nine years for his opera Le Roi Arthus), he produced works that are accomplished, structurally unique, strong in their ideas and unparalleled in their emotional impact.

His Concert immediately received unanimous praise and was considered the most perfect chamber work of the French fin de siècle, imposing a new standard for composers that was admired but, paradoxically, not imitated. The composer closely combines a Franckist world with cyclical thematic recurrence, light rhythms à la Fauré and Wagnerian strained harmonies with colours and audacities that are his alone.

Unlike the Franck Sonata, Chausson’s Concert was long in its gestation: it took him two years to complete. But as Jean Gallois points out in his biography of the composer, the sketches prove beyond doubt that all the themes were written within the month of May 1889, hence the work’s perfect cohesion. The crossings out, alterations and erasures are merely a sign of the composer’s endless quest for perfection, a work without superfluity, free and dense in its discourse. Knowing exactly where he was taking the listener, he succeeded in putting across a message which is all the more forceful for that reason.

The title chosen by the composer was “Concert” (not “Sextuor”—and certainly not “Concerto”, as it is sometimes misnamed). Possibly referring to Couperin’s Concerts royaux, which he knew well, Chausson intended it to be a “musical conversation” for the unusual combination of solo violin, string quartet and piano. The work is also related structurally to César Franck’s Piano Quintet, composed ten years previously. The use of three violins makes for strongly moving lyricism in the climaxes of each movement.

Eugène Ysaÿe was the obvious choice of dedicatee for the work. Chausson found the rehearsals with him a delight, as we learn from his correspondence, in which he refers to that as the most satisfying period in his life; he was deeply moved by the joy and energy that the violinist and his friends brought to his home. The work, premiered in Brussels in 1892, was a huge success from the start. “Without you, it is unlikely that I would ever have written it,” he told Ysaÿe.

The first movement, Décidé, is full of passion and torment. The severe three-note generative cell that is heard at the beginning reappears cyclically, by turns anxious or agitated, linking the movements; it also forms the basis of the first theme. The second theme is heard in full only after having been hinted at twice, a process that was dear to César Franck.

The Sicilienne (A minor) provides a bright, poetic moment between two sombre movements: “After this bitter confession the admirable Sicilienne—one of the loveliest French pieces ever written—appears rather like a pure rainbow in a stormy sky; the colours are unreal, curving elegantly in their crystalline iridescence and dispelling the most vivid anxieties.” (Jean Gallois, Ernest Chausson)

The slow movement, Grave, is the masterpiece of the score. It was the first movement completed, in May 1889 (the Sicilienne followed in October/November 1890, then the first movement in June 1891 and the last one in July 1891). Grief-stricken, sombre, tragic, it has the obsessional nature of a lamentation, with its long, stark chromatic line (piano) beneath agonisingly painful strains from the violin. The second, choleric theme offers no hope. In its pervasive, morbid pessimism, this movement is one of Chausson’s darkest creations.

After that bleakness, the Finale shines forth with limpidity and eloquence. The second theme takes us back to the bright key of D major. Elements from earlier movements return cyclically—most prominently the now bolder and livelier second theme of the Grave. The movement ends in an apotheosis typical of Chausson.

Finally, just a few words about the short Interlude, recorded here for the first time and presented in the hope that it will encourage listeners to get to know the whole of the work from which it is taken: the powerful and rarely heard Poème de l’Amour et de la Mer, a half-hour orchestral piece in two parts that took Chausson ten years to complete. It was first performed in a version for piano and voice, with an orchestral interlude including a solo violin part.

Ernest Chausson died prematurely, just as his career was taking off, leaving us to imagine what his future output might have been. To all who knew him—family, friends, fellow artists (musicians, painters, poets)—he was a man of noble mind, exquisite sensitivity and fine intelligence. His melancholy œuvre contains works of great refinement, without the slightest trace of vulgarity. The Concert is a fine expression of that man, with his hopes and doubts, his passing disillusions, his aspirations to an ideal.
In 1888 the critic Pierre Lalo exclaimed: “This is one of the most important and most interesting chamber works written in recent years!” An opinion we may endorse today, while changing the last four words to “ever written”.

To record these two masterpieces was my childhood dream and they influenced my decision to become a violinist. To share my love of them was the motivation behind this album. My partners in this adventure are the Swiss pianist Christian Chamorel—I have been playing with this accomplished musician, exploring the repertoire for our two instruments, since I was twelve; musically speaking, he knows me better than anyone else—and Chicago’s Spektral Quartet, whom I have had the pleasure of hearing in a wide diversity of works; with their keen interest in twentieth-century music, their class and their professionalism, they seemed to me ideal for this project. I would like to express my thanks to all of these musicians for their participation.

Rachel Kolly d’Alba