Historical Seasons > Past Symposiums

Symposium 104 - French Romantics

Sunday, 16 December 2012 @ 5:00pm
Monday, 17 December 2012 @ 7:00pm

"Forgotten French Romantics"
Music from the Paris salons of the 1890s


  • Sonata in G Major for Violin and Piano

    Très modéré – Vif et passioné
    Très lent
    Très anime


    Guillaume Lekeu

  • Piano Quartet in A Major, op. 30  

    Très calme
    Simple et sans hâte


    Ernest Chausson

Program Notes

    “Forgotten French Romantics”
    Music from the Paris Salons of the 1890s
    Program Notes by James Roe
         “Nothing that would not have for its goal emotion, poetry, and heart.”
                — Eugène Ysaÿe

    Tonight’s program opens a door to the rich musical world that thrived in Paris at the end of the 19th Century. This was the height of the Belle Époque, a time of optimism, peace, and artistic invention. During this period, the vibrant Paris salon culture brought together members of the creative class with patrons interested in the newest art, music, literature, and philosophy. Salons were also scenes of social ambition, intrigue, and romance, as vividly portrayed in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temp perdu.

    Composer Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) hosted an influential salon in his grand home at 22 Boulevard de Courcelles. France’s cultural lions attended, including Colette, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Odilon Redon, Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas, Édouard Vuillard, Auguste Rodin, Stéphane Mallarmé, Henri de Régnier, André Gide, Claude Debussy, Henri Duparc, Erik Satie, Emmanuel Chabrier, Vincent d’Indy, and Gabriel Fauré.

    The great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe often performed at Chausson’s salon. His playing had caused a sensation in Paris and the most important composers of the day were eager to write for him. César Franck presented his magnificent Violin Sonata in A Major to Ysaÿe as a wedding gift, delivering the score on the very morning of the marriage. A quick rehearsal was arranged and Ysaÿe premiered the sonata at the ceremony. Other notable composers who wrote for Ysaÿe included Debussy, Chausson, Maurice Ravel, Camille Saint-Saëns, and a young Belgian composer who was just beginning to make his mark on the Parisian music scene, Guillaume Lekeu.

    Guillaume Lekeu
    (b Heusy, near Verviers, 20 Jan 1870; d Angers, 21 Jan 1894)

         Sonata in G Major for Violin and Piano (1892)
         (duration c 32 minutes)

    Guillaume Lekeu’s family moved to Paris in 1888, and although he had been composing prolifically since the age of 15, they enrolled him in a course of philosophy. In 1889, he visited Bayreuth and, like so many musicians of his generation, fell under the thrall of Richard Wagner’s music. He attended Die Meistersinger, Parsifal (twice!), and Tristan und Isolde. Upon hearing the Prelude to Tristan, he was so overcome that he fainted and had to be carried out of the hall for resuscitation.

    Clearly, Lekeu was a sensitive young man, but what did he hear in Wagner’s music that so overwhelmed him? The question brings to mind the writings of the late Charles Rosen. In his 2010 book, Music and Sentiment, Rosen explores the nature of music as a language. He quips that whereas music is an entirely impractical language for setting up a lunch date, it is an extremely precise language for describing (and eliciting) emotions. British writer David Mitchell states the case concisely in his novel Black Swan Green, “If the right words existed, then music wouldn’t need to.” Richard Wagner exponentially expanded music’s vocabulary of emotional expression, opening new emotive realms for listeners, musicians, and composers.

    After his baptism in Wagner’s music, Lekeu dedicated his life to composition. Upon returning to Paris, he became a student of César Franck and met Chausson and other members of their circle. He eventually came to the attention of his fellow countryman, Ysaÿe, who was so deeply impressed by the 22-year old composer’s work that he commissioned a violin sonata and a piano quartet.

    This was a major opportunity for Lekeu and he was determined to deliver masterpieces. “Even if it causes me infinite pain,” he said, “I will put my very soul into my music.” He finished the violin sonata first and its perfervid musical language speaks of Lekeu’s ambition to make a grand statement with this piece. On 6 October 1892, Ysaÿe arranged a private performance of the work with the composer at the piano. “You cannot imagine what my violin sonata became with Ysaÿe playing,” Lekeu wrote to friends. “I am still terror-stricken in my delight. I will certainly never be able to manage to repay Ysaÿe for all of the affection he lavishes upon me.” Ysaÿe gave the work its official premiere on 7 March 1893 to great acclaim. Bolstered by this success, Lekeu began concentrating in earnest on his piano quartet.

    While dining at a restaurant a few months later, Lekeu and some friends were served sorbet prepared with contaminated water and all fell ill. Though his friends recovered, Lekeu’s illness worsened and he eventually succumbed to typhoid fever. Lekeu died on 21 January 1894, one day after his 24th birthday. His unfinished piano quartet was completed by his friend and teacher, Vincent d’Indy.

    Renowned Belgian musicologist José Quitin believed that considering Lekeu’s “modern conception of harmony and vehement musical language,” he could have developed into an equal of Debussy. During his short life, Lekeu composed over 50 works. It is for the violin sonata that he is remembered today.

    Ernest Chausson
    (b Paris, 20 Jan 1855; d Limay, near Mantes, Yvelines, 10 June 1899)

         Piano Quartet in A Major, op. 30 (1898)
         (duration c 36 minutes)

    Music historian Christopher Cook points out that “for Chausson, the streets of Paris were paved with gold.” This was literally the case, the composer’s father made a fortune in the 1860s paving the boulevards of Paris as a contractor for Baron Haussmann. Chausson had a privileged childhood. He was educated at home by private tutors, frequented galleries and museums, and was introduced to the Parisian salon culture at the age of 16. In this nurturing atmosphere, Chausson’s creativity blossomed in several fields at once. He composed music and played piano duets with the young Vincent d’Indy, but also was a talented visual artist and even wrote a novel, Jacques, which he later destroyed.

    Chausson finally settled on music at the relatively late age of 21, much to the disappointment of his father who wished him to become a lawyer. He entered the composition classes of both Jules Massenet and César Franck, but the mystical aspect of Franck’s approach better suited Chausson’s temperament. Between 1879-1882, Chausson made frequent excursions to Germany to attend performances of Wagner operas. It would require some years for Chausson to work through the powerful dual influences of Wagner and Franck. Through the help of his friend Claude Debussy, Chausson finally developed his personal voice. The Piano Quartet in A Major, op. 30, written in 1898, was among his first works in the new style. Music historian, Jean Gallois describes the quartet as “a luminous, confident, almost gay work” that shows Chausson “having fully mastered his technique and moving towards greater clarity.”

    As with Lekeu, tragedy struck Chausson just as he found his artistic footing. At the age of 44, one year after completing his Piano Quartet, Chausson was riding his bicycle down a country road outside Paris. Losing control, he hit a brick wall and was instantly killed.

    A handful of pieces from Chausson’s large body of work have become favorites with audiences and performers, but the true breadth of his artistic legacy can be understood through the creativity he fostered in his circle of friends and colleagues.

    New Yorkers have a special link to Ernest Chausson. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a splendid painting by his brother-in-law, Henry Lerolle (1848-1929) titled “The Organ Rehearsal.” Considered Lerolle’s masterpiece, this monumental work measures 93 ¼ by 142 ¾ inches and portrays a musical rehearsal in the choir loft of Saint-François-Xavier Church in Paris. Ernest Chausson is depicted playing the organ with the artist’s wife and sisters-in-law singing. It is currently on display in Gallery 827.