BBC Music Magazine
Composer of the Month
The French composer might be best known for his vivid musical portrait of Spain but, says Roger Nichols, Wagner was his true inspiration
Roger Nichols enjoys the Spain- and Wagner-inspired world of French composer Emmanuel Chabrier
Imagine you are the Princesse de Polignac in late 19th-century Paris, intent on an excellent dinner provided by your hosts. Your neighbour, a rotund gentleman of middle age, kindly passes you the asparagus – but accompanies it by saying, ‘Have some of this, Madame, but it does terrible things to your urine.’ Do you exclaim in horror? Go purple in the face? Retire to a fit of the vapours on the chaise longue? The princess seems to have accepted the advice, before duly inscribing it in the fund of upper-class gossip. It testifies at least that whatever was lacking in Emmanuel Chabrier – the gent in question – he had charm in abundance.
As does his music. In the words of Francis Poulenc, one of his most devoted admirers, ‘Chabrier, I love him like a father! A generous father, always cheerful, with his pockets full of succulent goodies. His music consoles me through my darkest days.’ And Chabrier did have need of this charm, because life would not be entirely kind to him. For a start, he was born in
1841 at Ambert in the Auvergne. As he said, ‘In my part of the world there are either oafs, good at best for carrying buckets of water, or people with brains… I made my choice.’ When he was 12 the family moved to Clermont-ferrand, and three years later to Paris, Papa clearly appreciating the talents, both musical and scholastic, of his only child, who then followed his lawyer father’s footsteps. In 1863 – huzzahs all round – he became a clerk in the Home Office, where he would remain until 1880.
Here for the first time we come across the dichotomy in Chabrier’s life between what the poet Apollinaire would later identify as ‘order’ and ‘adventure’. The civil service represented order in a fairly extreme form, to which Chabrier’s contributions were highly valued (his elegant, curly-wurly handwriting is still a pleasure to read). At the same time he was following up the polite little songs and piano pieces of his youth with more extravagant items such as Bouffonnerie (Joke) for piccolo, trombone, triangle, side drum, bass drum and cymbals, eight bars beginning the folk song ‘J’ai du bon tabac’ on the trombone; perhaps this was
‘A generous father, always cheerful, with his pockets full of succulent goodies’
one of the pieces played to great acclaim at a meeting in 1860 of a group called the Incompris (The Misunderstood), of which he was a founder member.
Also ‘adventurous’ were two comic operas to words by the up-andcoming poet Paul Verlaine, though no performances at the time are known. But the first work of his to make any kind of splash was another comic opera L’étoile, performed to delighted audiences in 1877 and still very much alive today. In fact, the 15-year-old Debussy was thrown out of the theatre for laughing immoderately at the spoof Italian aria in praise of green Chartreuse. But after 48 performances the director closed the run. Was one of the singers ill ? Or was it that, after 50 performances, Chabrier and his librettists were contracted to earn a lot more, and the director a lot less?
The 1880s began unhappily, with serious liver problems necessitating a visit to a spa, but more happily with one to Munich to see Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Two friends, Vincent d’indy and Henri Duparc, later recalled the encounter. In the silence before the start of the opera there were sounds of sobbing. It was Chabrier. ‘Are you all right ?’ asked his neighbour. ‘Ten years of my life,’ replied Chabrier, ‘I’ve been waiting to hear that A on the cellos!’ Duparc remembered that ‘he left us after the performance to go and shut himself up alone in his bedroom. At that time he wasn’t thinking of devoting himself to music. Tristan revealed to him his vocation; on his return from Munich his decision was made.’ Health problems also entered into this, and luckily there was family money to help out.
Wagner was to loom large through the last decade-and a half of Chabrier’s life, adding him to the list of French composers, most notably Debussy and Chausson, who struggled against the anxiety of the German master’s influence. This could be interpreted as ‘adventure’ on the structural and harmonic fronts, but at the same time as ‘order’ in that it was billed as ‘the music of the future’ which only obstinate outliers could deny. Chabrier in any case did find a new source of ‘adventure’ in 1882 by taking his wife and two young sons to Spain. Letters to his publishers, complete with music examples, tell of the impact: ‘The gypsies singing their malagueñas or dancing the tango, and the manzanilla that goes from hand to hand and which everybody has to drink – those eyes, those flowers in the marvellous tresses, those scarves tied found the midriffs, those feet beating out a constantly changing rhythm...’ etc. Altogether a long way from the world of Isolde.
The result, of course, was España. Although Spaniards, including Albéniz and Falla, never liked it, for many of us it has always been the ultimate Spanish work. Duparc wrote that, before his Spanish visit, Chabrier had orchestrated like anyone else, but in España, he had made an astonishing stride towards a unique sound. Subsequently,
Duparc noted, all of his fellow composer’s orchestral music was conceived directly for its medium, not as piano music that was then orchestrated. But his battles with Wagner were no more than postponed. From 1879-85 he struggled with his opera Gwendoline, a blood-and-thunder work set in eighthcentury Britain, and his letters of the time lament at length about what Debussy called ‘the ghost of old Klingsor’. But the work contains a lot that’s un-wagnerian, including passages built on plainsong modes. The love duet, although it starts with a few Wagnerian chords, soon melts into suave Gallicisms, with liberal helpings of Chabrier’s idiosyncratic harmonic practice. Once again, bad luck dogged a Chabrier opera: after two performances in Brussels the director went bankrupt.
Chabrier’s harmonic invention is even more evident in the opening to his next opera, Le Roi malgré lui, of which Ravel often said to Poulenc that ‘it changed the orientation of French harmony’, with the overture’s strings of unresolved ninth chords. This time, after three performances at the Opéracomique, the theatre caught fire, causing many fatalities. But Chabrier was now winning friends in Germany and here his operas had better luck
Wagner was to loom large through the last decade-and-ahalf of Chabrier’s life
– not always reciprocated by the composer as when, on a visit to Wagner’s widow, he was presented with a sugary cake. ‘Ugh!’ said he under his breath, ‘revolting’, and in an unseen moment slipped it into a drawer with all the Master’s shirts.
Then there is the piano music… and the songs. Underperformed masterpieces still lie in wait for the discerning musician, such as the piano piece Idylle which for Poulenc was the ‘first kiss of love’ that turned him into a composer; or Sous bois which for Ravel was one of his greatest pieces. Among the songs, L’ile heureuse conjures up that dreamworld that Debussy was to explore later, while the four Farmyard Songs undoubtedly fed into Ravel’s Histoires naturelles. Meanwhile piano duettists have the hilarious Souvenirs de Munich: Quadrille on favourite themes from Tristan and Isolde, and ambitious choirs can try À la musique. Debussy, attending a rehearsal some time after Chabrier’s death, asked for it to be repeated. ‘Something wrong ?’ asked the conductor. ‘No,’ said Debussy; ‘ it’s so rarely done, I just wanted to hear it one more time.’
And then there are his letters. Sadly, no English edition exists (though there are currently thoughts on this front). But they are simply astonishing in their colour and wit. To end with, then, a note from Chabrier, in general a very strict father, to his teenage son Marcel:
‘I know the English lady you met on the top deck of the tram. She’s the
Queen of England. She often travels incognita like that and, as she comes of a noble family, she has very delicate feet, which won’t have escaped an observer of your quality. But the Queen of England isn’t the only person who rides on the top deck of trams, and I would ask you, please, not to strike up conversations with people you don’t know.’
Underperformed masterpieces still lie in wait for the discerning musician