About this Recording
8.553009 - CHABRIER: Piano Works, Vol. 1

Emmanuel Chabrier (1841 - 1894)

Bourrée fantasque
Feuillet d'album
Petite valse
Dix Pièces pittoresques
Danse villageoise
Menuet pompeux

Emmanuel Chabrier was born in 1841 in the Auvergne region of France in the small town of Ambert, the son of a lawyer and his wife, a woman of some refinement. His first music lessons in Ambert were from Spanish musicians, Carlists who had settled there after the defeat of their cause in 1839. At the age often he moved with his family to Clermont-Ferrand, where he attended the Lycèe Blaise Pascal, and five years later the family moved again, this time to Paris, where the boy was able to complete his formal education, in preparation for a career as a civil servant. From 1861 until his resignation in 1880 he worked as an official of the Ministry of the Interior, following the intentions of his father for him, but in Clermont-Ferrand and in Paris he had been able to continue his musical studies, violin, piano and composition. His lack of formal Conservatoire training and of the obligatory Prix de Rome, while presenting little obstacle to his work as a composer, did some harm to the general perception of his abilities by the musical establishment, to which he seemed always something of an amateur.

After early piano compositions and songs Chabrier's friendship with Verlaine led to the composition of two operettas, Fisch-Ton-Kan, with its punning title, and Vaucochard et fils ler, neither of which, it seems, were completed. Verlaine recorded their relationship in a poem, where he recalls Chabrier's regular visits to his mother's house, where Votre genie improvisait au piano (Your genius used to improvise at the piano). His friends in Paris included painters, writers and musicians, and he was a discriminating collector of paintings, leaving, at his death in 1894, a substantial collection of works by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Cézanne and others. His writer friends included Daudet, Mallarmé, Zola and Villiers de l’lsle-Adam, while contemporary musicians in his circle included Chausson, Fauré, Vincent d'lndy and Duparc, Saint-Saëns, Massenet and Messager. His parents died in 1869 and in 1873 he married, his first two orchestral compositions following in the years immediately after marriage. His larger musical ambitions had centred, from 1867, on an opera, Jean Hunyade, but this was abandoned. Theatrical success came with the operetta L'etoile in 1877, followed two years later by Une éducation manquée. It was at this point in his civil service career that Chabrier, after eighteen years at the Ministry of the Interior, chose to resign and to commit himself solely to music. Shortly before this he had visited Munich with his friends Vincent d'lndy and Henri Duparc and had heard for the first time Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, an experience that moved him very deeply.

Chabrier's compositions of the following years include the splendid set of piano pieces, the Dix pièces pittoresques of 1881 and two years later his evocation of the very spirit of Spain in España, the result of early education and an extended visit to Spain in the summer and early winter of 1882. More Wagnerian ambitions centred on a planned opera Gwendoline, with a libretto by the leading Parnassian Catulle Mendès, and a later work with a text by the same writer and the young poet Ephraïm Mikhaël, Briséïs, which was never finished. Gwendoline was at first rejected by the Paris Opera, but was staged at the Brussels Théâtre de la Monnaie in 1886, in a number of German opera- houses and in Lyon, before it finally made its way to Paris in 1893, too late for Chabrier to take any particular pleasure in its performance. He enjoyed success in Paris and in Germany with the light opera Le roi malgré lui in 1887, but his last years were clouded by illness and passed largely away from the capital at his country house at La Membrolle-sur-Choisille, his hopes centred on Briséïs. He died in Paris on 13th September 1894.

The influence of Wagner on French composers of Chabrier's generation expressed itself in various ways. It lured Chabrier himself into grandiose operatic projects but had a subtler effect on certain harmonic tendencies. The historical importance of Chabrier in French music, however, lies in his expansion of harmonic resources and extension of melodic material, as well as in his subtle use of complex rhythms. His influence on younger French composers was very considerable, on Debussy and Ravel, and later, perceptibly, on the music of Les Six.

Chabrier's La bourrée fantasque was written in 1891 and dedicated to the pianist Edouard Risler. Alfred Cortot was later to draw attention to the innovative nature of the piece in its translation of orchestral effects to the keyboard, suggesting the composer's own wild and energetic style of performance, that might leave instruments damaged with a broken string or two. The Bourrée opens with a vigorous Spanish theme, followed by a more lyrical melody, the two themes later combined. Among Chabrier's papers an orchestration of part of the work was found, but it has become widely known in an orchestral version by Chabrier's friend, the German conductor Felix Mottl, and there is also an orchestral version by Charles Koechlin.

The pieces Feuillet d'album (Album Leaf), Ballabile and Caprice were also written in 1891 and posthumously published with two other pieces in 1897. These represent a different side of Chabrier's talent, suggesting rather the salon pieces of the time, varying in mood, and each a perfectly crafted example of his work. The Petite valse and Habanera are earlier in date, the second a return again to the fascination of Spain and later orchestrated by the composer.

Chabrier's Dix pieces pittoresquesof 1881 subtly conceal the art that went into their creation, making of them much more than conventional salon pieces. The opening Paysage (Landscape) has echoes of Spain. It is followed by the gentle Mélancolie and the rapid, vigorous and impetuous Tourbillon. Sous-bois moves into a woodland scene of Manet, while Mauresque adds a touch of contemporary orientalism. Idylle has a beauty all its own, regarded by some as the very heart of the set. It is followed by a hearty Danse villageoise and a romantic Improvisation. The pieces end with a Menuet pompeux, later orchestrated by Ravel, and a Scherzo-valse, a whirling tarantelle of a work. The ten pieces, innovative as they are in many ways, are not, in spite of their general title, pictorial, but pure music, with individual titles that do little more than suggest a mood or genre.

Georges Rabol
Georges Rabol was born in Paris, the son of a father from Martinique. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique, winning awards in piano, harmony and counterpoint, and embarked on a career as a recitalist and chamber-music player, working with musicians of considerable distinction, including Misha Maisky and Gérard Caussé. As a composer he has written music for ballet and for the cinema, for Roland Petit and for Luis Bunuel, and his musical inclinations have developed from the romantic to the discovery of the abundance of material emanating from the Americas, much of it near to popular taste. He is also an enthusiastic champion of French music.

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