About this Piece
After the death of the stupendously talented Hector Berlioz in 1869, there remained only one Frenchman to challenge the somewhat frivolous national taste. A Belgian-born Parisian, Cesar Franck became the Pied Piper for serious-minded composers who sought to ennoble French music; of his followers Chausson was as ardent as any.
Chausson was a rare breed of musician—the independently wealthy kind. This circumstance allowed him to change his life’s course, so that, after studying law, he came late to music, and to Professor Franck at age 26. In this wholly dedicated, humble organist-teacher-composer, the younger man found a kindred artistic soul, and in Franck’s mystic, introspective, earnest music—a style with which he could honestly identify. If at first, the Franck idiom weighed heavily on Chausson’s slender shoulders, in time it became less cumbersome. But make no mistake—the Franckian apple fell not far from the tree. Such a work as the present one is, from the core to the juices, the meat, and the skin, a thoroughly Franckian fruit. That is to say, the harmonic texture is heavily chromatic, the lyrical expressiveness rhapsodic and expansive, and the dramatics naively bombastic. The piece is also most unusual, in that, as its title readily suggests, it is frankly showy in a way that chamber music rarely is.
Chausson treated the piece in something of a concerto grosso fashion, that is the violin and piano are the concertino (solo) instruments, and the string quartet the ripieno (orchestral) ones. Bravura, particularly for the thoroughly concerto-like piano part, is hardly ever held in check, although there are passages where the keyboard is accompanimental; but even then, its role is intricate and demanding. Even so, with all the brilliance of the writing, Chausson has managed remarkably to maintain a chamber-music framework in regard to textures and to the give-and-take between the solo duo and the quartet.
The first movement opens with a slow introduction that has the piano declaiming a three-note motif that is to become the basis for the main theme of the animated movement proper. The first statement of the main theme, made by the violin with piano in busy attendance and then vice-versa, is one of the countless duo passages throughout the work. The quartet finally makes its grand entrance on the main theme, with low piano octaves lending sonorous support and high trills adding brilliance, and it is this kind of ensemble procedure that continues in various permutations throughout the entire work. The materials, which include a lyric second theme and a third idea, are developed extensively and brilliantly but calmness brings the movement to a close. The brief Sicilienne that follows is the kind of music that we find in Debussy’s early piano pieces—piquant, charming and possessed of an hauteur that is uniquely French. However, even this fey material is treated to a moment of Chausson grandeur. In contrast, the third movement is deeply melancholy, beginning with a dirge-like violin–piano duo. This is aggressively morose music with only faint rays of sunshine piercing the darkness. The energetic Finale is, expectedly, elaborately virtuosic and brilliant, realizing the work’s title to the ultimate degree.
—Notes from the Philharmonic’s archive