Ernest Chausson

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String Quartet in c minor, Op.35

Chausson began work on his String Quartet in c minor in 1897. At the time of his death in 1899, it still was not finished although he had completed the first two movements and most of the finale, the third movement. His close friend, the eminent composer and scholar Vincent d’Indy was so impressed by the work that he felt compelled to complete it, which he did based on the sketches by Chausson. The opening movement, Grave-modéré begins in very somber fashion with the cello taking the lead. Here he quotes the opening to Debussy’s string quartet but modulating it into c minor. Critics have wondered whether this was an attempt by Chausson to one up his former friend by showing him what could be done with such a promising theme. The overall mood of the rest of the movement is stormy and dramatic without any respite except for the end which concludes with introductory subject heard in the Grave. The second movement, Très calme, is a lovely lyrical idyll in which some have heard the Tarnhelm theme from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. The finale, Gaiement, pas trop vite, begins with a kind of march. The music is lively and while not all that jolly, it is certainly less grim than the opening movement. It conjures up the aura of a saga or traveling music.


Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) was born in Paris into a wealthy family. Although he received some musical training as a boy, a career in music was never envisaged by either his father or himself. He studied law and became a barrister but realized he had no interest in the law. After dabbling in writing and painting, he decided to study music and entered the Paris Conservatory in 1879 where he studied first with Jules Massenet and later Cesar Franck. His friend Vincent d’Indy introduced him to the music of Wagner. Scholars generally divide his work into three periods, early, middle and late. His very early works tend to show the influence of Massenet. In those which come later there is also the influence of Franck and Wagner.


Here this impressive work, one can understand why d'Indy felt completed it. He knew that it deserved performance and felt that it was perhaps the finest quartet by a Frenchman from this period. It is a shame that one does not hear it in concert for it is every bit as good as the Debussy, the Ravel or d'Indy's own quartets.


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