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Symphony in B-flat

Ernest Chausson wrote his Symphony in B-flat in 1889 and led the premiere in 1891. One of the great symphonies in the French tradition, it was a regular part of the BSO repertoire through Charles Munch’s tenure.

Amédée-Ernest Chausson was born in Paris on January 20, 1855, and died in Limay, France, in a bicycle accident on June 10, 1899. He began his only symphony in 1889 and completed it the following year, dedicating it to the painter Henry Lerolle. Chausson conducted the first per- formance, at a concert of the Société Nationale in Paris on April 18, 1891. The composer Vincent D’Indy led the American premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Philadelphia on December 4, 1905.

The score of the symphony calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 2 harps, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The symphony is about 30 minutes long.

Ernest Chausson is an interesting case. Brought up in wealth, and in a protected family environment, he had some difficulty in choosing a path for his career. Since he had no need of earning a living, he could choose among the various arts in which he had dis- played some talent, but he hesitated between literature (he wrote several short stories and sketched a novel), and drawing (in which he evidently had real talent), or music. He followed his family’s wishes enough to take a law degree, but once he had finished with that, he turned finally to music. At the age of 24 he joined the instrumental class at the Paris Conservatoire taught by Jules Massenet, who considered Chausson to have a real gift and entered him in the competition for the Prix de Rome. But when he did not win, Chausson gave up formal education. He attended instead the classes of César Franck and discovered a kindred spirit, one concerned to produce music of elevated, even spiritual, beauty of the highest perfection of which he was capable. He married happily, had five children, and devoted himself to music as a highly talented amateur who had no need to earn a living with his art.

Perhaps it was unfortunate that Chausson did not struggle in his musical life. He had the leisure to let his works percolate slowly, to rewrite then, endlessly. For many years the only compositions he allowed out of his study were delicate songs and other miniatures of the highest refinement, but even these he had labored over endlessly. He began work on an opera, King Arthur, a philosophical music drama on a libretto of his own writing, and spent nearly a decade finishing it. But in the meantime, he pulled himself together, so to speak, and turned out this symphony, one of his most important and satisfying works, which demonstrated his ability to shape a substantial musical architecture and actually to bring a large work to completion.

Chausson began the symphony in 1889 at the urging of his brother-in-law, the painter Henry Lerolle. When he felt ready to begin work, he left Paris for the relative tranquility of Ciboure, near Saint-Jean-de-Luz. The first movement was drafted in a relatively short space of time, but the middle movement developed slowly. He reported his lack of progress to Lerolle:

You rascal, it is you who got me started on this confounded symphony. If you had been here, I would have said much nonsense to you. But, since you are far away, I want you at least to have a share in it. I am dedicating it to you. So much the worse for you if it is not better.

In more letters to Lerolle, Chausson worked out his frustrations by describing how he had forced himself to write one passage he did not like in order to get through the middle movement. Now he knew he would have to revise it.

I shall simply have to cut it out, make a skillful bridge, if l can, and smooth out the ending. Still, I am sure that I shall get through with it. Just the same, you will have made me spend a terrible time. And it is not finished. Pray that I find some- thing good for the finale; otherwise I shall insult you by letters, by telegrams, any way I can.

Having completed two movements, Chausson knew that he could not simply abandon the piece. Each day, he reported in a letter to his friend Paul Poujaud, he would begin work, only to find himself stuck.

I had a lucky beginning and now I find myself afloat without being able to continue. unwilling to give up, a prey of frenzy. I play over incessantly what I have written, always hoping that a good inspiration will enable me to get by the fatal measure, and it is always the same thing, and I begin again and slop once more. Imagine. I just stopped a moment ago. It was the twentieth time today. It is like that every day. It will be like that tomorrow. I no longer dare to get up in the morning, thinking of the frightful day I am going to spend.

Sensibly he took a break and traveled to Roncevaux, the site of the battle memorialized in the medieval epic The Song of Roland. Upon his return, he immersed himself in studying W.A. Mozart’s Magic Flute. These two changes of focus evidently did the trick. He broke the creative block and managed to bring the work to a conclusion, though not without further complaints to his close friends about this or that detail.

The premiere was enthusiastically received by an audience heavily leaning toward the “Franckists,” the allies of César Franck, including many of Chausson’s fellow students, but most of the critics, solemn opponents of Franck and his influence, objected to passages they labelled “confused” or to “very disagreeable dissonances.” Not until Arthur Nikisch (who only a few years earlier had been the Boston Symphony’s conductor) performed the work in Paris in 1897 with the Berlin Philharmonic did the symphony achieve genuine popularity there.

The early critical reaction comes as a surprise now. To our ears, the work seems singularly straightforward in its harmonic color and melodic freshness. Indeed, for the first really large-scale work of a composer accustomed to writing songs lasting only two or three minutes, Chausson’s symphony is an astonishing achievement, finely shaped, paying homage to his master in the re-use and continuing development of thematic material between movements (“cyclical” form, as Vincent d’lndy was to call it), and sonorously scored for the orchestra. The broad introductory theme (“Lent,” i.e., “Slow”) reappears in the finale and introduces elements that reappear in other parts of the work.

This builds to a fine orchestral climax, dies away, and suddenly yields to a soft tremolo in the strings and a new, vigorous theme, Allegro vivo, sounded by bassoon and horn. The shaping and development of these and the ensuing materials, the variety of moods obtained from them, is both clear and imaginatively colorful, increasing in momentum until it closes with a Presto.

Following this exuberant, overflowing first movement, the second movement (Très lent) is quietly intense. The opening phrase (three rising notes) derives from the motto of the first movement. A slightly faster middle section features that most plangent of instruments, the English horn, in an extended passage against delicate string figurations. Later the violins take it up in a high register and build to a powerful climax before the varied return of the opening material.

Stormy rushing strings are the background to a dramatic figure in the woodwinds that anticipates the main theme of the finale (Animé; Très animé); the theme proper is eventually introduced in full by the cellos and basses. A grand chorale-like melody for the full orchestra minus low brasses becomes the second theme. A variant of the first movement’s main theme runs through much of the development, culminating in a grand return to the main theme. The coda is built largely on the slow introduction of the first movement intercut with the main theme of the last, which begins quietly but builds to one massive final climax before falling away into a prayer-like hush at the very close.

Steven Ledbetter

Steven Ledbetter, a freelance writer and lecturer on music, was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1998.

As mentioned above, the first American performance of Chausson’s Symphony in B-flat was given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Vincent d’Indy’s direction at the Academy of Music, Philadelphia, on December 4, 1905.