Woman with a mission

The latest album by the soprano Susan Graham has a secret purpose - to restore the reputation of the neglected composer Ernest Chausson. Jessica Duchen explores a forgotten talent
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The Independent Culture

December 1875. A young man runs through the Paris streets. He runs, he says, "almost as if this could calm the agitation of my heart." His problem? A life apparently blessed by too much good fortune - money, education, culture, talent; a frustrated need for creative expression; and a terrifying premonition. "I have the presentiment that my life must be short. I would not want to die without having created something," he writes in his diary. His name is Ernest Chausson.

The premonition caught up with him in June 1899: cycling in the French countryside with his five children, he ran into a wall. His daughter found him dead in the road. He was 44, and had only begun to attain a measure of the artistic fulfilment he craved. This year marks the 150th anniversary of his birth, but it may go virtually unmarked, as his name is familiar through only a few superlative pieces of music.

The usual reasons for modern-day neglect inevitably apply to Chausson's lesser-known works: risk-shy promoters, and attitudes that put the composer in the shadow of better-known contemporaries such as Debussy and Fauré. On the other hand, Chausson probably contributed to his neglect by being his own worst enemy. What held him up most was his self-doubt. "You don't let yourself go enough," his friend Claude Debussy, seven years his junior, wrote to him. Perhaps Chausson was indeed too earnest for his own good.

Although Chausson's music is irresistibly beautiful, there isn't much of it. Violinists have taken his marvellous miniature concerto, the Poème, to their hearts - but it is regarded as his only work to achieve real immortality. His finest piece of chamber music, the "Concert" for violin, piano and string quartet, has a passionate following, but remains a rarity on the concert platform; the same is true of his songs. His other pieces are hardly played.

There are signs, however, of a revival: Chausson's sole opera, Le roi Arthus, his greatest work, is receiving a new recording by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein, for release in July. And the Poème de l'amour et de la mer, a half-hour monologue for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, recorded by the American singer Susan Graham on Warner Classics, is winning rave reviews. It's music of silken, indigo gorgeousness infused with a fin-de-siècle languor characteristic of Chausson's sensitive and doom-laden soundworld.

Graham suggests that Chausson's heady musical language could have contributed to his neglect in the context of his times, when the likes of Fauré and Debussy were composing with relative emotional restraint and textural transparency. "For the era he was writing in, he uses quite a heavy hand," she says. "The Poème de l'amour et de la mer is intensely romantic, with lush, rich orchestral writing. But that's one of the things I love about it. It's so evocative, yet so elusive. Chausson creates extraordinary rolling waves of music to depict the sea, and the final section, 'Le temps de lilas', is amazing, full of despair. It's heart-rending."

The son of a contractor who was involved in building Haussmann's great Paris boulevards, Chausson was coerced by his deeply respectable parents into studying law, despite his artistic aspirations. Eventually, having recognised composition as his true vocation, he joined the circle of young composers studying with César Franck, the Belgian-born maverick whose mysterious yet sensual language pervades Chausson's music.

Chausson possessed the perfectionism of a Ravel, the melodic lusciousness of a Fauré and an idealistic, deeply inquiring mind. But composition was a struggle, partly because, having come late to it, he feared he lacked technique; and partly because he feared, for the same reason, that others would view him as a dilettante. In effect, he spent too much energy questioning his abilities.

The most important person to take Chausson to task over this was Debussy. And it was Debussy, not Chausson, who would change the face of French music. Chausson never achieved the inner freedom that carried his friend to the heights. He could not escape the influence of what he termed the "red spectre" of Wagner; and often he was glad when his music merely found a favourable reception. The Poème de l'amour et de la mer alone took him eight years to complete.

The story of Chausson's friendship and later rift with Debussy is illuminating. With the inherited wealth that enabled him to be both artist and patron, Chausson took Debussy under his wing. He helped him financially and was duly dubbed his "elder brother".

Chausson had a beautiful house, a happy marriage and a merry brood of children; he read widely, collected fine art and was adored by his friends, who included the crème de la crème of French artistic life. His salon was a meeting place for such luminaries as the artists Degas, Renoir and Redon and the musicians Fauré, Ysaÿe and d'Indy.

Debussy, meanwhile, eked out a living, depending on loans from friends and living with an ambitious courtesan. Having little to lose, he cared little for the opinions of others. Debussy wanted Chausson to be free; Chausson wanted Debussy to be respectable.

What ensued was perhaps predictable. With the help of a society hostess, Chausson set about making his protégé more respectable by marrying him off. Debussy liked the quarry, a young singer named Thérèse Roger, and soon said they were engaged. But it turned out that he was still living with his courtesan. He made a fool of Chausson, and their friendship never recovered.

Their reputations over subsequent decades could not have made clearer that earnest respectability, generosity and high moral stance have nothing to do with artistry; and that genius - which Chausson's music certainly possesses - cannot be wholly fulfilled without confidence and daring. Chausson could probably have achieved far more, if only he had dared to. For the handful of masterpieces he left, however, we can be grateful.

Susan Graham's 'Poèmes de l'Amour' is out on Warner Classics