Hidden treasures – Ernest Chausson – La tempête (1888) & La légende de Sainte Cécile (1891)

Painting: “After the shipwreck” by Ivan Aivazovsky.

History: From an early age Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) showed great promise in literature, drawing and law before finally turning his attention to music. In 1879, after receiving a doctorate in law and being sworn in as a barrister, he became a pupil in instrumentation under the celebrated Massenet (who thought very highly of Chausson, naming him “a true artist”) at the Conservatoire, while also attending lectures given by Franck and visiting Germany to familiarize himself with the operas of Wagner (these three stylistic aesthetics would guide him throughout his life). However, after Chausson failed to achieve a winning place on the Prix de Rome, he decided to give up official tuition. His peaceful family life and financial security allowed the young composer to continue the pursuit of a musical career, to keep a famous musical salon at 22 Boulevard de Courcelles and to help young talent (in particular, Debussy) and continuing to compose regularly. Chausson’s musical output was relatively compact (just a bit below forty opuses) yet incredibly wide-ranging, encompassing melodies (“Nanny” and “La derniere feuille” (both 1880)), sacred music, symphonies and, finally, opera (“Le roi Arthus“). In the case of the present upload, we will approach two examples of his incidental music, almost the entire amount of which was written for the Theatre des Marionettes. Chausson become connected to the venue through his relationship with the writer Maurice Boucher, an old school chum, with whom he collaborated on several piece earlier. The project began promisingly with a rapturously received translation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” (1888), Aristophanes’ “The Birds” (1889) and several more or less original plays. In the case of “La legende de Sainte Cecile” (1892), however, Chausson was openly unenthusiastic, and the collaboration strained the friendship of writer and composer and was not successful financially.

P.S. Shakespeare’s synopsis of “The Tempest” can be accessed here:

Music: “La tempete” is not a score of grand ambitions or Wagnerian aspirations: indeed, the fifteen pieces that make up the work are episodic in nature, living up to their name of incidental sketches to Shakespeare’s play. Moreover, one should note that the late romantic language of Chausson’s music, showing influences of Wagner and Saint-Saens, is somewhat alien to the play’s classic character. But the composer’s success in bringing out the drama and the power of one of the Bard’s most emblematic plays cannot be overstated. The points of interest are numerous and practically encompass the whole set: the right-hand man of Prospero, Ariel (tenor), is graced both by a warm call for Ferdinand to follow him to “these yellow sands”, accompanied by an enchanting celesta (arguably this was the first public use of the then new instrument) r, and an ominous aria where he paints to a shocked Ferdinand an image of his drowned father’s “coral bones”, with its beautifully shifting tessitura and striking orchestral accompaniment of sustained string lines and pointed appearances of the harp; the goddess’ (soprano and mezzo-soprano) dramatic duet is properly celestial in conception with a culmination worthy of Wagner in its symphonic use of orchestra and heavy vocal lines; at the other end of the spectrum stands Stephano’s (bass) humorous a capella song, ideally swaggering and simplistic in melody. But while the vocal sections are striking, the various preludes and melodramas are even more attractive and distinctive, ranging from a tremulous agitato with a large amount of challenging wind work in Act IV and a mercurial duettino for flute and tambour in Act III. “Saint-Cecile” is an altogether more overtly dramatic work, an oratorio in miniature with its omnipotent chorus and ominous religious overtones. Though musically less attractive than its companion piece (the “angelic” choral movements are rather generic), the sacred work contains at least two magnificent pieces which have been included in the present upload: a magnificent adagio hymn to Saint Michael which is gradually elaborated over three melodramas (the second statement is the one presented) and a cantatique for the title-heroine of the utmost subtlety and a weeping melody worthy of Schubert. All in all, two works full of some gorgeous rarities.

Recording: The 2000 EMI recording presents enchanting readings of both sets, aided by a sensible conductor (Jean-Jacques Kantorow), a fresh orchestra (Ensemble Orchestral de Paris) and an idiomatic French cast.

Ariel – Laurence Dale,
Ceres – Raphaelle Farman,
Junon – Marie-Ange Todorovitch,
Stephano – Francois le Roux.
Sainte Cecile – Isabelle Vernet.


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