Poème, Op. 25, is a work for violin and orchestra written by Ernest Chausson in 1896. It is a staple of the violinist’s repertoire, has very often been recorded and performed, and is generally considered Chausson’s best-known and most-loved composition.
Poème was written in response to a request from Eugène Ysaÿe for a violin concerto. Chausson felt unequal to the task of a concerto, writing to Ysaÿe: I hardly know where to begin with a concerto, which is a huge undertaking, the devil’s own task. But I can cope with a shorter work. It will be in very free form with several passages in which the violin plays alone.
He wrote three different versions of Poème: with orchestra; with piano accompaniment (later rewritten by other hands); and a recently discovered version for violin, string quartet and piano, a companion to his Concert in D for piano, violin and string quartet, Op. 21 (1892). The solo violin parts of these versions are identical except for one minor detail.
The work is notionally in the key of E-flat, and lasts about 16 minutes. It was dedicated to Ysaÿe, who gave its early performances.
Genesis of the title
Chausson initially called it Le Chant de l’amour triomphant, then changed it to Poème symphonique, and finally to simply Poème. The first two rejected titles are crossed out on the extant manuscripts.
The original title came from the 1881 romantic novella The Song of Love Triumphant (Le Chant de l’amour triomphant; Песнь торжествующей любви) by the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, who lived on the estate of the famed mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot and her husband near Paris; all three were acquaintances of Chausson’s. The Viardots’ daughter Marianne was engaged for some time to Gabriel Fauré, but broke it off and instead married Alphonse Duvernoy. Turgenev’s novella seems to mirror this set of relationships, and it may be that Chausson initially attempted to portray it in music. However, it is clear his final intention was to create a work without extra-musical associations.
In the autumn of 1896, Eugène Ysaÿe, Ernest Chausson and their wives were holidaying at Sitges on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. At a party hosted by the Catalan painter Santiago Rusiñol, Ysaÿe and Chausson’s wife on piano gave an impromptu sight-read performance of Poème; local townspeople who overheard it demanded it be encored three times. Present at the party were Enrique Granados and possibly Isaac Albéniz.
Poème’s formal premiere was at the Nancy Conservatoire on 27 December 1896, conducted by Guy Ropartz, with Ysaÿe as soloist. But it was not really noticed until Ysaÿe gave the Paris premiere, at a Colonne Concert on 4 April 1897. Chausson was overcome by the sustained applause, something he had not experienced in his career to that point.