Our music for this week is the Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet by Ernest Chausson.
This is a bizarre piece of music. There are six instrumentalists, but it is not called a sextet. There is a solo violin part, but it is not called a concerto. It is named in the fashion of 16th-century dances, but the composer was adamant that it should not be danced to. In other words, we really aren’t sure what this piece is.
Chausson was a lawyer who also studied at the Paris Conservatory. His tragically short lifetime was packed with musical and non-musical endeavors. For instance, he spent years helping to rebuild the city of Paris in the 1850s while also managing a writers group, opening a salon, practicing law, exhibiting his art work at multiple Paris galleries, and composing music. And all this was before he age of 44, when he was killed in a bicycle accident while on vacation in the French countryside.
His compositional style is on full display in this piece. Those of you who are musicians may recognize stylistic elements similar to those of Cesar Franck, with whom Chausson happen to study with at the Paris Conservatory. Chausson, like Franck, is all about creating drama. You will hear the thematic material being traded back and forth between the solo violin and the underlying piano part. At the same time, you will hear the string quartet building on that same theme in its own separate chromatic progression. Throughout the entire piece, Chausson continues to make references to the 16th-century dance forms that he sought to model this piece off of. The second movement, for instance, is a Baroque Sicilienne (a form of royal dance from French courts).
Chausson dedicated this piece to the famous Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye, who gave the peace its first performance in Brussels. After the premiere, Chausson was overheard to say that the composition was an utter failure. Perhaps our taking the time to listen to it today is enough to prove him wrong.