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Chausson, Ernest

(January 20, 1855 - June 10, 1899)

Ernest Chausson was born in Paris on the 20th of January 1855. His father was a civil engineering contractor during the period when Haussmann opened renovation sites in Paris; his mother was the daughter of a lawyer. Son of a bourgeois family, he was also a child of elderly parents: his father was 51 when he was born. Coming between two dead brothers, Ernest was brought up as an only and solitary child, for, after spending a few months at school, his parents took him away and entrusted his education to L.-B. Lafargue, who frequented the literary and artistic circles of Paris. He introduced his pupil to the salon of Mme de Rayssac around 1870. In his loneliness, all forms of artistic expression appealed to Chausson: literature, painting and drawing, and music which he started to study when he was 15. With no artistic background, he completed his law studies before choosing music, not without doubts and hesitations. «It takes more courage to create a work of art than to sit for an examination», he wrote at the time. Following a course of private tuition with Massenet, he went on to the Conservatoire where he met César Franck and came under his influence. He started composing in 1878. During several journeys made to Germany, he was seduced and overwhelmed by the works of Wagner who - whether he wanted or not - was to influence him for many years. He was aware of this and wrote to a friend in 1888, «I must dewagnerise myself». Two years later, his Symphony in B flat major «showed him the path which would lead him to acheive this». With the Poème opus 20, he finally found the key to his aesthetics in 1896. Like every composer of his generation, he had to write an opera. Having himself written the libretto, he took ten years to finish Le Roi Arthus. During the same period the Poème de l'Amour et de la Mer (op. 19) was also in the making; it combines, in a touching manner his gifts as orchestrator and melody writer. With time Chausson grew to discover his vocation and voice it, both dramatic and lyrical albeit freed from romanticism. La Chanson perpé- tuelle testifies to this; it was also his swansong, created at Le Havre in January 1899, less than six months before his untimely death in a bicycle accident. What then is the reason for the muted yet deep melancholy of this gifted artist who seen from the outside was happy and rich, having a lovely wife and wonderful friends? This is the mystery and secret surrounding this level-headed man and his frequently poignant and sometimes violent music. Philippe LETHEL