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Concert for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet in D major, op. 21

September 23, 2018: Arnaud Sussmann, solo violin; Michael Brown, piano; Sean Lee, violin; Emily Smith, violin; Matt Lipman, viola; Nick Canellakis, cello

Chausson is one of an illustrious group of composers who initially studied to be something else. Berlioz studied medicine, Vivaldi trained for the priesthood, Telemann, Rameau, Handel, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky all studied law, and so on. Chausson had to earn a law degree and license to satisfy his father. He had, nonetheless, been nurtured in music, painting, and literature by his wealthy parents and by the tutor they engaged for him, and he became acquainted with many of the most important artists of the day.

He was twenty-five by the time he had finished his law studies and decided that of all the arts, music attracted him most. He then entered the Paris Conservatory, where César Franck became his most influential teacher. Because of his late start and untimely death at forty-four from a bicycle accident, Chausson had only a short composing career. His achievements were notable, however; his most successful compositions are probably his Poème for violin and orchestra, various songs, and the present Concert, op. 21.

Written between 1889 and 1891, the Concert is unique in the chamber music repertoire—scored for solo piano and violin with string quartet. Chausson entitled it Concert (French for concerto) rather than “Sextet,” but it lies somewhere between a double concerto, in which the two solo instruments are pitted against an entire orchestra, and a sextet, in which all the instruments are more or less equal.

The opening three-note motive of the introduction is the germinating cell of the first movement, which unfolds in full-fledged Romantic sonata form. The second movement is a brief intimate Sicilienne in A minor. The composer Vincent d’Indy, who arranged for the work’s premiere, described it as like “the gardens where bloom the charming fancies of a Gabriel Fauré.”

Chausson is at his most brooding and chromatic in the third movement marked Grave. D’Indy remarked that the finale is “somewhat oddly conceived, and partakes rather of the nature of variation form than of one of the forms regularly employed in the sonata.” Yet it is like a rondo in many respects: the animated main theme regularly returns (albeit varied), and material of episodic nature intervenes, including material from the previous movements (second theme of the Grave). Franck’s influence on Chausson surfaces in the work’s cyclical form, modulatory procedures, and expressive lyricism.

The Concert is dedicated, as is the Poème, to Eugène Ysaÿe, who played the solo violin part in the premiere in Brussels on March 4, 1892. The Crickboom Quartet played the remaining string parts, and Auguste Pierret was the pianist who saved the day when the originally scheduled pianist suddenly returned the score as too difficult. (Chausson dedicated his next chamber work, the Piano Quartet, op. 30, to Pierret in gratitude for his fine performance.) Chausson, a composer continually plagued by self doubt, was thrilled at the instant success of the Concert, which now occupies a permanent place in the chamber music repertoire.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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