Amédée-Ernest Chausson was born in Paris on January 20, 1855, and died at Limay, near Mantes in the Department of Seine-et-Oise, on June 10, 1899. He began the Poème in April 1896 and completed it on June 29 that year. Eugène Ysaÿe gave the first public performance at Nancy on December 27, 1896; the conductor was Guy Ropartz, like Chausson a pupil of César Franck. The first North American performance was given in New York on November 18, 1904. The San Francisco Symphony first played the Poème in January 1918; Georges Enescu was soloist and Alfred Hertz conducted. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg was soloist in the most recent performances, in February 1996, with Alasdair Neale conducting. The orchestra consists of two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, with four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani, harp, and strings. Duration: about fifteen minutes.
Chausson wrote his Poème for Eugene Ysaÿe, "perhaps the last great representative of the truly grand manner of violin-playing," according to Joseph Szigeti, who knew a thing or two about the violin himself. Ysaÿe made a few records, but of trivial pieces and at a point when he was ill and far beyond his prime. He is one of those artists whose playing is most effectively recorded, so to speak, in the music written for him, or by him. Szigeti suggests that Ysaÿe's own sonatas for unaccompanied violin, inventive and highly cultivated pieces, were "a subconscious attempt on [the composer's] part to perpetuate his own elusive playing style." But the Poème and César Franck's ardent Sonata, a wedding present to the twenty-eight-year-old violinist, are the two truly glowing monuments to Ysaÿe's vibrant art.
Ernest Chausson was a gentle and cultured man, and unoppressively generous. Like his master Franck, he was innocent of any skill at making the great public musical machine function on his behalf. His work was occasionally abused and more often simply ignored. When a storm of applause greeted Ysaÿe's first performance in Paris of the Poème in April 1897, the bewildered composer could only keep repeating, "I can't get over it."
In his biography of Chausson, Jean Gallois points out that the Poème originally bore a subtitle, Le Chant de l'amour triomphant (also that it was at first a Poème symphonique). "The Song of Love Triumphant" is the title of a short story by Ivan Turgenev, one of the composer's favorite authors. Set in the sixteenth-century, it tells the tale of two men of Ferrara, the closest of friends, one a blond painter, the other a swarthy musician. They are in love with the same woman and agree to abide by her decision in the matter. She makes the less complicated choice, and the rejected Muzio sets out to spend many years traveling in India and the Orient. He returns with new skills, some of them on the shady side, and among them his performance on an Indian stringed instrument of the strangely compelling "Song of Love Triumphant." This piece of music then takes on a crucial role in the sinister unfolding of the tale. Gallois suggests correspondences between musical themes and the characters and events in Turgenev's story. He is not convincing, and it is best perhaps to take the presence of the story in the background as supporting one's perception that the Poème is more than just another pretty face.
The introduction, which Chausson marks Lento e misterioso, is dark in harmony and color. The violas and cellos are divided into multiple sections, and the first time we hear violin tone is when the solo instrument enters. This entrance causes the orchestra to fall silent, and the violin alone plays an expansive melody. The muted orchestral strings repeat it, whereupon the soloist elaborates upon it. This material forms the beginning, middle, and end of the Poème; its second appearance is much abbreviated, but the final one rises to a searing climax. These chapters are separated by the double occurrence of an episode of intensely impassioned music in a faster tempo and so arranged that the second of these passages is the fulfillment of what the first has promised. Reviewing a performance of the Poème in 1913, Debussy said of the quiet close that nothing could be "more touching than [this] gentle dreaminess . . . where, casting aside any ideas of description or narrative, the music itself is the sentiment that commands our feelings. . . . Fine music this, and full of ardor."
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.