Born to a privileged family that allowed him to cultivate his considerable talent as writer, artist, and musician, Ernest Chausson had obtained entrance to various Paris salons by the age of 16. Like many of his peers he satisfied paternal expectations by studying law, but, consumed by self-imposed high artistic standards and fuelled by an introspective, melancholy nature often manifested in self-doubt, he decided to dedicate himself to music completely. In 1879 Chausson entered the Paris Conservatory to study with Massenet, who considered him “an exceptional person and a true artist.” At the Conservatory Chausson also sat in the classes of César Franck, whose mystical instructions well suited Chausson’s interests and natural inclination. It is during this time that the young composer began his numerous pilgrimages to Germany to hear Wagner, who remained a strong influence throughout his career.
Following an unsuccessful pursuit of the Prix de Rome in 1881, Chausson interrupted his studies at the Conservatory. Despite this decision, his dedication to music remained unshaken. It was to prove his autonomy, in fact, that he wrote the Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 3. With its thick textures, dark harmonic progressions and abrupt dynamic changes, the Trio’s first movement reveals the influence of César Franck. As typical in cyclic pieces such as this one, the themes of the first movement, here carried by the violin against an unruly piano, reappear in altered form in the finale. The second movement is a short and jaunty scherzo of rustic character. After the lightness of the scherzo the third movement, marked assez lent, returns to the elegiac style of the opening section. Textures thickened by the doubling of the parts support the cyclic themes, here in the piano in the dark key of D minor. The same cyclic themes quickly complicate the deceptive simplicity of the opening of the finale, animé, corroborating the fundamental gloominess that envelops the piece.
Despite abandoning his official studies, Chausson worked tirelessly, producing a considerable body of work that is customarily divided in three periods. The Piano Trio well represents the first period, substantiating the influence of Massenet’s elegance, Franck’s mystical chromaticism, and Wagner’s bold harmonies. The second period coincides with the 1886 beginning of Chausson’s activity as secretary of the Société Nationale. Now participating in the Parisian musical life with an official title, Chausson attempted to dispel the image of wealthy “amateur” by writing dramatic works of clear neo-classical structure. Around 1894 the composer developed a new sensitivity to Symbolist poetry and Russian novels, thus entering the last phase of his work, fuelled by new interests that nurtured his introspective tendencies and his search for clear structures.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Chausson, free from financial preoccupations, led a quiet life in the company of his wife and five children, writing music for himself and the guests of his famous salon, which welcomed artists of the caliber of Debussy, Mallarmé, Fantin-Latour, Manet, Régnier, Albéniz, Pugno, Cortot, and Ysaÿe.
Barbara Moroncini has a Ph.D in Musicology from the University of California, Los Angeles.