August 8, 2017
Today, August 8th, is Cécile Chaminade’s birthday.
What? You’ve never heard of Cécile Chaminade? But how is that possible? Chaminade was one of the most successful pianists and composers of the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth century.
Born in Paris, France, in 1857, Chaminade composed more than 350 works, including two piano trios, a choral symphony, a Concertino for Flute and Orchestra, a Konzertstück for Piano and Orchestra with which she made her American debut in 1908, and some 200 descriptive works for the piano. Chaminade’s “Scarf Dance,” one of the most famous piano works of her era, was said to have sold five million copies by the time of her death in 1944.
All the more remarkable was that Chaminade achieved her success as a woman in a man’s world. Ambroise Thomas, the French composer and writer, once felt obliged to say of Chaminade, “This is not a woman who composes, but a composer who is a woman.” In 1913, Chaminade was awarded the French Légion d’Honneur, a first for a female composer.
Chaminade slowly sank out of favor and into obscurity in the second half of the twentieth century. The 1980 edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music devoted a single paragraph for her biography, and spoke dismissively of her: “Notwithstanding the real charm and clever writing of many of Chaminade’s pieces they do not rise above drawing-room music.”
The rise and fall of Cécile Chaminade makes me think of a plaque that adorns the wall of one of the Curtis Institute of Music’s teaching rooms. It proclaims self-importantly:
Life is short.
Looking up at that pronouncement when I was a student at the school long ago, I said to myself: Ah, how profound. Nowadays, as a teacher in the same school some fifty years later, I occasionally come across the plaque, still installed imperiously on the very same wall, but now I regard it with some suspicion. Not the “life is short” part, mind you. Life is certainly short; but what about the following words? Is art really eternal? An asteroid could destroy our planet and the rest of the universe would never know or care about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony.
And then a foolish and unanswerable follow-up question: What actually is art? Andy Warhol, at least, had a solid take on the subject when he said, “What I like about art is that it’s also a man’s name.”
The true nature of art is a squishy thing. Were the large and devoted followers of Chaminade who flocked to her concerts when she toured the United States right in thinking that her music was great art? Or were the Grove Dictionary people right a half a century later in downgrading her music to mere “drawing-room” stuff.
That drawing-room comment bothers me more than a little. What’s so wrong with music played in a drawing room? You can play all kinds of music there: Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Piano Sonata or Schumann’s Dichterliebe song cycle or Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin. Not bad music.
But I know what the Grove people were getting at. Their gripe was not with the giant Beethovens, Schuberts, and Bachs of the world, but with a composer who chose to express herself in smaller and more intimate ways—a musical architect who built modest cottages rather than grand mansions.
I’m old enough to have had at least one foot in Chaminade’s era when her kind of musical sentiments were not only expressed freely but also welcomed with open arms and ears by the public. Even the greatest artists such as the cellist Pablo Casals, the violist William Primrose, and violinists Fritz Kreisler, Mischa Elman, and Jascha Heifetz often devoted an entire second half of their recital programs to these kind of miniatures that could elicit a wisp of a smile or a trace of a tear from the listener. For my generation of young musicians, there was no question that along with the concerto, sonata, and virtuoso repertoire, we had to learn many of these drawing-room or salon pieces—ice cream numbers as we students delighted in calling them.
The esteemed pianist Artur Schnabel once said that he only performed music better than it could be played. For this, I salute him and his great artistry. Never have I been more moved than by, say, Schnabel’s performance of the elegiac slow movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 10, #3, or the opening of Schubert’s monumental posthumous Sonata in B Flat.
But didn’t Mr. Schnabel ever hanker for a taste of lemon soufflé after his meat and potatoes, an Italian cheesecake to counterbalance the linguini with clam sauce, or a dash of raspberry sorbet to wash down that dreamy turbot? Would it have hurt to include something a little lighter, a little more soufflé-like at the end of one of his programs?
The pianist Claude Frank, coincidentally a student of Artur Schnabel, had an eyebrow-raising difference of opinion with his teacher. He claimed that every work of music is equally difficult. “But Claude,” I sputtered when I heard this, “are you telling me that Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and his Für Elise are really of equal difficulty?” “Yes,” Claude insisted, “equally difficult, but in very different ways.”
Buried in Claude’s seemingly outrageous statement was at least a kernel of truth. Every work of music that is masterfully fashioned, large or small, grand or humble, demands an equally masterful performance.
In fashioning my own recital programs, I knew full well that there would be great challenges in bringing music of the great masters to life, but what about those “ice cream” numbers I occasionally chose for the second half? Playing ice cream would be as easy as eating it, yes? Actually, no. Capturing the sparkle and flirtatiousness of Victor Herbert’s A La Valse, the charm and gallantry of Fritz Kreisler’s Schön Rosmarin, or the incense-laden aura of Jules Massenet’s Meditation from Thaïs, proved elusive. I often struggled to be nimble enough for the quick changes of nuance and color that would bring these meticulously formed creations to life.
In 1984, pianist Virginia Eskin and I decided to make a record of women composers’ music for Northeastern records. Virginia suggested we consider music by Cécile Chaminade, a name I only vaguely recognized. In the forty years since she had died, fate had successfully snuffed out not only her fame but almost her very presence in the music world.
Virginia brought two works for us to consider: Romanza Appassionata, Opus 31, and Sérénade Espagnole as arranged by Fritz Kreisler for violin and piano. The music was beautifully crafted, full of charm, and with an almost feverish romanticism typical of its time. Chaminade’s heart-on-the-sleeve gestures, once so dear to people, were clearly out of synch with today’s tastes, and yet her music fairly leapt off the page with its vitality and imagination.
I loved working on Chaminade’s music, and specifically I loved the challenge of unlocking the Romanza’s ardor and the tenderness and poignancy of the Sérénade Espagnol. Would Artur Schnabel have considered this music worse rather than better than it could be played? If so, why were Virginia and I spending so much time trying to get each phrase, each change of color, just right?
Perhaps, Claude Frank was onto something after all: Every work of music is of equal difficulty.
Below is a link to our recording of Cécile Chaminade’s Romanza Appassionata and Sérénade Espagnol.
And Madame Chaminade, I wish you a most happy birthday.
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