Le roi Arthus (1895)

By John Ashbery, Charles P. Stevenson Jr. Professor of Languages & Literature, Bard College

Written for the concert Nostalgia: The Past Idealized Through Music, performed on Feb 4, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Chausson is hardly an unknown composers. His Poème for violin and orchestra is still a favorite with violinists and audiences alike, and justly so. His one symphony is firmly entrenched on the fringes of the repertory: detractors have always accused it of sounding like that of his master, Franck, while defenders are quick to point out the differences. Smaller works–vocal and chamber music or sometimes a combination of the two–will always be prized by those who love Debussy, Fauré, Dupare and Ravel; indeed his Poème de l’amour et de la mer and the Concerto for piano, violin, and string quartet stand apart from the work of his major contemporaries and in some respects surpass it. Still, his sole opera, into which he poured most of his energies during the last decade of his tragically short life (he was killed in a bicycle accident at the age of forty-four) remains unknown. In that, Le roi Arthus shares the fate (with the important exception of Pelléas et Mélisande) of other ambitious operas of fin-de-siècle France, including those of Dukas (whose Ariane et Barbe-bleue was performed in 1999 by the American Symphony Orchestra), Franck, Fauré, d’Indy, Magnard, and Déodat de Séverac. It’s true that the CD has rescued some of these from total oblivion, but by no means all of them. The charming Séverac, a composer of ravishing piano pieces and songs very much in the manner of Debussy but with a profile of their own, wrote an opera on the subject of Heliogabalus, whose curiosity value alone would seem to make it a candidate for the CD resuscitation. (Chausson’s Arthus, it should be noted, has been recorded twice: one an excellent but no longer available version with Armin Jordan conducting and Gino Quilico in the title role; the second a live performance from the 1996 Bregenz Festival.)

Chausson was an immensely likable and cultivated man, a collector of art (including that of his friends Redon, Berthe Morisot, Maurienc Denis and Vuillard) and an avid reader, especially of folklore and mythology, including that of India, Malaysia, China and Japan, and especially the Celtic legends of Arthur and his court. His considerable wealth left him free to spend his time as he wishes, and he was a generous benefactor of less fortunate artists and musicians, including Debussy, whose gratitude left something to be desired. His married life was idyllic and produced five children, but he was also restless and even tormented, uncertain of his talent and (in his early twenties) of which branch of the arts to pursue. He was a talented draftsman and a fair-to-middling littérateur, as a recently published collection of his writings (especially an autobiographical novel, Jacques) shows. After composing numerous vocal settings of poetry, at first that of the Parnassian poets and later that of the Symbolists, he grew impatient with poems not written to be set to music. When he began to consider an opera he chose to write his own libretto, in verse and prose of a very high caliber. At one point he even considered letting it stand by itself as a play.

Although Chausson inherited a mansion in the fashionable Boulevard de Courcelles, he disliked Paris and its many distractions. “I curse Paris and the vain worldly occupations that prevent you from thinking about the only things that matter,” he wrote in a letter to his marraine (literally godmother, but in this case a kind of spiritual advisor), Mme. de Rayssac. And his restless nature resulted in his spending much of his life elsewhere, constantly moving his family to different rented houses or chateaux in France, Switzerland, and Italy. (Two prolonged sojourns at Fiesole in the 1890s were especially memorable and productive.)

Given his penchant for wandering, it seems strange that he never visited Brittany, which was to be the setting for Arthus, except for a stay of several weeks when he was twenty at the coastal resort of Saint-Quay. He and his mother shared a rented villa close to the convent where the devout Mme. de Rayssac was staying. Judging from a single diary entry, he was enamored of the somewhat older and widowed lady. Nothing was to come of this, but he remained devoted to her until her death in 1892. In their voluminous correspondence he often harks back to those idyllic days at Saint-Quay, which had remained a kind of holy place for him. In a letter of 1885 to Mme. de Rayssac (the same one quoted above), he mentions his working quarters of the moment, a workman’s cottage on an estate near the Loire that he had rented with his family for the summer. “It reminds me of our little house at Saint-Quay,” he tells her, so charming and so opera-comique. How many things that brief trip of six weeks gave rise to! It’s certainly one of the memories of the past I cling to the most. It seems to me that it was there that my youth really begain. Now ten years have passed. How everything has changed! How many deaths in that period! When I think of what I’ve done since then, for a moment I get a real sensation of the rapidity of time passing. Ten years! And so few works to show for it. Have I another ten years to live? And then I’m afraid for a moment, not of death, but of dying before I’ve accomplished my task, without having done what I’ve been called on to do.

(Chausson was always haunted by the idea that he would die prematurely; unfortunately, he was right.)

Although Jean Gallois, the author of an exhaustive biography of the composer and editor of a selection of his writings (Ernest Chausson, Fayard, 1994 and Ernest Chausson: Ecrits Inédits, Editions du Rocher, 1999), never makes the suggestion, I can’t help wondering whether Chausson’s almost Proustian devotion to the little seaside town, in which is mingled a note of eroticism, together with his subsequent avoidance of Brittany altogether, as though to keep those early memories pristine, might have been an element in his choice of a subject and a setting for his opera. His story of illicit love (suggestive of Tristan und Isolde, as critics were quick to point out, though in fact the resemblence is more literary than musical), over which noble idealism triumphs, could well have had its beginnings in that distant summer. Whatever the source, Arthus, with its story of passion, betrayal, forgiveness and ultimate resurrection, and its emotionally charged but transparent score, somewhere between Wagner and Chabrier’s Briséis, is a masterpiece which deserves to be known. Its seamless weaving together of music and poetry culminates in an enchantment more potent than Merlin’s waning powers could produce–that of the invisible choir which summons the King to nirvana, and brings his saga to its bittersweet conclusion.