Ernest Chausson, Poeme de l’amour et de la mer, Op.19

By Paul Griffiths

Written for the concert Pioneering Influence: César Franck, performed on Jan 7, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“A beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn.” This was Debussy’s mature assessment of Wagner, and of the French passion for Wagner that he himself had once felt. As he knew, a sunset has its own power, even majesty, and there are radiant reflections of the Wagnerian afterglow in this evening’s Chausson score, as in those by Dukas and Magnard to follow.

The beginnings of the Poème de l’amour et de la mer (Poem of Love and the Sea) go back to 1882, when the composer was still having lessons with Franck, but the work was not completed until 1890, alongside the Symphony in B flat. Chausson found his words in a youthful collection of poems by his friend and contemporary Maurice Bouchor, whose lines he also set in several songs–including “Le Temps des lilas,” a transcription of the present work’s ending. Lilacs feature in both the poems Chausson chose here, together with other heady images: the sea, the sky, dead leaves blowing in the wind, the moon. Emotions are clearly the subject matter, but they are rarely reported directly; instead the central persona’s sensibility has bloomed out into the sights, sounds and scents of the world around him. This is symbolism. In creating a universe heavy with intangible meaning, it is ripe for music–and not least for Chausson’s music, at once sumptuous and exquisite, and pounding with memories.

Wagner and Franck are certainly both there in its mental store, but Chausson’s is also music continuously engaged in remembering itself, applying the Liszt-Franck technique of thematic transformation, with its embedding in constantly shifting chromatic harmony. The caressing theme and associated harmonies introduced at the start of the first part of this work, “La Fleur des eaux” (The Flower of the Waters), accompany the opening stanza; the second, in a more uncertain atmosphere, prepares elements of a variant. Another person is being referred to here, but not identified until the end of the stanza: “ma bien-aimée” (my beloved, of the feminine gender). It is at this point that the orchestra sounds out what will be the principal form of the theme henceforth. As the orchestra continues, there are shades of Parsifal, whose first production Chausson had attended in Bayreuth in the year he began this score. Consideration of the “belle enfant” (beautiful child) in the third stanza brings a delicate withdrawal, but the main material swings back in preparation for the recollection of “toi” (you). This fervent music seems to be an image at once of the beloved and of the poetic persona’s feelings for her, and it remains in the background while the voice, mirroring the persona’s agitation, moves toward recitative.

An interlude enlarges on the main theme, beginning with solos on bassoon and violin. Then, at the beginning of the second poem, the mood is at once more outgoing and the harmony more freely diatonic. The dark tug returns in an orchestral episode leading up to the message of the “dead leaves,” after which the persona is perhaps trying, by exaggeration, to avoid the simple truth of “l’oubli” (forgottenness). At this word the orchestra again brings forward the main theme, which is taken up by a solo cello and, for the first time, by the voice. From this point there is no doubt as to where this extraordinary work–a song expanding over the span of a symphony–is heading.