Chabrier: España

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Lakeview Orchestra will perform Chabrier’s España on Tuesday, June 11th at 7:30PM at the Athenaeum Theatre.

Emmanuel Chabrier (1841 – 1894)

Although you may not recognize the composer of this work, many concert goers who listen to classical music radio will undoubtedly recognize the tune. Emmanuel Chabrier’s España is not only a crowd favorite, but also a wonderful opening concert work, especially for a concert of late Romantic French music such as this.

Chabrier’s path to music composition was never certain, and it was filled with many byways and obstacles. His grandfather was born to a peasant family of shepherds in the Auvergne region of the Kingdom of France. The Chabrier surname is a derivative of “chevrier,” French for goatherd, the families’ primary occupation for hundreds of years. After the French Revolution, when peasants were emancipated from the soil and allowed to own property, Chabrier’s grandfather started his own merchant enterprise. This business became so successful that his son, Jean, was afforded the first formal education of the Chabrier family. Jean studied law and became a very successful—and wealthy—attorney. It was expected that his only son, Emmanuel, would follow in his father or grandfather’s footsteps and become either an attorney or entrepreneur. Jean would often recount to his young son the stories his father told him of the toil and hard work necessary to lift his family from poverty into wealth. Jean intended to shape his son into a well-educated, learned, and informed adolescent, so that Emmanuel might become one of the elites in the new generation of movers and shakers of the French Second Republic.

Emmanuel received the finest education money could buy. Jean enrolled his son at the intensely competitive Lycée Saint-Louis in Paris – an elite preparatory school with a rigorous education in literature, history, science, logic, rhetoric, classic studies, and the arts. Notable alumni of Lycée Saint-Louis include: scientist Louis Pasteur (1822 – 1895), philosopher of the Enlightenment Denis Diderot (1713 – 1784), mathematician Joseph Bertrand (1822 – 1900), writer Charles Perrault (1628 – 1703), and political theorist Montesquieu (1689 – 1755). It is of note that Montesquieu’s treatise on political theory, The Spirit of the Laws (1748), was the single most influential work on the Father of the United States Constitution, James Madison. In his writings, Montesquieu proposed a most radical new form of government that included a constitutional system with the separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judiciary – while defining and preserving individual civil liberties and abolishing all forms of slavery. Additionally, Montesquieu wrote extensively on despotism and argued that free governments are intrinsically fragile and solely dependent on an informed citizenry that holds their elective leaders to the highest level of honesty and transparency. Failure to do so would inevitably lead to an authoritarian system. Although Jean Chabrier never realistically thought his son would wield influence at the level of Montesquieu, he was hopeful that giving his son this form of education – an incubator of intellectualism – would yield opportunities far beyond what even Jean was afforded.

By all accounts, Emmanuel Chabrier relished his education at Lycée Saint-Louis. He was introduced to a new and expansive world of possibility that he had never imagined before. Learning about new cultures and philosophical ideas captivated his mind. Yet, above all, he was captivated by music, and he eventually introduced the idea of seriously studying composition to his father. This concept instantly appeared antithetical to everything Jean believed. A career in music was not serious, not influential, and not stable. Irrespective of what Emmanuel’s heart wanted, his father prohibited him from studying music outside of general lessons. It was thus that Chabrier entered law school, and upon his graduation in 1861, he took a steady and respected position in the in the French Ministry of the Interior. Although he excelled at his work and took his civil service career seriously, he never neglected his burning passion for music. In fact, Chabrier spent much of his free time studying music, working with four private music tutors simultaneously: one for violin, one for piano, and two for composition. At the age of 39, after 19 long years working for the government, having earned a substantial nest egg of savings and a decent amount of recognition as an amateur composer – and, perhaps most importantly, with both his parents dead and unable to criticize his choices – Chabrier left the Place Beauvau, the headquarters of the French Ministry of the Interior, for the last time.

In the spring of 1882 Chabrier and his wife took a vacation trip to Spain, where – like so many other French composers – he was intoxicated by Spanish music. Back in France, he noted down several characteristic melodies and dance rhythms that he had heard in Andalusia, and from these he fashioned what he called a fantasia for solo piano. When the conductor Charles Lamoureux (1834 – 1899) heard Chabrier play this piece, he urged the composer to orchestrate it. Lamoureux led the premiere of the orchestral version, now titled España, in Paris on November 4, 1883. It was an instant success, and Chabrier awoke the next morning to find himself famous.

Chabrier noted that he had built España on two characteristic Spanish dances – the sultry malaguena and the lively jota – and he contributed a third theme of his own, a jaunty melody shouted out by the trombones. Much of the fun of this piece lies in its rhythmic vitality. España gets off to a steady start that convinces us that it is in 2/4, and just when our ears have adjusted to that, Chabrier shifts the accents in a way that lets us know that this piece is really in 3/8. That sort of rhythmic displacement will occur throughout, and at several points Chabrier experiments with polyrhythmic overlapping – one part of the orchestra will stay in 3/8 while other sections within it are playing in 2/4. As infectious as the rhythms are, the colors of España are just as memorable. Chabrier writes imaginatively for the orchestra, employing such unusual instruments as cornets and basque tambourine and such effects as col legno, requiring the strings to play extended passages with the wood of the bow. The Spanish dances sing and surge voluptuously, and España rushes to its close in a great wash of brilliant sound.

Lakeview Orchestra will perform Chabrier’s España on June 11th, 2019: Learn More or Get Tickets

Program Notes by Luke Smith.

Luke Smith