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Emmanuel Chabrier: An unsung hero of 19th-century French music

The composer of L’Étoile was highly respected by his musical and painterly peers, including Debussy, Stravinsky and Manet.

By Richard Langham Smith (Research Professor, Royal College of Music)

25 January 2016 at 12.48pm | Comment on this article

Everyone loved him: composer Emmanuel Chabrier, the jovial fellow from the Auvergne who entertained poets and artists and whose wit and charm were boundless. He had never been through the Conservatoire and had never won a prize, but this doesn’t seem to have been held against him: rather the reverse. All he did for music was in his spare time from the day job as a very competent responsable in the Ministry of the Interior. He had no shortage of admirers to recognize his outstanding qualities.

A little-known memoir of Albert Vanloo (co-librettist for L’Étoile) recalls his first meeting with Chabrier: ‘It was in 1875. For some time we had wanted to meet the young musician well known in the artists’ studios and a friend of Manet… What struck you at once was how everything about him was round and jolly!… When he sat at the piano he seemed intoxicated, completely carried away, throwing himself at it feverishly, delighting in the abracadabra of sounds emanating from his fingers and showing no mercy on the instrument. It was clear that we were in the presence of someone very special.’

Chabrier was well known among the young painters of his day, many of whom — including Claude Monet and Édouard Manet — lived in his quartier and would later be dubbed Impressionists. He enjoyed the friendship of many musicians too, and they were of very different persuasions – Fauré, Massenet and Charles Lecocq, among others – as well as many whose names are less well known nowadays. Like Debussy, he also loved the ‘café-conc’: the café-concerts, the French equivalent of the Music Hall.

Chabrier’s support for some of the literary avant-garde drew him close to artists and men of letters with originality and vision. The young Chabrier used to dine with the poet Paul Verlaine and his mother in the early 1860s and the scene in L’Étoile with the impalement chair – Le Pal – was conceived with Verlaine. Before it was imported into the opera, it had become a party-piece which Chabrier used to perform to circles of friends, accompanying himself on the piano and singing in his raucous, tinny voice.

Manet – probably Chabrier’s closest friend among the artists – did two portraits of him, and also portrayed him at a masked ball at the Paris Opéra. His relationship with the Manets went further than as a sitter. Madame Manet was an accomplished pianist whose small hands and particularly delicate touch were admired by several commentators. Chabrier dedicated a very fine and lengthy Impromptu to her. He was also a collector of the work of his artist colleagues: by his death he had amassed an impressive collection of Impressionist paintings.

Chabrier’s most prized painting – and the one for which he paid the most at the posthumous sale of Manet’s work – was Manet’s Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère. Towards the end of his life Chabrier hung it in pride of place above his Érard piano. Bearing in mind that the Folies was a respectable and cultured theatre at the time of the painting, it depicts not the seedy side of the entertainment world, but rather its wealth: the champagne on the bar, the neatly-dressed barmaid. By contrast there is the emptiness of the barmaid’s eyes: somehow all the glitter is but a precarious deck of cards. This dichotomy, perhaps, was one of the elements that Chabrier’s music was all about: some have found a melancholy streak even in L’Étoile. When Cosima Wagner remarked that behind what she called ‘Chabrier’s beastly café-concert trivialities… was a whole world that makes you shudder’, she perhaps perceived this knife edge, captured nowhere more acutely than in Manet’s magnificent painting, so much valued by this highly cultivated petit-maître.

This is an edited extract from Richard Langham Smith’s article ‘The Cultivated Countryman in Paris’, available to read in full in The Royal Opera’s programme book for L’Étoile, on sale during performances.

L’Étoile runs 1–24 February 2016. Tickets are still available.

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