The Spanish Inspiration: Chabrier’s Bourrée fantasque

Manet: Chabrier (1881) (Ordrupgaard Museum, Denmark)

Manet: Chabrier (1881)
(Ordrupgaard Museum, Denmark)

The last piano work of Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894) was Bourrée fantasque (Whimsical Bourrée), composed in 1891 when he fell under the terminal stages of syphilis. Unfortunately, it was just as his musical life was changing for the better. His latest opera, Le roi malgré lui (The King in Spite of Himself), was presented with great success at the Opéra-Comique but its promised successful run was put to an end when the theatre burned down after the third performance. His orchestral work España made his reputation and praises came from Spanish composers for this work by a French composer, although the work was not as popular in Spain as it was in France.

The son of a lawyer, Chabrier was always destined for a legal career, despite his dreams of a music career. When he finished law school in 1861, he worked for the Ministry of the Interior for the next 19 years. He studied music in his free time and composed but having a full-time job precluded his writing of anything but small works. He tried to write several operas, but none came to fruition. He did have some luck with operetta but it wasn’t really a large-scale success. He finally quitted the Ministry and devoted himself to music, but losing nearly 20 years made some of his next choices difficult.

He wanted to make it on the opera stage, but a consistently poor choice of librettists made this difficult. His opera L’etoile (1877) was moderately successful but the plot was described as ‘willfully unfathomable and illogical.’ His next opera, Gwendoline (1885) was some 8 years in the making but suffered from a poor libretto by Catulle Mendès. Even his most successful opera, Le Roi malgré lui (1887) suffered from ‘one of the most complex and incomprehensible librettos of all time.’

He was described by the composer Vincent d’Indy in rather clumsy terms, but with utter praise for his musicianship: ‘Though his arms were too short, his fingers too thick and his whole manner somewhat clumsy, he managed to achieve a degree of finesse and a command of expression that very few pianists – with the exception of Liszt and Rubinstein – have surpassed.’ Renoir’s wife described the outcome of a private performance of his new work España: ‘When Chabrier reached the last crashing chords, I swore to myself I would never touch the piano again […] Besides, Chabrier had broken several strings and put the piano out of action.’

Because of his law background, Chabrier was not a product of the French conservatory system. Writers on his music consider that this gave him a freedom to explore both new harmonic idioms and novel ways of writing for the piano. He liked melodies with large leaps, he frequently doubled melodies at the octave, and he was a particular fan of cross-rhythms and syncopation. We can hear this especially in the Bourrée fantasque, with its indicative fast stamping rhythms.

The Bourrée fantasque was dedicated to Édouard Risler, a young pianist. He wasn’t able to present the premiere of the work, that was done by Madeleine Jaeger at the Société Nationale de Musique, on 7 January 1893, a year before Chabrier’s death. Chabrier wrote, in his dedication to Risler, ‘I have concocted a little piano piece for you which I think is quite amusing, in which I have counted 113 different sonorities, so you can imagine you will have to polish the rough edges off it to make it shine! It must be either idiotic or crazy!’

In the work, Chabrier combines both Bourrée rhythms (short-short-long, short-short-long) with some of the typical Andalusian rhythms similar to those that come all through España. It’s been described as a piece with ‘strident sonorities and velvety timbres,’ and as a kind of pianist counterpart of España. After the hammering introduction to the work, the middle section changes character with a luscious melody that freely modulates. As the piece finishes, the bourrée theme travels the length of the keyboard, growing ever elaborate and virtuosic.

Emmanuel Chabrier: Bourrée fantasque (Jean-Joël Barbier, piano)

The work was orchestrated in 1898 by Felix Mottl, in 1924 by Charles Koechlin, and, most recently, in 1994 by British composer Robin Holloway, who worked from Chabrier’s own unfinished orchestration.

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