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Life Arts    H4'ed 5/31/17

Was Ernest Chausson's Death in 1899 an Accident or a Suicide? Let His Poeme for Violin and Orchestra "Enter Your Heart"

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"There are moments when I feel myself driven by a kind of feverish instinct, as if I had the presentiment of being unable to attain my goal, or of attaining it too late." ---Ernest Chausson

The histories of both Art and Music are filled with many sad events, but perhaps the worst tragedy of all is when the life of someone is cut short by their premature death. Suicide is not nearly as sad as the freak accident that snuffs out the beautiful career of someone who has already achieved great and stunning works of beauty.

Very recently, several devastating things happened to me simultaneously, a kind of collapse of several dreams, and art dealer that I am, I found myself turning for solace and spiritual restitution to the vast world of classical music, instead of to yet another painting.

I recalled the beautiful piece by Ernest Chausson, called Poeme for Violin and Orchestra, put on the CD, and while listening to Poeme performed by Yitzhak Perlman and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta, I decided to do a little research into the life of the composer, who was born in 1855 and who died in 1899 in a freak accident that in fact may have been suicide.

At one of his country estates, he was riding a bicycle down a hill, on a path that he had frequently ridden on. He smashed into a brick wall, broke his skull, and died instantly. The theory of Chausson committing suicide was put forth at the time by Debussy's biographer Edward Lockspeiser, yet Chausson's own biographer completely rejected this theory in toto.

Chausson was only 44 years old, and was staying at his Chateau de Mioussets, in Limay, Yvelines.

Chausson was certainly prone to depression. Can this propensity for depression be heard in the pathos of his music? Most definitely! Just listen to the Poeme for Violin and Orchestra.

Buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, Chausson's funeral was attended by many leading figures in both worlds of music and art, all his friends and admirers, including Gabriel Faure, Isaac Albeniz, Odilon Redon, Edgar Degas, Auguste Rodin, and Claude Debussy.

Chausson's music falls into 3 main periods. First, as influenced by Jules Massenet, and the second from 1866 at the outset, much more influence by all of his Parisian artist friends, and above all by Debussy. The last came after Chausson's father passed on in 1894, in which his influences were symobolist poetry and strong influences from Russian authors, like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev, the source for the first title of Poeme.

I also hear a lot of influence from Camille Saint Saens, no surprise really, given that Chausson was secretary of the Socie'te' Nationale de Musique (an organization founded by Saint-Sa-ens and others to promote the performance of French instrumental music) .

Chausson's relationship with Debussy was tormented and ended five years earlier, because of Chausson's disapproval of Debussy's promiscuity.

In his 2012 book, Cesar Franck and his Times, Robert James Stove wrote that the idea of Chausson's suicide was completely implausible because of his deep religious Catholic faith, and because of the unpredictability of the freak accident. He quotes Chausson's own biographer Scott Glover's conclusion that "unless and until overwhelming evidence presents itself," we may rest content with the verdict of Chausson's friend, Jean Gallois, that the accident was "stupid," and who also reminds us of Chausson's stated artistic desire "to write one page that enters the heart."

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