By Vincent P. Skowronski

Amédée Ernest Chausson (1855–99), composer extraordinaire, appears to have been a man mercifully afflicted by the elusive idea that less is more. I learned this in the early 1960s as a newly matriculated violin student at university when I first was introduced to Chausson and his phantasmagoric Poème for violin and orchestra, Op. 25. I had already been apprised of Poème’s many attractive qualities, but one afternoon I decided casually to inquire of my violin teacher-to-be about the prospects for learning and ultimately performing Poème at some point during my college career.

I don’t recall his exact response, but I do remember the word anathema blasting a hole through my skull while he informed me that Chausson’s Poème was not on the list for our violin department’s required repertoire. For years, nary a mention of that incident found its way to the “for further discussion” box relative to my and Monsieur Chausson’s beloved Poème.

So be it.

Still, I did promise myself that, at some point, I would create a gaping hole in space from which I could manifest, to the best of my limited abilities, an effort that would support a workable less-is-more truism.

I would perform Poème.

With that in mind, and having recorded this staple of the concerto repertoire, I have gone on to marvel at the joys and challenges presented by this elegant piece.

The Soul of Poème

The product of a prominent French family, Chausson enjoyed “playing at work” by virtue of his management of the Chausson family’s famous—and lucrative—salon situated at 22 Boulevard de Courcelles in Paris. During his earlier years, the timid Chausson—a close associate of Cesar Franck and of Claude Debussy—concluded there was need for a new order of French music and encouraged all who would listen to dispose of any remnants that survived the Wagnermania then sweeping Western Europe.

And he took his own advice.

The lyrical Poème, a single-movement work published in 1896, just three years before his death, is based on “The Song of Triumphant Love,” a short story by the Russian novelist, short story writer, and playwright Ivan Turgenev. It’s the tale of two young men, Fabio and Muzio, who fall in love with the same woman, Valeria (some have suggested that Chausson also was inspired by a real-life love triangle involving his friend Faurè and a popular mezzo-soprano).

It’s advisable to read the short story to fully grasp Chausson’s inspiration for Poème. Here is an excerpt of Turgenev’s story, from a program note written by the violinist Nicholas DiEugenio, in which Muzio—a musician—returns from a long journey in the Far East to visit his old artist friend, Fabio, and now wife, Valeria:

“He ordered the Malay to bring him his Indian violin. It resembled present-day ones, except that instead of four strings it had three, the top of it was covered in bluish snakeskin and the delicate reed bow had a semi-circular appearance, and on the end of it glittered a pointed diamond.

“First of all Muzio played several melancholy—as he called them—folk songs, strange and even savage to Italian ears; the sound of the metallic strings was mournful and feeble. But when Muzio began the final song, the very sound suddenly grew stronger and quivered resonantly and powerfully; a passionate melody poured out from beneath the broad sweeps of the bow, poured out in beautiful sinuous coils like that very snake whose skin covered the top of the violin; and the melody burned with such fire, was radiant with such triumphant joy, that both Fabio and Valeria were pieced to their very hearts and tears came into their eyes; and Muzio, with his head bent forward, pressed over the violin, his cheeks grown pale and his brows drawn together in one straight line, seemed even more concentrated and solemn—and the diamond on the end of the violin bow shed sparkling rays as it moved, as if it had also been ignited by the fire of the wondrous song . . . .

“ ‘What is it? It’s a melody I heard once on the isle of Ceylon. The song is considered by the people there to be a song of happy and satisfied love . . .’

“[And] on saying goodbye, he pressed her hand ever so firmly, pushing his fingers into her palm and looking her so insistently in the face that she, though she did not raise her eyes, nonetheless felt the look on her suddenly burning cheeks.”

Heady stuff in the post-Romantic era.

“Written for famed violinist-composer Eugene Ysaÿe, Poème is a work about a violinist, for a violinist, and prescribing to the Italian myth of the violin’s very lure,” DiEugenio concluded in his program note. “It blends the French impressions of the East with the Italian affect of drama, and is a unique masterpiece in the history of music.”

To hone the work’s poetic quality, Chausson pored meticulously and laboriously over Poème’s manuscripts when, three years before his death, he decided that he had finally produced a worthy and palpable score.

Indeed, in the months leading up to his death, and confident that he had eliminated what he called “my window dressing,” he endeavored to pare down most of his extant compositions, which included Poème.

Thanks to his editing, Poème plays like a poem: a stripped-down, emotive work that personifies that less-is-more compositional ethic. I find Poème to fit the mantle that was destined for Chausson’s anticipated “perfect composition.” It is up to those who perform it to honor the spirit of the work and find personal meaning within its passages.

Indeed, tone and expression are two important elements you must consider when interpreting Poème. But there is more. A few years ago, someone on the violinist.com chat forum asked me to describe the technical challenges of Poème. Here’s what I told them: There was once a motion picture mystery thriller titled The Deep. That’s perhaps perfect imagery of how enigmatic, wonderfully elusive, and mysterious Poème can be—and that’s only on the surface!

How to Play Poème

Poème starts off dark and brooding, and deeply intimate, before shifting moods and adding a dash of pyrotechnics. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians refers to the work as possessing an “almost morbidly fantastic quality.”

To the best of my knowledge, the composer never admitted to having any “secrets” regarding how to play Poème. To tame the work, technically, is not the primary objective of discussing Poème—most accomplished violinists can play the piece well enough to do what Chausson expected of them.

But prepare yourself for an almost endless onslaught—Chausson’s deceptively simple opening cadenza sets a voracious trap for unwary violinists. The piece then escalates to a formidable exercise in conquering a challenging patch of nasty double-stops. Watch your intonation in this spot and constantly wax robust while keeping your sound on edge. Do a considerable amount of playing close to the bridge, so that you can easily cut through the concertina wire. Use varying speeds of consistent vibrato and never forget that Chausson is always the power monger and sound broker—he loves to beat you with Tzigane-esque fervor.

In high tessitura, as a rule, the less-is-more approach will generally get you the best results.

Poème is a long, difficult, and sensually gripping playing experience, so you must save as much energy as you can. But, spend as much energy as your kaleidoscopic palette can handle because rarely do you get the opportunity to freewheel with such copious amounts of violinistic splendor.

Remember, there is no obvious set-form here, so you are pretty much on your own, but don’t knowingly fall victim to gilding the lily. Everything you deliver to the audience must be done while honestly exhibiting impeccable taste and style. On the other hand, consciously try to perform with “true grit” regarding projection.

And do make a viable artistic statement—the audience wants to know what you are, not necessarily who you are.

Finally, and this is a quintessential aspect of performance that will lend itself to a successful and meaningful performance of Poème, don’t let Chausson play you!

To record Poème, Op. 25, I used a Carl Fischer, Inc. edition, published in 1940. This edition is listed by Fischer as the “New Edition Revised by Gustave Samazeuilh.”

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