When choosing repertoire, we usually avoid choosing composers who were contemporaries of each other. This year, we broke that custom big time, as Ernest Chausson and Debussy weren't only alive at the same time, they knew each other quite well. The photo above was taken at Chausson's home in 1893. Debussy is at the piano, and Chausson is turning the pages for him.
Slightly older than Debussy, Chausson was one of his mentors at the Paris Conservatoire. According to Wikipedia, the two had a falling out five years before Chausson's untimely death, when Chausson, a traditional family man who lived in the country with his wife and five children, expressed disapproval at Debussy's more promiscuous lifestyle, though Debussy "never ceased to admire Chausson's music."
However, I wonder if the two actually remained on good terms despite their different lifestyles? Below is another wonderful photo of them, taken in 1897, only two years before Chausson's death. A perfect example of the camaraderie between artists and musicians during La Belle Époque, it was taken by the great artist Edgar Degas. From left to right: Edgar's brother Rene, Chausson, Debussy, and Mme. Eugene Rouart.
At the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 until the beginning of World War I in 1914, France experienced a period of peace and prosperity which resulted in a flowering of science, literature, art, fashion, architecture, cuisine, and of course, music. Known as La Belle Epoch, “The Beautiful Era,” this period of French history saw the construction of the Eiffel tower for the 1889 World Fair, Louis Pasteur’s development of pasteurization and the rabies vaccine, early prototypes of the helicopter, and the invention of both the scooter and the moped. New railway lines transported people in and out of Paris, grand and spacious halls housed opera productions and art exhibits, and Paris became the center of culture and fashion that it is still famous for today.
Born in 1862, and admitted into the Paris Conservatoire at age 10, Claude Debussy’s musical career coincided with La Belle Epoch, and is one of the most famous composers from that era. The Piano Trio in G Major was composed in 1880, when Debussy was just 18 years old. At the time, he was living in Italy, where he was employed as Nadezhda von Meck’s music tutor for her daughters. He was also the member of a piano trio that Mme von Meck hired to perform every evening. (Von Meck is most famous for her association with Tchaikovsky, whom she sponsored for 13 years.) Though it was written before he had developed the impressionistic style that defines Debussy’s music (he hated the term, impressionist, incidentally), the piano trio gives a glimpse into the genius that he would become. Lost for 100 years, Debussy’s piano trio was not discovered until 1982, and it was finally published in 1986.
Ernest Chausson was born in Paris in 1855 into a wealthy family. Immensely talented, Chausson studied law, literature and art before choosing to pursue music at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1881, when his entry was rejected from the prestigious Prix de Rome (a competition that would have validated his choice to study composition), Chausson withdrew from the conservatory, and began to write the Piano Trio in G Minor in an effort to prove to himself he had had not chosen the wrong career. Chausson later returned to his studies at the Paris conservatory, and in turn became a mentor to many younger composers, including Debussy. Sadly, Chausson’s life ended prematurely when he died in a bicycle accident at age 44, just when his music was starting to gain the recognition it deserved.