Ravel claimed that he had influenced him more than any other composer. Poulenc wrote a biography of him. Grove’s Dictionary calls him “one of the most inventive composers of the 19th century.”
And yet the only music that you’ve likely heard composed by Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894) is “España.” A shame. Not that it isn’t a wonderful piece. It’s one of my favorites, in fact.
The reason for Chabrier’s neglect is the subject of a recent column in the Wall Street Journal by Terry Teachout. Teachout’s premise is that Chabrier is essentially a witty and comic composer and we do not regard such cheerfulness as “serious.”
True enough. But Chabrier is also one of any number of late 19th century French composers relegated to the fringes of the repertoire, along with composers such as Chausson, Franck, Lalo, Fauré and D’Indy, among others. Contemporary programmers (I won’t say “audiences,” because they haven’t heard the music) seem to have a decided preference for the German and Russian composers of the period.
Chabrier’s music is characterized by rhythmic vitality and a pungent harmonic language that was a forerunner of Impressionism. His music also makes you feel good.
Other works by Chabrier worth checking out include his piano masterwork “Pieces pittoresques” (recorded by Alain Planes), his orchestral music including the “Joyeuse marche” (recorded by Ernest Ansermet) and his comic opera “Le roi malgre roi” (recorded by Charles Dutoit and company, and which Ravel supposedly knew from memory).
Chabrier’s “Idyll” from “Pieces pittoresques,” by the way, is simply one of the most beautiful pieces ever written. On YouTube, you can hear Alfred Cortot playing it.
In his researches, Teachout discovered an interesting tidbit too delectable not to share. The popular 50s tune “Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)” is based on “España.” I did not know that. Hear for yourself.