Chabrier is synonymous with the piano. Everything he ever wrote simply pours forth from the instrument. He was in the habit of calling it ‘the divine keyboard’, and no matter where he was or wherever he went, he insisted on having a piano with him. When he was ill at the end of his life, realising he had little time left to live, he used to remind his friends of ‘that faithful companion of [his] hard work, that good old piano !’ Chabrier was a pioneer as far as the emancipation of his instrument was concerned. He seemed to conjure up new resources, a prodigious repertoire of accents and sonorities wherein each of the different tonal contrasts throughout the register plays its part in the unparalleled orchestration. Not one of his contemporaries, or even his most famous successors, managed to surpass him in the realm of musical fireworks and in the festival of light and colour that make him one with Manet, Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Sargent, his impressionist friends whose paintings he collected at a time when both critics and art lovers were busy rejecting them. As in their case, the notion of pleasure seems to be the key factor in his entire output. It should not be thought that because he was an outstandingly gifted improviser he reverently accepted every idea just as it was handed down from his Muse. On the contrary he distrusted facile solutions, turning his back on the inevitable resultant banality, and set to work patiently, on his own, stubbornly intent on ‘letting his own personality loose’, as he was in the habit of writing to his publishers. Hence a certain distance between his own attitude and that of others towards his music. Albert Vanloo, one of the libretto writers of l’Étoile and Une éducation manquée, had this to say of him : ‘he composed at great speed and with an unusual fertility of invention’. But Chabrier himself confided to his friend Paul Lacome : ‘Everything I compose entails much labour. I do not seem to have a gift for writing easily’. His chief misgiving was ‘music not worth bothering with’, where, as he put it, ‘all the notes are superfluous’. He produced no large-scale works, none of those ambitious sonatas written by more than one of his friends who, like the frog in the proverb, desired to become as large as the ox. At a period when piano music was being produced in great quantity everywhere, his own output was relatively modest. Like his young cousin Valéry Larbaud, he was able to say : ‘I think one should write as concisely, and as little, as possible’. In the space of just a few pages, he develops and elaborates a tonal mass of sound incorporated in elaborate polyphony that remains miraculously light and clear, and apparently conceived without effort. A terse musical style, wherein unbridled humour of the most refined nature commands the piano ; a musical reverie in which the most intoxicating pages of this child-like adult are adorned with a halo of tenderness. Chabrier is an astonishing blend of the wooden clogs of the Auvergne peasant stock and the soaring aspiration of winged angels. Vincent d’Indy has left us a portrait helping us to imagine Chabrier at the piano : ‘with arms that are too short [...] stubby fingers and a certain clumsiness in his posture, he knew how to achieve a maximum of finesse and expression that very few great pianists have surpassed (and I would only just consider including Liszt and Rubenstein). Unless you have observed the little finger of his left hand playing the distant isolated bass notes of España, you simply have no idea of the technical dexterity of this reputedly clumsy artist’.
Roger Delage, translation Mary Pardoe & Geoffrey Marshall
article submitted by:Manuela Matalon Ostrolenk, Arion Music