In 1861, the Paris production of Tannhäuser changed the course of music history in France. Charles Baudelaire’s famous essay helped secure Wagner’s place in the forefront of French musical life. The Revue Wagnerienne became a source of inspiration not only for musicians but for poets, novelists, and painters. Throughout the 1880s, Ernest Chausson, a man in his mid-twenties, was obsessed with Wagner. Indeed, he spend his honeymoon at Bayreuth in order to hear Parsifal.
Great composers must confront the models created by great predecessors. No one would think of denigrating Beethoven because of his debt to Haydn, or Brahms because of his connection to Schumann, and certainly not Mozart or Bach for their borrowings from predecessors and contemporaries. However, for obvious political reasons particularly in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the search for a French national voice came into direct conflict with the embrace of Wagner. French composers in the Third Republic struggled to come to terms with Wagner’s achievement. More than a century later, the traces of that political struggle are still apparent in the whole generation of French operas that remain in obscurity simply because they do not sound like Debussy. There is no reason to revisit the tired opposition between the German Wagner and the French Debussy, unless it is to see how that false polarity made historical casualties of the extraordinary group of French operas which includes not only Chausson’s Le roi Arthus (1895) but Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue (1907).
No one would have been more sensitive to this dilemma of identity than Chausson himself. He was a polymath. Born into a wealthy family, his life story defies all the clichés we associate with the struggling artist. Although his personal wealth has been exaggerated by some detractors, Chausson never had to work for a living and was able to support less fortunate colleagues including Debussy. Like Felix Mendelssohn, Chausson was very well educated outside of music. Like Schoenberg he was a gifted visual artist, and like Schumann, he had literary ambitions as well, authoring short stories and working on a novel. Beyond these accomplishments, Chausson also studied law, even earning a doctor of laws degree and obtaining admittance to argue cases in the highest courts of France. His highly cultivated upbringing persisted into adulthood in his famous salon gatherings, in which the most distinguished painters, writers, and musicians participated. Chausson’s special engagement with literature is evident in his use of a short story by Turgenev as the basis for perhaps his most famous work, the Poème Op. 25 for violin and orchestra (1896).
Chausson studied with both Massenet and Franck. If Massenet represented to a more serious, younger generation a tradition of pleasant superficiality (although this traditional disparagement is as questionable as the similar and yet-to-be-challenged dismissal of Meyerbeer), then César Franck provided an alternative. Imbued with a mystic spiritualism, Franck’s music seemed to promise an adequate alternative for French composers in a world suffused by Wagnerian profundity.
Chausson was among the most gracious and supportive of colleagues and was at the same time riddled with self-doubt and anxiety. Despite Franck’s admiration for him, Chausson was particularly sensitive to the charge of dilettantism. In 1886 he assumed leadership of the Societé Nationale de Musique and became a pivotal figure in French musical politics. As the 1890s progressed, he was increasingly aware of the talent and originality of Debussy, whose work would eventually eclipse his own.
Chausson labored on Le roi Arthus for more than a decade and believed that in this work he had successfully de-Wagnerized himself and achieved a new, transcendent musical voice. The premiere took place in Brussels on November 30, 1903, but Chausson did not live to see it. He had died in a freak bicycle accident four years earlier, at the age of forty-four. Despite some attempts to revive the opera in the last century, it has been left to languish in undeserved obscurity. German critics have repeatedly identified it as the culmination of the French Wagnerian obsession, following in the path of Chabrier’s Gwendoline (1885), d’Indy’s Fervaal (1897), and Lalo’s Le roi d’Ys (1888). The efforts of d’Indy and Lalo to mask their debt to Wagner with references to Gregorian chant or French folk melody have been viewed by critics as transparent. In contrast, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) is embraced as the first original French achievement. Whether Wagnerian or in some manner distinctly French, Arthus must take its place in this distorted historical narrative as a great and original masterpiece.
The choice of Arthurian legend as the opera’s subject is fascinating in terms of its ambiguous emancipation from Wagner’s heroic subjects. It explicitly invokes an Anglo-French past, thus identifying Chausson among the group of French composers who sought for a French mythic equivalent to Germanic epic as a way both of defining themselves against Wagner and of eluding the tradition of trivial and charming music and subject matter associated with the French light opera of Gounod and Massenet. This effort is similar to that of Max Bruch, who searched for Homeric and biblical subjects to serve the same elevated function as Wagnerian epic without sounding Wagnerian. There are no doubt clear parallels that today’s listener will find between Chausson’s music and original libretto and those of Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal. But as Chausson himself noted, Arthus may possess dramatic elements akin to Wagner–betrayal of friendship, the tragic loss of love and friendship, an appeal to mystic Christianity–but these are generally features of high epic which need not lead to the same musical realization that Wagner envisioned. The choral sonorities, the harmonies, orchestration, and melodic usages make this music distinctly Chausson’s.
In his use of Arthurian legend, Chausson also finds a third way among even broader oppositions of modern culture and our memory of the past. In Arthus, a fictionalized account of the distant past is used to contrast sharply with the present. The modern world in which Chausson lived was one of rapid industrialization, dominated by an unprecedented obsession with progress, profit, and materialism. The reaction of nineteenth-century Europe to the far-reaching and uncontrollable social consequences of these changes was two-fold. On one hand, Victorian intolerance reigned. Puritan rectitude, middle-class values, and materialism masked the social horrors of extreme inequity and exploitation that fueled the industrial age. On the other hand, a younger generation rebelled against this ethic by indulging in an aestheticism and celebration of sensuality and amorality, which they saw as a means to escape from Victorian hypocrisy. France’s fascination with the "decadents" is evident in the tremendous popularity of Huysmans and Wilde. Against both of these social reactions Chausson invokes the figure of Arthur, ruler of a realm dependant not on material goods but on Christian virtues of solidarity and moderation. Chausson (whose alienation from Debussy was due in part to his disapproval of Debussy’s private life) does not allow Arthur to indulge at all in the ethos of Pelléas. There are few moments as poignant as the close of this opera, when Arthur, faced with the deaths of his dearest friend and his wife, transcends his worldly existence with undiminished commitment to idealized principles of Christian love, charity, and loyalty. As many have pointed out, the affair between Genièvre and Lancelot is not celebrated like that between Isolde and Tristan. The hero of this opera is neither of the star-crossed lovers, but the dignified and heroic title character. Chausson’s own commitment to these ideals is evident in the opera, but equally apparent is his nostalgic notion that such ideals are lost, possessed once but now departed with a passing age. Arthur’s closing lines and the chorus’s echo signal not only a critique of the present but the hope of redemption and the return of idealism. Debussy might question whether such ideals ever really existed or are pertinent, but for Chausson, the present moment is one of absence, sharply and painfully sensed through memory and its relentless capacity to imagine better times.