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Ernest Chausson was one of the seven members of the constellation whose brightest stars were Vincent d'Indy, Henri Duparc and Guy Ropartz and which was familiarly called "la bande a Franck". He was also, perhaps, one of the Master's favourite followers because he was his most direct heir. Like Cesar Franck, he excelled in the deployment of broad themes, sustaining them with a densely textured harmony, enlivening them with rhythmic variety, and, above all, developing them with an ampleness and a sometimes excessive skill, as his great friend Claude Debussy remarked: "skill should never be more than a secondary quality... you put such strong pressure on your ideas that they no longer dare to present themselves before you, so afraid are they of not being properly clothed". Remarks like this plunged Chausson into reflective depths. Placed as he was, exactly at the crossing of different artistic tendencies, a certain calling into question was inevitable. Behind him, but only too tangibly present, was the heritage of Beethoven and his implacable architecture; then there was the domination of Wagner, and before him the Symbolist movement and the revolution of his friends, the Impressionist painters. Which direction to choose? He confided in Debussy: "you know my antipathy for descriptive music... at the same time I felt myself incapable of creating pure music like Bach and Haydn. I had to find something else, therefore. I have found it, all that remains for me is to see whether I will have the strength to express what I feel. So long as I do nothing more than dream about it I am filled with confidence, but the moment I take up a pencil I feel like a very small boy".
A touching confession from someone who said elsewhere, "I don't want to go under without having written something, be it no more than a single page, that goes to the heart."
We find this "page" in the third movement of the Concert for violin and piano with string quartet written in 1890-91.
The esthetic of this composition belongs to the school of Franck in its large-scale proportions, its ternary, bi-thematicstructure, and its cyclic form. On the other hand, it diverges from it by processes that are not easy to analyse: an unpredictable way of modulating, the use of themes of uncertain contours and directions, and the sudden flash of an unexpected chord.
The first movement, in D major, Decide, begins with three accented notes given out like a summoning in the piano. They form the cell around which the whole movement is elaborated. In the extended development Chausson's "skill in clothing his themes" is apparent. Growing out of the initial cell the various elements appear metamorphosed as if they were being viewed through a prism. A concerto-like cadenza in the violin leads to the recapitulation with a new and extremely dense presentation of the themes in which the piano is given greater importance. After this thrilling outburst the coda with its parallel movement, the violin in the extreme treble, is of a soothing serenity.
The second movement is a Sicilienne in A minor of a slightly archaic cast. In the hands of Chausson this dance form, which was originally of a simple, amiable nature, becomes a composition with two perfectly complementary themes which he superimposes in an ingenious counterpoint.
The third movement, Grave, in F minor, is the "page that goes to the heart", a piece in which Chausson's tormented spirit is poignantly revealed. The piano is the moving force in the movement, and leads the progress through rhythmic accelerations and a complex harmonic development to a sort of glorious apotheosis which is transformed into a seraphic conclusion.
The Finale in D minor is a veritable turning of the tables: although in the minor, it is light, spontaneous, bathed in the light of constantly changing rhythms. The composer's imaginativeness is proven by the multiplicity of the variants of the initial theme. It is a veritable mosaic in which the Grave theme re-appears twice, a token of his loyalty to the cyclic form.