Emmanuel Chabrier

(Alexis-)Emmanuel Chabrier (January 18, 1841September 13, 1894) was a French Romantic composer.


Early life in Auvergne

Emmanuel Chabrier was born in the Marsac suburb of Ambert (Puy-de-Dôme), a town in the Auvergne region of central France. His father was an attorney; his childhood nanny Anne Delayre (whom Chabrier called 'Nanine') remained close to him throughout her life. He began his music lessons at the age of six; the earliest of his compositions to survive in manuscript are piano works from 1849.
His family moved to Clermont-Ferrand in 1852 where he prepared for a legal career, studied at the Lycée imperial and had practical and theoretical music lessons with Alexander Tarnowski, a Polish-born composer and violinist. A piano piece from this period Le Scalp!!!, was later modified into the Marche des Cipayes.

Paris: student then civil servant

In 1856 the family made Paris their home, and the young Chabrier continued serious studies in both of his chosen fields. Chabrier spent a year at the Lycée St Louis, passed the Baccalauréat, and entered law school from which he graduated in 1861, and on 29 October that year began a career at the French Ministry of the Interior. Despite this, his passion was music; during the 1860s he composed a number of minor piano works. His interest in Wagner began at this time, and he copied out the orchestral score of Tannhaüser.
From 1862 he entered the circle of the Parnassians in Paris some of whom collaborated with him in his work. His interest in poetry lead to a long friendship with Paul Verlaine, who contributed librettos to two early operettas that he did not complete.

There are several descriptions of Chabrier's piano-playing from around this time; many years later d'Indy wrote "Though his arms were too short, his fingers too thick and his whole manner somewhat clumsy, he managed to achieve a degree of finesse and a command of expression that very few pianists - with the exception of Liszt and Rubinstein - have surpassed". The wife of Renoir, a friend of Chabrier, wrote "one day Chabrier came; and he played his España for me. It sounded as if a hurricane had been let loose. He pounded and pounded the keyboard. The street was full of people, and they were listening, fascinated. When Chabrier reached the last crashing chords, I swore to myself I would never touch the piano again... Besides, Chabrier had broken several strings and put the piano out of action. Bruneau recalled that "he played the piano as no one has ever played it before, or ever will...
Both his parents died within a few months of each other in 1869. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) and Commune, Chabrier continued with his desk job as the ministry moved from Tours to Bordeaux to Versailles. In 1873, he married Marie Alice Dejean with whom he had three sons, one of whom died in early childhood.
He began several stage works during the 1870s, although the first one to be completed was L'étoile, which achieved 48 successful performances at the Bouffes-Parisiens in 1877, showcasing his light touch, musical aplomb, and comic wit.

Full-time composer

Chabrier's friends from the artistic avant-garde in Paris included Gabriel Fauré, Ernest Chausson, and Vincent d'Indy, as well as painters Henri Fantin-Latour, Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet whose 'Thursday' soirées Chabrier attended, and writers such as Zola, Daudet, Jean Moréas, Jean Richepin and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (as well as Daudet and Mallarmé). On a trip to Munich with Henri Duparc in 1879, he discovered Wagner's masterpiece Tristan und Isolde. This event lead him to realize his true passion for composition and quit the Ministry of Interior in 1880. In 1880 he composed his piano cycle Pièces pittoresques; the Idylle from the Pièces pittoresques greatly influenced Francis Poulenc.

Chabrier plunged himself into the scores of Wagner, and became an important assistant to Charles Lamoureux in preparing concert performances of the German master's works in Paris. He travelled to London (1882) and Brussels (1883) to hear the Ring cycle.

1882 also saw the Chabriers' visit to Spain which resulted in his most famous work España 1883, a mixture of popular airs he had heard and his own imagination. In the view of his friend Duparc, this composition for orchestra demonstrated an individual style that seemed to come from nowhere; other contemporary musicians were more condescending.

His opera Gwendoline, set in England during the Anglo-Saxon period, was a success at its premiere in Brussels in 1885, but closed after just two performance because the impresario went bankrupt. Similar bad luck haunted Le roi malgré lui ("The King, in Spite of Himself") two years later when the Opéra Comique in Paris burned after the third performance. D'Indy felt Chabrier lavished some of his most beautiful music on Le roi malgré lui but condemned the weak libretto, complaining "people continually come in when they ought to go out and vice versa." Fortunately, theater directors in Leipzig and Munich expressed interest in both works and Chabrier made several happy trips to Germany as a result.

Decline and final years

In his final years, Chabrier was strained by financial problems caused by the collapse of his bankers, suffered from failing health brought on by the terminal stage of syphilis, and depression about the neglect of his stage works in France. The death of his beloved 'Nanine' in January 1891 greatly affected him. He became obsessed with the composition of his opera Briséïs, which was inspired by a tragedy of Goethe and melodic echos of Wagner, but completed only one act. He attended the Paris premiere of Gwendoline, which finally took place in December 1893, but the ailing composer in his box did not understand that the applause was for him. He succumbed to general paralysis in the last year of his life, dying in Paris at the age of 53. Although he had asked to be buried near the tomb of Manet, he was laid to rest in the cemetery of Montparnasse.

Chabrier will be remembered most for his dazzling harmonic colors and his command of orchestral composition. The piano pieces he wrote show much originality and beauty. In general, his melodic gifts and traditional episodic writing make him a composer very much of his time. His many surviving letters give a vivid impression of his character, his ideas and his life.

Legacy: collection of art

Of particular interest in discussing Chabrier is his contacts with contemporary artists, particularly painters of the Impressionism school.

Chabrier left an astonishing collection of paintings by French painters. A sale of his collection at the Hôtel Drouot on 26 March 1896 included:

  • Les Moissonneurs by Cézanne
  • Un bar aux Folies Bergère by Manet
  • Le Skating by Manet
  • Les bords de la Seine by Monet
  • Le parc Monceau by Monet
  • La fête nationale, rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis by Monet
  • Femme nue by Renoir
  • Canotier à Hampton Court by Sisley
  • La Seine au Point du Jour by Sisley

Chabrier himself features in L'orchestre by Degas (C in the stage box), Autour du piano by Fantin-Latour (C at the piano), and two portraits by Manet:

  • Portrait de Chabrier (pastel, 1880)
  • Portrait de Chabrier (oil on canvas, 1881)

as well as a crayon portrait (1861) by James Tissot, a drawing (1887) by Edouard Detaille and a bust (1886) by Constantin Meunier.


Operas & operettas

  • Fisch-Ton-Kan, 1863-64 (opéra bouffe - incomplete, P. Verlaine), f.p. (as Peh-Li-Kan) 31 March 1875, ‘Cercle de l'Union artistique’ in Paris.
  • Vaucochard et fils Ier, 1864 (operetta - incomplete, Verlaine & L. Viotti), f.p. Salle de l'Ancien Conservatoire, 22 April 1941
  • Jean Hunyade, 1867 (opéra - incomplete, H. Fouquier)
  • L'étoile, 1877 (opéra bouffe, E. Leterrier & A. Vanloo) f.p. Bouffes Parisiens, Paris, 28 November 1877.
  • Le Sabbat, 1877 (opéra comique - incomplete, A. Silvestre)
  • Une éducation manquée, 1879 (operetta, Leterrier & Vanloo) f.p. Cercle de la Presse, Paris, 1 May 1879.
  • Les muscadins, 1880 (opéra - incomplete, J. Claretie & Silvestre)
  • Gwendoline, 1885 (opéra, Catulle Mendès) f.p. Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels, 10 April 1886.
  • Le roi malgré lui, 1887 (opéra comique, E. de Najac & P. Burani, revised by J. Richepin, after Ancelot) Opéra Comique (Favart), 18 May 1887.
  • Briséïs, or Les amants de Corinthe, 1888-91 (drame lyrique - only one act complete, Mendès & E. Mikaël, after Goethe) f.p. Concerts Lamoureux, Paris, 13 January 1897.

Orchestral Works

  • Lamento (1875)
  • Larghetto for horn and orchestra (1875)
  • España, rapsodie pour orchestra (1883)
  • Prélude pastorale and Joyeuse marche (1888; Chabrier's orchestration of Prélude et Marche française for piano 4-hands (1883/5)).
  • Suite pastorale (1888, orchestrations by the composer of four pieces from the Pièces pittoresques for piano)

Piano Works

  • Rêverie (1855)
  • Julia. Grande Valse op.1 (1857)
  • Le Scalp!!! (1861)
  • Souvenirs de Brunehaut. Waltz (1862)
  • Marche des Cipayes (1863)
  • Pas redoublé (Cortège burlesque) (1871)
  • Suite des valses (1872)
  • Impromptu in C major (1873)
  • 10 Pièces pittoresques (1881)
  • Trois valses romantiques for 2 Pianos (1883) (also orchestrated by Felix Mottl)
  • Prélude et Marche française for piano 4-hands (1883/5). Prélude orchestrated by Chabrier as Prélude pastorale, Marche française orchestrated as Joyeuse Marche (both 1888; the latter revised 1890, and also arranged for piano solo)
  • Habanera (1885, also orchestrated by the composer, 1888)
  • Souvenirs de Munich. Quadrille on Themes from Tristan und Isolde for piano 4-hands (1885-86)
  • Bourrée fantasque (1891; orchestrated by Felix Mottl, 1898, Charles Koechlin, 1924, Robin Holloway (completion of Chabrier's unfinished orchestration), 1994)
  • Cinq morceaux (posthumous)
  • Souvenirs de Munich: quadrille sur les thèmes favoris de Tristan et Isolde de Richard Wagner: pour piano à 4 mains. (Posthumous) From Sibley Music Library Digital Score Collection
  • arr Camille Chevillard España : rapsodie pour orchestre Arrangement for 2 pianos, 8 hands (1900) From Sibley Music Library Digital Scores Collection


  • Nine Songs (1862) (Couplets de Mariette, L'Enfant, Ronde gauloise, Le Sentier sombre, Lied, Chants d'oiseaux, Sérénade, Adieux à Suzon, Ah! petit démon!)
  • Les lèvres closes'' (1867)
  • L'invitation au voyage (1870, poem by Baudelaire)
  • Sérénade de Ruy Blas "À quoi bon entendre" (1873)
  • Sommation irrespectueuse (1880, poem by Hugo)
  • Tes yeux bleus (1883)
  • Credo d'amour (1883)
  • Chanson pour Jeanne (1886)
  • 6 mélodies (1890) (Ballade des gros dindons, Villanelle des petits canards, Les Cigales, Pastorale des cochons roses, L'Île heureuse, Toutes les fleurs)
  • Lied. Nez au Vent (postum)

Other vocal works

  • Cocodette et Cocorico. Comic duet for soprano, tenor and orchestra (1878)
  • Monsieur et Madame Orchestre. Comic duet for 2 voices, choir and piano (1877-79)
  • La Sulamite. Scène lyrique for mezzo-soprano, female chorus and orchestra (1884)
  • Duo de l'ouvreuse de l'Opéra-Comique et de l'employé du Bon Marché (1888)
  • À la musique for soprano, female chorus and orchestra (piano) (1890, words by Rostand)

Pieces in tribute by others

Satie: San Bernardo and Españaña (1913) quote España (dedicated to Debussy's daughter, Chouchou [Emma-Claude]).
Ravel: A la manière de... Chabrier (1913); Siebel's air from Act 3 of Gounod's Faust in the style of Chabrier.
Waldteufel: España - Waltz after Chabrier op. 236 (quotes mainly from España but also a duo from Une éducation manquée).
Verlaine's sonnet À Emmanuel Chabrier (published in Amour, 1888) written just after the initial run of Le roi malgré lui is a tribute to their friendship.

The ballet ‘Cotillon’ (Monte Carlo, 1932) with choreography by Georges Balanchine uses music by Chabrier: ‘La Toilette’ is the Menuet Pompeux orchestrated by Rieti, and ‘Danse des Chapeaux’, ‘Les mains du destin’ and ‘Grand rond’ are, respectively, the Scherzo-Valse, Idylle and Danse Villageoise in Chabrier’s own orchestrations.


  • Ivry, Benjamin (1996). Francis Poulenc. London: Phaidon. ISBN 0-7148-3503-X.
  • Delage, Roger. 1999. Emmanuel Chabrier. Paris: Fayard. ISBN 2.213.60508.4 - 35-56-0707-01/4
  • Poulenc, Francis (1981). Emmanuel Chabrier. London: Dobson. ISBN 0-234-77252-2.
  • Sadie, Stanley (Ed.) (1994). The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. New York: MacMillan. ISBN 0-935859-92-6.

External links

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