At the time of the 1889 world premiere of Massenet’s Esclarmonde, Emmanuel Chabrier copiously annotated a copy of the piano-vocal score of this opera, which is considered, despite its unique features, one of the most Wagnerian works of the author. This remarkable and little-known document allows us once again to investigate the challenges of musical creation in a period when all dramatic composers were obliged to position themselves in relation to Wagner, particularly in France where lively debates were taking place between supporters and detractors of the master of Bayreuth. This new source also enriches our knowledge of two composers who, each in his own way, sought to respond to Wagnerian theater, all the while being inspired by it: from Wagner’s example both composers drew subjects based on legends, used reminiscence motifs or enriched their orchestral and harmonic palettes with Wagnerian techniques; but Massenet remained faithful to closed vocal forms, which Chabrier rejected in favor of more continuous composition. Chabrier, however, shows himself captivated by Esclarmonde, for Massenet’s score attests to the desire, very clear in both composers, to avoid blind submission to Wagner’s influence, especially to the point of losing one’s own identity.
A Reading of Massenet’s Esclarmonde by Chabrier: How Should French Composers Respond to Wagnerian Music Drama?
Jean-Christophe Branger, professor of musicology at the Université de Lorraine (Metz), has devoted most of his work to the history of music in France during the Third Republic, especially Massenet, Debussy, and Bruneau. He is author of monographs (on Bruneau and Massenet), numerous symposiums or essays on music or composers of this period. He currently is preparing a biography of Massenet and, with Vincent Giroud, the thematic catalogue of this composer.
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Jean-Christophe Branger; A Reading of Massenet’s Esclarmonde by Chabrier: How Should French Composers Respond to Wagnerian Music Drama?. 19th-Century Music 4 December 2018; 42 (2): 96–122. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2018.42.2.96
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