Paris was a city under construction. Since the mid-1800s Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s vision of a cross-marked city, complete with green spaces and an expanded sewer system, was becoming a reality. The final phase of its development was interrupted by the firing of Haussmann and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). But, just as the city continued its reconstruction under the new government of the Third Republic, so too were the Arts being overhauled by ‘republics’ of their own.
In visual art, the subculture of the Anonymous Society of Painters (later called Impressionists) threatened the crusty Académie des Beaux-Arts and its darling annual Salon by hosting an exhibit of their own. In music, the Second Empire’s appetite for spectacle in opera and theatre were passed over in favour of a more serious and particularly French-faced music, thus making room for the Société Nationale de Musique. Gabriel Fauré was a founding member and Ernest Chausson served as secretary of this society that banded together with the purpose of championing French instrumental music. “Ars gallica”, versus (one might assume) Germanic, was the motto of the society.
This program features instrumental chamber music in the surprisingly rare form of the piano quintet (piano + string quartet). Though both string quartet and piano trio had been established in the Classical period in the hands of composers like W. A. Mozart and Franz Joseph Haydn, the piano quintet takes root much later, the first great example being Robert Schumann’s Op. 44. The Société’s decision, therefore, to write instrumental music amounted to a foray into fields well-populated by the Viennese masters. Further encroaching on German territory is this concert’s presentation of art song. Lieder (German art song) had been practised (and perfected) since the 19th century by the likes of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms, but French art song (mélodie) was a newer endeavour. However, the combination of voice with piano quintet has no well-known precedent.
Some see the Société’s creation as an anti-Germanic reaction, others that France of the Third Republic was maturing beyond opera (who had money for such frivolity after the war anyway?), and others that it was another example of nationalism in the 19th century. Whatever the cause, the society boasted the greatest composers of its generation. And, just as their Impressionist counterparts conceived of colour and light in new ways, so are these pieces stamped in their transparency, texture, and harmonic language with a uniquely French quality. Vive la Société.
Chanson perpétuelle, Op. 37 • Ernest Chausson
La Bonne Chanson, Op. 61 • Gabriel Fauré
Piano Quintet no. 1, Op. 89 • Gabriel Fauré
Sat, April 30th @ 8 p.m.
National Opera Center • Scorca Hall
330 Seventh Ave (betw 28th/29th)
Tickets: $20 Cash only, at door
Jee-Eun Hong, soprano
Jazimina MacNeil, mezzo-soprano
Wendy Case, violin
Anna Luce, violin
William Frampton, viola
Jennifer Lee, cello
Suna Chung, piano