The composers Edward Elgar and Ernest Chausson were born just two years apart in the 1850s. Their fates, however, would turn out to be very different. Elgar lived until 1934, whereas Chausson met a tragically early end in 1899 when he crashed his bicycle into a wall. The Frenchman left some beautifully lush scores and a sad sense of what might have been, while his English counterpart spent the 1900s composing many of his most famous works.
On disc, these composers are often heard alongside their compatriots. But a new release from French-Canadian contralto Mari-Nicole Lemieux unites them, drawing on the theme of the very thing that separates their homelands: the sea.
Elgar’s Sea Pictures and Chausson’s Poem Of Love And The Sea were both completed in the 1890s, and both are about half an hour long – but there the similarities end. On Mer(s), accompanied by the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine and conductor Paul Daniel, we hear two seas: one a picturesque backdrop to multifarious human life, the other an overwhelming barrier and symbol of helplessness.
While Elgar chose to set five poets for five songs, Chausson drew solely on the words of Maurice Bouchor, in two long movements with a short interlude. The narrator seems to be at the coast, pining for a love who is, or is about to be, separated from him across the waters. He sets the scene in sensual detail, with fragrant lilacs and sun-kissed waves (see this translation by Christopher Goldsack).
To be frank, Bouchor’s verse soon becomes tiresomely monotone in its despondency, so it’s fortunate that Chausson was able to bring it to life with music of gorgeous, swooning romanticism, and attentive word-painting. Much of the score is languid and softly textured, but the end of the first movement builds into a magnificent sea vista, with rapid woodwind flourishes adding bright flecks of foam to the cresting waves:
the sea is singing, and the mocking wind
jeers at the anguish of my heart.
With its drawn-out operatic swells, Chausson’s ocean of sound is a capacious one, fit for wallowing in. Elgar, on the other hand, has no time for such indulgence. You can imagine his moustache bristling as he briskly tells Chausson’s work to pull itself together. His sea is something to be sailed on, swum in, charted and navigated.
Sea Pictures is classic Elgar of the Enigma Variations era – its beautiful lyricism controlled by the firm hand of late-Victorian reasonableness. There are impressionistic touches, such as the deep bass notes in Sea Slumber Song which lend a powerful sense of ocean pull. Contrastingly, In Haven (Capri), which sets words by his wife Alice, has a wonderful silky lightness. When Lemieux sings
Closely let me hold thy hand,
Storms are sweeping sea and land
the music is so dainty that it practically winks in conspiracy against the words. Unlike the anguished interiority of Chausson’s ‘poem’, these pictures can be framed, and viewed at a knowing distance.
The quiet piety of Browning’s Sabbath Morning At Sea is worked up into a swell of noble yearning, while the wistful Where Corals Lie teases us with allargando bars that flirt with music-hall sentimentality. In the final song, The Swimmer, we find ourselves among choppy waves, with the kind of striding harmonic sequences familiar from the Pomp And Circumstance marches.
So while Chausson’s narrator is doomed to languish on the sand, like a King Canute of lost love, Elgar’s cycle affirms the confident aspiration to match Neptune’s forces, with the rousing close:
I would ride as never man has ridden
In your sleepy, swirling surges hidden,
I would ride as never man has ridden
To gulfs foreshadowed through straits forbidden,
Where no light wearies and no love wanes.
These works make for a fascinating pairing, one which demonstrates the distinct musical personalities of these two composers, divided as they were by much more than the English Channel. The album also features La Mer, a rare choral ‘Ode symphonique’ by Victorin de Joncières. Explore your listening options here.
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