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The songs of Emmanuel Chabrier, ‘The least illiterate of musicians’

Composers have inspired no shortage of poems over the centuries, but there’s something especially touching about the sonnet Paul Verlaine dedicated in 1888 to the friend of his youth, Emmanuel Chabrier:

À Emmanuel Chabrier

(Paul Verlaine: from Amour, 1888)

Chabrier, nous faisions, un ami cher et moi,
Des paroles pour vous qui leur donniez des ailes,
Et tous trois frémissions quand, pour bénir nos zèles,
Passait l’Ecce deus et le Je ne sais quoi.

Chez ma mère charmante et divinement bonne,
Votre génie improvisait au piano,
Et c’était tout autour comme un brûlant anneau
De sympathie et d’aise aimable qui rayonne.

Hélas ! ma mère est morte et l'ami cher est mort.
Et me voici semblable au chrétien près du port,
Qui surveille les tout derniers écueils du monde,

Non toutefois sans saluer à l’horizon
Comme une voile sur le large au blanc frisson,
Le souvenir des frais instants de paix profonde.

Chabrier, a dear friend and I made
Words for you who gave them wings,
And all three shivered when, as if to bless our efforts,
We felt Ecce deus and I don’t know what else pass by.

At my charming and divinely good mother’s,
Your genius improvised at the piano,
And all around it was like a burning ring
Of radiating sympathy and amiable ease.

Alas! my mother is dead and our dear friend is dead.
And here I am like a Christian near the port
Watching out for the world’s very last reefs,

Not however without greeting on the horizon
Like a sail outstretched and aquiver in its whiteness,
The memory of those fresh moments of profound peace.

‘Des paroles?’ we might immediately ask. Tantalisingly, no Verlaine poems appear in Chabrier’s twenty-plus art songs. We do find texts by Verlaine , though – and not from his ‘official’ output – in what survives of two unpublished bouffe operettas that Chabrier and Verlaine concocted in the 1860s, both political satires on Napoléon III – Vaucochard et Fils 1er, and the punning Fisch-Ton-Kan (roughly translatable as ‘Bug’roff’). The plot of Fisch-Ton-Kan is then effectively carried over, via different librettists, into Chabrier’s comic opera L’Étoile of 1877, by which time Chabrier had really hit his stride as a composer. Debussy was one of many composers who were crazy about L’Étoile, whose outright humour and musical satire, unequalled in the repertoire, include a tickling aria, a sneezing aria, and a side-splitting Donizetti spoof in honour of chartreuse verte – the last of these crooned in duo by two of the opera’s pantomime villains as they get themselves sozzled, in the mistaken belief that they’re doomed.

Emmanuel Chabrier by Édouard Manet

What for me, and for many others, makes Chabrier unique and immortal is the sense of pure sunshine that emanates from any of his music, whether its mood is carefree or introspective. Although technically an amateur for two decades, working at the Ministry of the Interior and composing through evenings and weekends, Chabrier set himself standards of musical professionalism and tautness of expression and structure that Ravel later took as models. No other single composer, Ravel repeatedly stated, had marked him so strongly as Chabrier. As with Ravel, there’s no padding in Chabrier’s music, never a bar that doesn’t need to be there.

A turning point in Chabrier’s career came in 1880, when he went on pilgrimage to Munich to attend Tristan und Isolde. A long composing summer ensued, one he kept extending in order to complete the piano cycle Pièces pittoresques along with a substantial Victor Hugo setting. Realising finally that music was his life, he threw in his Ministry post and, inter alia, became chorus master for his conductor friend Charles Lamoureux. While training Lamoureux’s choir he prepared some of Lamoureux’s soloists for major roles at Bayreuth, acquiring a reputation as a top repetiteur, a skill he incidentally shared with Fauré and Debussy. By then Chabrier had long been firm friends with Henri Duparc, Gabriel Fauré and Vincent d’Indy (the younger Ernest Chausson would join them in the early 1880s), friendships that prompted afternoon and evening gatherings featuring their songs in Duparc’s, Chausson’s or Chabrier’s homes.

Around the Piano by Fantin-Latour (1885). Chabrier at the piano, d’Indy second from right

If Duparc’s fame rests on seventeen iconic mélodies composed in his relative youth, Chabrier’s reputation in the genre has been slower to coalesce, around a body of songs that only gradually reached a printed total of twenty-five, plus sixteen folksong settings published in 1888 (in a collective volume, Les plus jolies chansons du pays de France). Chabrier rarely if ever applied the term mélodie to his songs, being happier to stay with the older appellation romance, for reasons we’ll see. That reveals anything but a lack of originality: his muse blends outright humour with tenderness, modernity with compositional wit and emotional immediacy, qualities more to the fore there than overt refinement. Extreme sophistication nonetheless lurks in every corner, once seen. (Some years ago, when I had the unforgettable pleasure of attending the New York City Opera production of L’Étoile, I found it repeatedly bringing to mind the orchestral colours and clarity, and the emotional clarity and wit, of Mozart’s Figaro, an opera I suspect Chabrier knew backwards and inside out.)

By 1888, when Verlaine penned his sonnet, Chabrier was in his late forties with only four songs in print (three published commercially, another printed in the Album du Gaulois in February 1885). By Chabrier’s death in 1894, the total in print had risen to just ten (including a song adaptation he helped concoct of his orchestral rhapsody España). In 1897 his former publisher belatedly issued one more, along with some hitherto ignored gems for piano; four more songs followed in 1913 (including Tes yeux bleus, originally printed in the Album du Gaulois), to make a total of fourteen. Not until the 1990s did eleven earlier songs reach print, in a first complete critical edition from Éditions Heugel-Leduc, prepared by the devoted, multi-skilled and unforgettably gentlemanly Roger Delage (who also bequeathed us a mammoth tome of Chabrier’s wonderfully Rabelaisian correspondence, plus an exhaustive biography and some precious recordings).

Like many before, I’d erred in assuming Chabrier’s earliest songs to be ephemeral juvenilia. A corrective came on hearing students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland recently take on several of them, as part of French song repertoire projects that I’ve had the good fortune to coach there over the last few years, in tandem with French song expert Christopher Underwood. As Ravel once observed, three bars of anything by Chabrier suffice to reveal their author; even these early songs, some of them possibly penned as putative stage numbers, delight us with unusual modal or harmonic turns or darts of humour and tenderness. (The fifth of them is one of the earliest settings of Banville, ‘Inviolata’ from Améthystes.)

Programme for the 1874 premiere of Chabrier's L’invitation au voyage

1870 marked a watershed in Chabrier’s vocal writing, with his setting of Baudelaire’s L’invitation au voyage, composed a few months before Duparc’s famous version. It’s hard not to imagine some collusion there: no serious composer had set Baudelaire until, in 1870, three good friends suddenly all did at once – Chabrier then Duparc with L’invitation au voyage, and Fauré with Hymne. If Duparc’s L’invitation now has classic mélodie status, Chabrier’s is harder to place or define: involving a bassoon obbligato, it takes the voice across nearly two octaves in a slowly lilting waltz redolent of café-concert, with harmonies that simultaneously evoke the Tristan und Isolde of Baudelaire’s idol, Wagner. Yet Chabrier evokes Wagner there without directly quoting him: harmonically he’s entirely his own man, just as he is with syllabification. Compare the stresses in Duparc’s opening text underlay – ‘Mon en-fant–, ma sœur’ (with a long third syllable) – with Chabrier’s ‘Mon en-fant, ma sœur’, involving a portamento slide down from ‘ma’, and underpinned by rolled piano chords off the beat that leave a distinct scent of café-concert, where Baudelaire was most at home. (There’s no evidence that Chabrier ever met Baudelaire, but they shared a few friends, including Villiers de l’Isle-Adam.) First performed in 1874 as a ‘scène chantée’, Chabrier’s L’invitation au voyage is as quietly iconoclastic for music as Baudelaire’s poem was for literature, not least in the way it preserves a sense of the poem’s quirkily intricate metrical scheme. A legend has sometimes circulated that Chabrier left the setting unpublished in deference to Duparc’s version, but that’s implausible (Duparc’s version wasn’t published until 1894); it’s more likely that no publisher of the time had a clue what to do with something so off-beat. Maybe it’s apt that it eventually reached print in 1913, the year of The Rite of Spring.

Chabrier’s ensuing songs become more concentrated, including two contrasted Hugo settings, Sommation irrespectueuse (from Hugo’s Chansons des rues et des bois), an impassioned tour-de-force for baritone that stands dramatically alongside a delicately scherzando ‘Sérénade’ from Ruy Blas, set in a C major which, typically for Chabrier, is generously laced with F-sharps and C-sharps. Equally contrasted are two settings of his friend and librettist Catulle Mendès, the poignant Chanson pour Jeanne and a blatantly saucy Lied. Decades later the soprano Madeleine Grey recalled how Ravel, when they rehearsed together, would exhort her to take up Chanson pour Jeanne: ‘it’s so beautiful’. Lied features a fête-galante-like woodscape in which an opportunistic elf obligingly helps young Bertha find the best places to ‘pick strawberries’. Francis Poulenc later remarked that he knew ‘nothing so impudent in the whole of French song’, the stanzas interspersed by chromatic chord slides, before a mock-innocent final cadence suggests a quietly knowing wink. This song makes one of the most irresistible encores in the repertoire.

Credo d’amour (ca 1883) comes from the aptly-named Vers pour être chantés by Armand Silvestre (from which Fauré drew for a dozen songs between 1878 and 1904). More striking again – I know nothing like it – is Tes yeux bleus of 1883, to a text by Chabrier’s friend Maurice Rollinat, aka the ‘poète chanteur’ of the Chat Noir. Its openly unpretentious poem permits what I suspect was Chabrier’s ideal, of café-concert immediacy blended with cutting-edge modernity: again the air is thick with a scent of Tristan (and a lot of chromatic contrary motion), yet avoiding verbatim quotation until a thematic fragment at the very end. Within the song’s leisurely three-in-a-bar (notated in 3/4 metre) lies a constant undertow of two-in-the-bar 6/8 rhythm, setting the atmosphere on an emotional knife-edge. Only after first encountering this explosively intense song did I recognise in it the precursor of the similar cross-rhythm permeating the central Adagio movement of Ravel’s G major piano Concerto of 1931 – where that rhythmic blend still sounds modern, and just as emotionally gripping.

A characteristic of Chabrier’s output – one that equally marked Ravel – becomes increasingly apparent here, in the form of achieving something different with each work or song, never lapsing into structural or expressive routine. Around 1885 Chabrier had written to his publisher, ‘What we don’t want is sickly music; there are some of them, even young ’uns, constantly tormenting themselves to produce three poor little buggers of altered chords, always the same ones, too; it doesn’t live, it doesn’t sing, it doesn’t fire [‘ça ne pète pas’, literally ‘it doesn’t fart’]. A romance, a short number, above all has to sing.’ In 1889 he followed up: ‘I’ve written to Silvestre explaining [the sort of verse] I want. What I don’t want are these sempiternal flowerbeds in three couplets where they inanely pick scratch-arse [rosehips] and chrysanthemums; what I don’t want is gloop about falling in love amid budding flowers or in April and May; let’s give those two months a rest, along with flowers in gardens. I want to do something cheerful, for both sexes, robust, hearty; fables, stories…’

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Manet (1882), owned by Chabrier and the inspiration for the 1934 ballet Bar aux Folies-Bergère, to music by Chabrier

Ironically, Chabrier found what he wanted not from Silvestre but from a young poet couple who supplied both flowers and springtime – but more importantly an immortal series of barnyard burlesques. Rosemonde Gérard was just eighteen when she published her poetry collection Les Pipeaux; her fiancé, Edmond Rostand, was twenty-one and about to publish Les Musardises. His ‘Toutes les fleurs’ suggests a manically impassioned outpouring (leaving even Verlaine’s ‘Green’ well behind, never mind April and May); Chabrier’s 1890 setting is equally full-on for the pianist (I’ve heard experienced pianists come to grief in it). L’île heureuse exceptionally revisits the ethos of L’invitation au voyage, for a poignant reason. As Roger Delage discovered, Chabrier originally sketched its music to Gérard’s poem ‘Printemps’, before urgently resetting it to the similarly-metred poem ‘L’île heureuse’ by Ephraïm Mikhaël, Chabrier’s young co-librettist, who was dying of tuberculosis. The song might now be sung with either poem, though it understandably appeared in 1890 with just Mikhaël’s text.

The four items that really ‘pètent’, though, are four rustic or ‘Barnyard’ songs that lie at the foundation of later cycles like Ravel’s Histoires naturelles and Poulenc’s Le Bestiaire. From Rosemonde Gérard came ‘Villanelle des petits canards’ [Villanelle of the little ducks] and ‘Les Cigales’ [The Cicadas]; from Rostand, ‘Pastorale des cochons roses’ [Pastorale of the pink piggies] and ‘Ballade des gros dindons’ [Ballad of the fat turkeys], all social satires, sometimes affectionate (the pigs and ducks), sometimes less. The most rhythmically relentless one aptly conveys the din of cicadas, its refrain dropping into musical satire: ‘Les cigales, ces bestioles, / Ont plus d’âme que les violes, / Les cigales, les cigalons, / Chantent mieux que les violons.’ [One might roughly render that as ‘The cicadas, by many miles / are more soulful than viols, / The cicadas, bereft of silence / Sing better than violins.’] With his usual sense of strategic timing, Chabrier inserts a hiatus into each refrain just before the closing ‘que les violons.’

If Rostand’s ‘Ballade des gros dindons’ already supplies the bluntest social satire of the set (and how), Chabrier ramps that up further with double-edged musical satire, playing on the poem’s alternating soft line-endings (‘tranquille’, ‘file’, ‘docile’, ‘imbécile’, etc.). By entrenched tradition these end-of-line mute es, not pronounced (or barely) in poetic recitation, had to be enunciated when sung: ‘Les gros dindons, à travers champs, / D’un pas solennel et tranquil-LE, / Par les matins, par les couchants, / Bêtement marchent à la fi-LE.’ My bold caps there are intended to convey something of how sky-high Chabrier sends them – to the potential discomfiture of singers already contending with being turkey-basted by the song’s opening performing indication ‘Bêtement’ [‘stupidly’]. (They can’t win, for the opening page sounds anodyne if sung ‘musically’; Chabrier clearly couldn’t resist turning that ratchet.) We might wonder if Rostand deliberately set up that rhyme scheme, maybe in collusion with Chabrier (the poem, not published in Les Musardises, appears to have been written to order). To make things even more excruciating, the song’s stanzas are punctuated by a ritornello that parodies the serenade from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

The Ministry of the Interior building, Paris, with a plaque on the wall commemorating Chabrier

We don’t know where that explosive bundle received its première, but it’s tempting to imagine Chabrier hoping to lob it at the august Société nationale de musique, where pronounced mute es were a holy grail. (Ravel’s Histoires naturelles were later to cause a major scandal there by colloquially eliding mute es, in a natural sequel to Chabrier’s ruse.) Final apoplexy would have been assured by the penultimate line of Les gros dindons, ‘Ils se fichent de toute idylle’ [‘They don’t give a damn for anything idyllic’]. That, too, Chabrier manages to send up, literally, by making the voice leap up an octave and a half, subito pianissimo, for the middle syllable of ‘idylle’.

Chabrier hoped his barnyard series might eventually total twenty songs (there was particular talk of a Valse des veaux to come); alas, progressive syphilitic paralysis ended his composing after 1890. Poulenc was to reflect ruefully that, had Chabrier lived, he would have found his perfect opera libretto – something he spent his lifetime fruitlessly seeking – in Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.

Chabrier’s song output stands out from any other, less mélodie than Duparc, Fauré, Chausson or Debussy, nearer Ravel’s later ethos of storytelling. Besides the anticipation of Ravel’s Histoires naturelles, natural affinities link Ravel’s and Chabrier’s folk settings, or Chabrier’s Mendès Lied to the Rabelaisian satire of Ravel’s Verlaine setting Sur l’herbe – plus the likes of Ravel’s Manteau des fleurs in the wake of Chabrier’s Toutes les fleurs. If Debussy’s songs inhabit a different emotional world, his music leans hard on Chabrier’s, most audibly in his first masterly cycle, the Verlaine-based Ariettes oubliées composed in the mid-1880s. The last of them, ‘Spleen’, is overtly based – as Debussy may have expected alert listeners to notice – on a theme from the ‘Épithalame’ (Bridal song) in Chabrier’s opera Gwendoline.

Besides Chabrier’s ‘official’ 25 songs and the 16 folksong settings, a few light-hearted vocal duos survive, along with a ravishing unpublished aria, ‘Vos doux accents’, that was left stranded in the mid-1880s by cuts made to the libretto-in-progress of Le Roi malgré lui. I had the privilege and pleasure of accompanying a probable première of that aria in Paris in the 1990s, with soprano-composer Camille van Lunen. Its Australian première in 2009, with soprano Rosalind Martin, can be heard here. The following links are to five more Chabrier songs in which I equally had the pleasure of accompanying Rosalind (in concerts in the Elder Hall, Adelaide, in 2007 and 2009): Chanson de Jeanne; Tes yeux bleus; Villanelle des petits canards; Les Cigales; and Lied. Our thanks extend to Ray Thomas, who recorded the concerts and kindly allowed these tracks to be made available here.

Some more recordings

L’invitation au voyage and other Chabrier songs:

– baritone Bruno Laplante, pianist Janine Lachance and bassoonist René Masino (recorded in 1978, various issues on CD, mostly on YouTube.

soprano Agnès Mellon with baritone Franck Leguérinel, pianist Françoise Tillard and bassoonist François Charruyer, Timpani CD 1C1144, mostly on YouTube.

In 1928 Jane Bathori recorded Lied, accompanying herself; this was remastered on a 1999 Marston CD. (Bathori was married to Émile Engel, friend of Chabrier and dedicatee of Chanson pour Jeanne.)

Historic recordings of Reynaldo Hahn accompanying himself in Toutes les fleurs, Les Cigales and L’île heureuse can be heard on YouTube.

Pierre Bernac and Francis Poulenc recorded several Chabrier songs for various discs and broadcasts, some now on You Tube.

Fisch-Ton-Kan and Vaucochard et Fils 1er feature on a première recording conducted and partly orchestrated by Roger Delage, on a 1992 Arion CD, ARN 68252.

More reading

Roger Delage, with Frans Durif & Thierry Bodin (eds), Emmanuel Chabrier: Correspondance. Paris: Klincksieck, 1994

Roger Delage, Emmanuel Chabrier. Paris: Fayard, 1999

Roy Howat, The Art of French Piano Music: Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, Chabrier. London & New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. (Chapters 7 and 13 are entirely devoted to Chabrier.)

David Hunter, Understanding French Verse: A Guide for Singers. New York: Oxford UP, 2005

Francis Poulenc, Emmanuel Chabrier. Geneva: La Palatine, 1961 (English edition, trans. Cynthia Jolly, London: Dobson, 1981)


Pianist Roy Howat is Keyboard Research Fellow at the Royal Academy of Music and Senior Research Fellow at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland; he also holds visiting appointments in Australia. With Emily Kilpatrick he is co-editor of the Complete Fauré Songs, for Peters Edition (of which the third volume, comprising Fauré’s Verlaine settings, was launched in 2015 under the auspices of the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation). Various musical posts of Roy’s can be seen at; his many publications are listed at


Posted on:Tuesday 1st June, 2021