Chabrier: España

Emmanuel Chabrier, 1841-1894. España, Rhapsody for Orchestra. Completed 1883, first performance November 4th, 1883, in Paris. Scored for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, tympani, triangle, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, 2 harps, and strings.

Emmanuel Chabrier was a quintessential Frenchman, obsessed by all things sensual. When he died, his estate was a virtual Who's Who of Impressionistic artwork: a Cézanne, 11 Manets, 8 Monets, and 6 Renoirs, among others, all the acquisitions of an art lover who had no concern for the value they would command a century later. Letters from his Spanish journey, undertaken soon after he finally left his post as a clerk to devote himself to music, dance so lasciviously on edge of the erotic that they only the tamest may be quoted here:

Since coming to Andalusia I haven't seen a really ugly woman... I won't let on what these women display, but they display it beautifully. [With] their arms bare and their eyelashes so long they could be curled:... they spend their time laughing, gesticulating, dancing, [and] drinking.

Quite an intimate observation, considering that he brought his wife on the trip!

Other letters contain extensive musical quotations of the rhythms and melodies he heard. Intoxicated with the whole experience, he composed España, which would bring the fame and popularity that had so long eluded him. Unlike later cousins penned by other Frenchmen, the work is generally disliked in the land it describes, perhaps because, in the words of the great composer Francis Poulenc, `` España for Spaniards is nothing but a poor relation of their zarzuelas,... a portrait of Spanish music by a brilliant apprentice [painter].'' Yet for the outsider, it remains a perfect description of 19th-century Spain, as captivating as the subtle pastels of the Impressionists who shared Chabrier's perspective on the world.

© 1996, Geoff Kuenning

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