French Composers’ Names: Cécile Chaminade

The pianist and composer Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944) was admired by the British Queen Victoria, for whom she often performed at The House of Windsor. Over 200 Chaminade Music Clubs sprang up in the States, where she made her live debut in 1908 with the Philadelphia Orchestra in her own Concertstück. In 1913 France made her a member of the Légion d’Honneur, yet after her death Chaminade was virtually forgotten. From October 8 – 12 the Dutch classical station Radio 4 honors Chaminade with five daily programs in the series Componist van de week (Composer of the week) from 7:30 – 8 pm Central European Summer Time. They will be streamed live at www.radio4.nl.

George Bizet, a household friend at the Chaminade residence in Vésinet, a stylish suburb of Paris, lovingly called her ‘My little Mozart’. He advised her parents to send young Cécile to the Paris Conservatoire to study piano and composition. Papa, director of an insurance company and amateur violinist, refused permission, however: ‘Bourgeois girls are predestined to become wives and mothers.’

Chaminade’s mother, an apt piano player and singer herself, supported her daughter’s ambitions, and sent her to private teachers recommended by Bizet. As early as 1877, when her father was away on a business trip, Cécile took her chance to give a public recital in the Salle Pleyel in Paris. The concert was well received, and soon after she quickly rose to fame with her tuneful songs, solo pieces for piano, and her first Piano Trio (1880).

In April 1881 her piano teacher organized a portrait concert for the Société Nationale, which featured the première of Chaminade’s Suite d’Orchestre. Her Suite was so successful that it got new performances in the Concerts des Champs-Elysees and Concerts populaires. In the same year she wrote the comic opera La Sévillane, which shows influences of Bizet’s Carmen, but got only one private performance; it failed to ensure an engagement at the Paris Opéra Comique.

She was luckier with her ballet Callirhoë, that premiered in Marseille in 1888 and was performed over two hundred times – one of the productions hosted by the MET in New York. Chaminade was a prolific composer, and this year also saw premieres of her Concertstück for piano and orchestra and the ‘symphonie dramatique’ Les Amazones. She not only succeeded in getting all her four hundred works performed, but also got them published – not a matter of course for a female composer at the time.

After her father’s death in 1887 Cécile Chaminade had to support herself and her mother with her compositions and recitals, and this may be the reason why she concentrated on chamber music hereafter. The often heard assessment that her music ‘doesn’t transcend the level of salon music’ is an affront. Yes, her writing is easily accessible and shies away from the drastic dissonances Wagner or Schönberg offer, but it is very well made and shows a remarkable control of classical counterpoint. Works such as the Messe pour deux voix égales et harmonium, or La nef sacrée for organ are intensely moving masterpieces.

Cecile Chaminade - Konzertstuck Op. 40

As so often with women composers, such deprecatory remarks seem rooted in prejudice. Chaminade herself was well aware of this: “Women have not been considered a working force in the world and the work that their sex and conditions impose upon them has not been so adjusted as to give them a little fuller scope for the development of their best self. They have been handicapped, and only few, through force of circumstances or inherent strength, have been able to get the better of that handicap.”

Chaminade herself obviously belonged to these ‘few’. From 1892 she regularly performed for the British Queen Victoria, while in the States over two hundred Chaminade fan clubs were initiated even before she ever set foot on American soil. In 1913 France made her a member of the Légion d’Honneur, yet after her death in 1944, her music was quickly forgotten—especially by her own countrymen. Some blame Pierre Boulez, whose serialist techniques eclipsed lyrical music from the public scene, others blame it on gender bias. Fact is that of the few recordings I found for my program Composer of the week, none were made by French musicians. I sincerely hope Chaminade will soon be restored to her former fame.

[Ed.note] In terms of pronunciation, Chaminade’s last name could be pronounced: shah-mee-nahd. Here is the MP3:

Link to MP3: ICIYL – Cecile Chaminade