If Marcel Proust had written music, it might have sounded something like Ernest Chausson's: intensely passionate, yet rarely given to grand gestures.
The effectiveness of Chausson's ardent, even erotic, musical language derives largely from the slithery chromatic style the composer inherited from his most important teacher, César Franck. Not a prolific composer, Chausson died in 1899, at the age of 44, from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident. Chausson's death silenced the most distinctive voice in French music in the generation immediately preceding Debussy's; indeed, Chausson's music forms an elegant, if swaying, bridge between Franck's lush, Wagnerian Romanticism and the sensuous Impressionist language of Debussy. Chausson came from a well-to-do family; in fact, comfortable circumstances throughout his entire life made it unnecessary for him to pursue a living as a musician. Although interested in music from a young age, Chausson pursued law studies at his father's behest. In 1877, he was sworn in as a lawyer in Paris; in the same year, he wrote his first work, the unpublished song Lilas. The impulse to devote himself to composition was sparked in 1879, when he attended a performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in Munich and met there the sometime Wagner disciple Vincent d'Indy. Chausson entered the Paris Conservatory in the following year and began studies with Jules Massenet; his formal musical education was rounded out by private study with Franck. Chausson's talent flowered in short order; a number of even his earliest published works -- especially the song set Seven Melodies, Op. 2 (1879-1882) -- have long been regarded as small masterpieces. As secretary of the Société Nationale de Musique (an organization founded by Saint-Saëns and others to promote the performance of French instrumental music) from 1886, Chausson became a full-fledged member of the Parisian musical community. His salon became a regular meeting place for literary and musical notables includeing Mallarmé, Debussy, Albéniz, pianist Alfred Cortot, and violinist/composer Eugène Ysaÿe. A prolific composer of songs, Chausson also composed works for voice and orchestra, choral music, and several operas. He is best known, however, for his chamber music -- especially the Concerto for piano, violin, and string quartet, Op. 21 (1889-1891), and the Piano Quartet, Op. 30 (1897) -- and for imaginative orchestral works like the Symphony in B flat major, Op. 20 (1889-1890), and the Poème for violin and orchestra, Op. 25 (1896).