French Salon Music | Washington DC

La belle époque, which began during the late 19th century and lasted until World War I, was marked by Franco-Belgian composers Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Ravel and also a Spanish influence in Paris. During this period, musical salons were the favorite meeting places for musicians. These salons represented places where upper class individuals hosted important public figures, artists, writers and musicians. The music in this program included works that were commissioned by, dedicated to, or premiered in, a salon.

Women essentially ran the salons. One can appreciate the important role that they played in promoting musicians and circulating their music. Major debates focus around the relationship between the French salons and the public sphere as well as the role of women within the salons. At a time when society was defined and regulated almost completely by men, the musical salon provided a place for women to exercise a powerful influence. Women were the center of life in the salon, and they carried a very important role as regulators. These women were usually clever and brilliant, but at that time their cleverness and brilliance were primarily geared toward introducing their friends to new ideas and ways of life through happenings at the salons. Their particular gift was to inspire others. Much of the fascination that gave them such power in their day still clings to their memories.


French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is one of the most important figures of French impressionistic style even though he never liked to be called an impressionist composer. In letters, Debussy shared that he is “trying to do ‘something different’–an effect of reality…what the imbeciles call ‘impressionism’, a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by the critics, since they do not hesitate to apply it to Turner, the finest creator of mysterious effects in all the world of art”. Specific works of literature inspired most of Debussy’s compositions. For him, “music and poetry are the only two arts that move in space.” He explains, “musicians who do not understand poetry should not set it to music. They can only spoil it.”

Although Debussy did more to expand the possibilities of form, harmony, voice leading, and timbre than any other composer of his era, ten years before his death, he had yet to compose any music for violin. Arthur Hartmann (1881-1956), a brilliant Hungarian-born American violinist, helped solve this matter. In 1908, he attended a performance of Debussy’s opera Pélléas et mélisande (1902). Hartmann fell in love with Debussy’s music and sought out the publisher to acquire any violin music that Debussy might have written. Unfortunately, the publisher’s response was not one Hartmann wanted to hear. Hartmann then contacted Debussy directly and commissioned a work for his tour in United States. Since Debussy had little time to compose any violin music before the violinist’s next recital, Hartmann asked the composer for permission to transcribe some of his songs to the violin. The request was well received and started a friendship between the two musicians. In 1914, Debussy accompanied Hartmann in a recital that included the three transcriptions Hartmann had created from Debussy’s music.

“Il Pleure Dans Mon Cœur” (1885–1887) | Arranged for Violin and Piano by Arthur Hartmann  (1908)

Il PLeure Dans Mon Coeur is a movement from Claude Debussy’s song cycle Ariettes Oubliées for voice and piano written between 1885 and 1887. These settings of some of the best-known poems of Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) mark Debussy’s transition from a traditional composer in the style of Charles Gounod (1818-1893) to a more individual artist. Debussy’s music of Il Pleure Dans Mon Coeur”expresses the melancholy of Paul Verlaine’s (1844-1896) poem, this soft and light melancholy of the hearts who don’t know why they are sad.

“La Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin,” (1910) | Arranged for Violin and Piano by Arthur Hartmann  (1910)

La Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin, meaning The Girl With Flaxen Hair, is the eighth number of Claude Debussy’s Préludes, Book I (1909-1010). The piece originally written for piano solo was inspired by Charles-Marie Leconte de Lisle’s (1818-1894) poem La Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin (1852) in the book of poetry Chanson Ecossaises, meaning Scottish Songs.

“Beau Soir” (1880) | Arranged for Violin and Piano by Arthur Hartmann  (1910)

Claude Debussy’s Beau soir (Beautiful Evening), one of his youthful works, represents a stage of orthodox romanticism, which later lessened with musical mastery. With poetic texts taken from a collection entitled Les aveux (Confessions) by Paul Bourget (1852-1935), a personal friend, Debussy depicts the poet’s desire to be happy and enjoy life on a gorgeous evening, even though death is inevitable.


“Berceuse,” (1913)

The French composer, Germaine Tailleferre, was the only female member of the famous Les Six, a group of French composers who met at the Conservatoire de Paris around 1912 and became very close friends. The group included Georges Auric (1899- 1983), Louis Durey (1888-1979), Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), Darius Milhaud (1892- 1974), Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) and Tailleferre. Their music is often seen as a reaction against the musical style of Richard Wagner and impressionist music.

Tailleferre started composing short works at a very young age. Despite the opposition of her father, she auditioned for the Conservatoire de Paris in piano and solfège. In 1913, she won the first prize in counterpoint and harmony at the Conservatoire de Paris. During that successful year, she wrote Berceuse, which she dedicated to her professor Monsieur H. Dallier. Berceuse, meaning “lullaby” in English, is very well written for violin. The flow of the melody without constraint and ease seems as if inspired by Gabriel Fauré.

LILI BOULANGER (1893-1918)

“Deux Morceaux pour violon et piano,” Nocturne (1911) – Cortège (1914)

Lili Boulanger, the younger sister of the famous French composer Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979), was the first woman composer to win the Prix de Rome in 1913. French composers Hector Berlioz and Claude Debussy had previously won the prestigious award. In 1914, while studying at the French Academy in Rome and recovering from a severe illness, Lili Boulanger composed the tone poem, Cortège, here a lively and festive piece. The term “cortège” is used to describe either a slow procession or a victorious march. Boulanger appears to have written the piece in the “happy mood” showing her strong and positive character to overcome her illness.

Lili Boulanger dedicated Cortège to violinist Yvonne Astruc (1889-1980), a violinist and friend of the family who had often come to play at the Boulanger household. According to Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), Astruc’s “manner of playing is both purposeful and expressive.” In 1937, a French journal, “Le Petit Radio,” described her as the “Ambassadress of the French Musical Art” due to her noble style of playing, the beauty of her sound, and her impeccable technique. The French government awarded her the prestigious French Légion d’honneur. She premiered works dedicated to her like Darius Milhaud’s Concertino de printemps (1934) and Germaine Tailleferre’s violin concerto (1936).

After Lili’s death in 1918 at the age of twenty-four, Yvonne Astruc and Nadia Boulanger recorded Cortège in 1930, pairing it with Nocturne, also written for violin or flute and piano dedicated to Marie Danielle Parenteau. This little piece that Lili composed in 1911 was written in the impressionist style. It starts with a long pedal C in the piano, over which a hauntingly beautiful violin melody moves. The two voices push each other to a central powerful climax, which then fades back to its earlier, gentle atmosphere. Concert attendees were encouraged to listen for Lili’s musical quotation of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1892-94) and Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1857-59).

GABRIEL FAURE (1845-1924)

“Sonate pour violon et piano,” No. 1. (1876)

One of the leading salonnières of the Parisian musical scene, Pauline Viardot (1821-1910) born Garcia, is one of the little-known heroines of French music. The New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers describes her as an accomplished woman. She was a mezzo-soprano and composer, taught at the Paris Conservatory, and presided over a music salon in the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Through her salon, she helped launch the careers of many composers, including Camille Saint-Säens and Gabriel Fauré. For the young Fauré, Pauline Viardot “was by far the most glamorous female musical personality that [he] had ever encountered.” When composing his first sonata for violin and piano, in A Major, at the age of thirty, Fauré was courting Marianne Viardot, Pauline’s daughter. It was for Marianne’s brother, violinist Paul Viardot (1857-1941), considered a great salon player by the brilliant violin pedagogue, Carl Flesh (1873-1944), that the sonata is dedicated.

Ardent, elegant and refined are some of the adjectives that describe the music of Gabriel Fauré. His teacher, Camille Saint-Saëns, hailed this sonata for its “formal novelty, quest, refinement of modulation, curious sonorities, [and] use of the most unexpected rhythms.” The Sonata No. 1 for violin and piano was Fauré’s first chamber- music work and is considered a milestone in the history of that genre, not only in France but throughout Europe. It came ten years before the famous César Franck (1822-1890) sonata for violin and piano (1886), and three years before the violin sonatas of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). The work displays both exuberance and its own style of intimacy, mirroring the image of the composer. According to violinist Jacques Thibaud (1880- 1953), although “not especially difficult to play,” Fauré’s sonata in A Major for violin and piano can be “hard to interpret. It’s largely a matter of physical and mental touch.”

In the first movement the melodies unfold one after another, creating a propelling momentum. The elegance is complemented by youthfulness, and hopeful, refreshing qualities. The music flows on without constraint and with ease. The second movement is both tender and melancholic. The third movement, although written in 2/4, is like a “Scherzo;” and it is considered to be a masterpiece of French musical wit and brilliance. It displays a lightness and fast tempo in the outer parts with a rich middle section. This style became a prototype for later scherzo movements by both Ravel and Debussy. The final movement concludes brilliantly, lending boldness to a splendid work filled with beautiful, impassioned melodies.

Anne Chicheportiche

Posted in: Program Notes
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