"French composer Cécile Louise Stéphanie Chaminade (1857–1944) enjoyed considerable success between about 1880 and 1910, touring as a pianist and performing her own works. In the United States she was so popular that a national group of musical clubs was named after her, and in England her Prélude for organ was played at Queen Victoria's funeral in 1901.
In the years after World War I, Chaminade's music was mostly forgotten. There may be several reasons for its neglect, but a bias against the works of women composers certainly played a role. Even at the height of her career, Chaminade faced an insoluble dilemma when she aimed her work at male critics: if she focused on lighter genres such as small piano pieces and songs, which were mostly the province of female musicians, her work was thought to be trivial, but if she attempted to work in larger forms, she was criticized for her lack of feminity.
Talent Spotted by Bizet
Chaminade was born in Paris on August 8, 1857 (earlier sources list 1861 as her birth year). Her father was a prosperous insurance office manager for the Parisian branch of a London firm. The family moved to the village of Le Vésinet, west of Paris, when Chaminade was young, in the process acquiring the famed operatic composer Georges Bizet as a neighbor. Chaminade began playing the piano, composing keyboard music and pieces for her local Catholic church when she was very young, and Bizet was reputed to have praised her talent when he visited the family in 1869. Around the same time, she may have played for and impressed the aging Franz Liszt, the undisputed king among piano virtuosi of the nineteenth century.
The beginnings of Chaminade's musical education came from her mother, who played the piano and sang. Even beyond what musical celebrities may have said about her talent, it was clear that she possessed special gifts, and she was taken to meet a professor at the Paris Conservatory named Le Couppey. The teacher urged her to enroll immediately in music theory classes at the Conservatory in Paris, but Chaminade's father, Hippolyte, forbade her to enter the school, believing that it would be improper for a young woman of the upper middle class. A compromise was reached: Chaminade could take private lessons with Conservatory faculty.
In 1875 Chaminade got her first inkling of how the French musical establishment could crush those whom it did not choose to favor: she attended the premiere of Bizet's opera Carmen, which is now considered among the greatest of all operas but which was savaged by Parisian critics at the time. The disheartened and ailing Bizet died a few months later. Chaminade was one of those who realized the work's value at the time, and she later wrote an essay condemning the way its composer had been treated.
In 1877 Chaminade performed at the Salle Pleyel concert hall in Paris, and one of her pieces, an Etude (or Study), was published and well reviewed. She followed with a larger concert at Le Couppey's house on April 25, 1878, consisting entirely of her own music. The concert was a success, and Chaminade began to write music for larger ensembles in addition to piano music. She wrote two trios for piano, violin, and cello, and in April of 1881 her Suite for orchestra, a four-movement symphony-like work, was performed on a program mounted by France's National Music Society. Reviews were mixed, but Chaminade's relative youth was noted in prophecies that she might have a bright future as a composer.
In the early 1880s, Chaminade's career as a performer picked up; she often appeared in concerts of her own music and as part of chamber music groupings (chamber music is music for a group of a few instruments). She also still had ambitions to write music in larger forms and completed an opera, La Sévillane (The Woman from Seville) in 1882. Chaminade, mindful of what had happened to Bizet, proceeded slowly with the project, mounting a performance, accompanied by herself on the piano, at her parents' house. Important musical personalities in attendance praised the opera and discussed mounting it during a season of the Opéra-Comique company, but it was never given a full performance.
Chaminade's music continued to gain momentum throughout the 1880s; the Suite for orchestra was performed as far afield as Brussels, and a ballet, Callirhoë, was given to great fanfare in Marseilles in 1888. The ballet was performed numerous times, and one section, the Scarf Dance, arranged for keyboard, became one of Chaminade's most popular piano pieces. Chaminade mostly failed, however, to crack the top levels of Parisian concert life; her music was performed mainly in smaller cities.
Two important events in the late 1880s conspired to push Chaminade's career in a new direction. The first was the death of her father in 1887. Chaminade's family had fallen on comparatively hard times and had sold their large house in Paris, moving permanently to Le Vésinet. Chaminade, who lived at home until her mother's death, had no ready source of income. But the problem was partly solved with the premiere in Belgium of Chaminade's Concertstück (Concert Piece) for piano and orchestra in 1888—it became one of her few large-scale Parisian successes when she repeated the performance in that city the following year. The work became one of Chaminade's most successful; it was soon performed around Europe and even in Chicago, often independent of any appearance by Chaminade. More significant from a financial point of view was that Chaminade's execution of the difficult work propelled her into the top rank of concert attractions. For the next 20 years it was Chaminade the pianist, and tangentially Chaminade the composer, who was in demand.
Chaminade toured steadily around Europe in the 1890s, finding special success in England. She first appeared there in 1892, and gave concerts at St. James Hall and other venues at least once in most years over the next two decades. After her first flush of success she was hardly a critical favorite; one journalist in 1897 disparagingly compared her new works to new fashions coming off the boat from Paris. But audiences, from the Queen on down, loved her. Queen Victoria invited her to perform at Windsor Castle, and the frequency with which she was invited to perform in London testifies to her continuing popularity. Chaminade turned out new music—songs and short piano pieces—to capitalize on the market for her music that these performances created.
Chaminade Clubs Formed
These pieces also found a strong audience in the United States, where Chaminade Clubs—named for Chaminade but devoted to musical events of various kinds—began to spring up around 1900. By 1904 Chaminade estimated that there were 200 separate chapters. The clubs were mostly composed of female musical amateurs. Club members in Brooklyn, New York, made an anagram out of Chaminade's name (quoted in Marcia J. Citron's Cécile Chaminade: A Bio-Bibliography) to describe their aims: "C—Concentrated & Concerted Effort; H—Harmony of Spirit & Work; A—Artistic Ideals; M—Musical Merit Maintained; I—Inspiration; N—Notes (every kind except Promissory); A—Ardor & Aspiration; D—Devotion to Duty; E—Earnest Endeavor." New clubs were established at least through the 1930s.
In 1901 Chaminade married Louis-Mathieu Carbonel, a Marseilles music publisher. Carbonel was 20 years older than Chaminade, and the two agreed to live apart and not to have sexual relations. It was by all appearances a marriage of convenience, but Chaminade spent several years caring for Carbonel after he fell ill with a lung disease during one of her concert tours in 1903. Her career lost precious momentum between that year and the time of Carbonel's death in 1907. In the fall of 1908, though she disliked the idea of making the transatlantic journey, she accepted a lucrative offer to visit the United States and gave concerts in 12 cities. Most were sellouts, and Chaminade's opening recital at Carnegie Hall grossed a near-record $5,000.
By that time, Chaminade's music had begun to seem somewhat old-fashioned. Her lyrical, melodic piano pieces looked back to the short piano works of Frédéric Chopin, with occasional influences from the more dramatic Franz Liszt, but critical attention had shifted to the harmonically daring, impressionistic works of Claude Debussy, which Chaminade herself disliked. Chaminade's popularity, and her musical output, declined somewhat in the 1910s. Aggressive and sometimes explicitly male-centered ideologies of modernism had little use for pleasant music like Chaminade's; her commercial success worked against her, and often her music was characterized as domestic, as intended for the drawing room or salon. Feminist scholars later pointed out the ways in which such characterizations were designed to suppress women's creativity.
Chaminade received some rare recognition in her home country in 1913, when she became the first female composer inducted into the Legion of Honor. The outbreak of World War I put a stop to her creative activity. Living in a villa near Toulon that had been purchased by her husband, Chaminade worked as a nurse for French soldiers in a recovery facility near her home. After the war ended, she resumed performing and made some piano rolls for the Aeolian Company in London. Her health declined in the 1920s and 1930s, and in 1938 her left foot had to be amputated. Living by then in Monte Carlo and being cared for by relatives, she was heartened by the reception of birthday greetings around the world as a result of a campaign organized by the American music magazine The Etude. She died in Monte Carlo on April 13, 1944.
A few of Chaminade's pieces—the Scarf Dance, the Concertstück, and the Concertino for flute and orchestra—remained in the classical repertory, but for a time she was almost completely forgotten. Near the end of the twentieth century, investigations into the music of women composers revived some of her popularity. In her book Gender and the Musical Canon, which investigated the more general reasons for the absence of works by women among the most frequently performed classical works, Marcia J. Citron suggested that one movement of Chaminade's Piano Sonata of 1895 may have been organized in such a way as to subvert the common characterization of themes in a sonata movement as "masculine" and "feminine." Many other works by Chaminade, however, awaited rediscovery by performers and music writers. These included the choral symphony Les amazones (The Amazons) of 1888—one of just a few large Chaminade works with specifically gender-based content. More generally, the broader phenomenon of Chaminade's popularity, including the Chaminade clubs, invited further investigation.
Citron, Marcia J., Cécile Chaminade: A Bio-Bibliography, Greenwood, 1988.
――――――, Gender and the Musical Canon, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
"Cécile Chaminade," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 19, 2006).
"Cécile Chaminade," Classical Composers Database, http://www.classical-composers.org (January 19, 2006).
"Chaminade, Cécile." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chaminade-cecile
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Chaminade, Cécile (Louise Stéphanie)
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