Chaminade, Cécile (1857–1944)

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Chaminade, Cécile (1857–1944)

French composer and pianist, recognized as the first professional woman composer, whose work has been rediscovered in recent years, appearing on major labels. Pronunciation: SHAH-mee-nod. Born Cécile Louise Stéphanie Chaminade in Paris, France, on August 8, 1857; died in Monte Carlo, Monaco, on April 13, 1944 (some sources cite the 18th); third of six children of Hippolyte Chaminade (a manager of a British insurance firm in Paris who played the violin) and a mother who was an amateur pianist; studied in Paris with various teachers, including Benjamin Godard Félix Le Couppey, Augustin Savard, and Martin Marsick; married Louis-Mathieu Carbonel (a music publisher), on August 29, 1901.

Was composing by age seven; gave first concert ten years later (1875); much of her early life was spent concertizing; had become the first professional woman composer (1900); appeared in Great Britain, Europe and the U.S. on international concert tours (1890s–1914); was the first female composer to receive the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor (1913).

Cécile Louise Stéphanie Chaminade was born in Paris on August 8, 1857, the third of six children. The Chaminades were a prosperous family who valued music highly. Her father Hippolyte Chaminade, a manager of a British insurance firm in Paris, played the violin, while her mother, an amateur pianist whose name was never cited in biographies, gave young Cécile her first lessons on the keyboard. Life in France's Second Empire in the early 1860s was pleasant indeed. The family lived on the fashionable Rue Brochant, spending their holidays at the Château de la Farge, their villa in Périgord. In 1865, property was purchased in Le Vésinet, a village west of Paris, and many vacations were spent there.

Cécile's musical gifts revealed themselves early. She composed by the age of seven, and around that time some of her piano mazurkas appeared in print in a magazine. Georges Bizet, the famous composer of "Carmen" who was also a neighbor, noticed the little girl's musical talent when he visited the Chaminade home in August 1869. Cécile's parents took their daughter's abilities seriously. Félix Le Couppey (1811–1887), a professor at the Paris Conservatoire, was enthusiastic about her potential, advising her parents to enroll her at the Conservatoire for instruction in musical theory. Cécile's father decided against this, holding that a young woman of her social standing should not embark on a musical career. Instead, she studied piano privately with Le Couppey. Her progress was rapid and other eminent teachers were engaged to instruct her, including Augustin Savard (1841–1881), who taught counterpoint, harmony and fugue, Martin Marsick (1848–1924) who taught violin, and the noted composer Benjamin Godard (1849–1895). The family's pleasant life was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. The Chaminades took refuge from the siege of Paris in nearby Angoulême, avoiding the bloody Commune and the even bloodier suppression that followed Emperor Napoleon III's military debacle. Despite the lost war, there was a renascence of French musical life in the 1870s. Leading composers included César Franck, Camille Saint-Säens, Emanuel Chabrier, Henri Duparc, and Vincent D'Indy who experimented vigorously with new forms and sonorities, preparing French music for the next chapter of Gallic musical achievement, that of Debussy and Ravel.

Chaminade's first public recital was in 1875, following years of private concertizing in salons at Le Vésinet. She accompanied her violin teacher, Marsick, in a Mozart violin sonata and the performance was an unqualified success. A reviewer wrote glowingly of the "magnificent skill" of both the long-dead composer and "this child … so brilliantly and truly talented." Two years later, in 1877, she made her professional debut at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. The young musician continued to compose as well as concertize. Around this time, the composer Ambroise Thomas heard some of her compositions and declared that she should be known as a composer pure and simple, rather than by the then-pejorative designation of woman-composer. When Chaminade published her Opus 1, a piano etude, it also received favorable reviews. On April 25, 1878, at Le Vésinet, she introduced a style of performing that would henceforth mark her career. With the blessing of her distinguished teacher Le Couppey, Chaminade performed her own piano solos and songs at the keyboard. Reviews of the 15 works were highly complimentary, praising Chaminade for her "remarkable virtuosity" as a performer, as well as for her skill as a composer of piano pieces of "dense, taut workmanship [and] an astonishing mastery of harmony," works that were demonstrably of "elegant and delicate design."

Chaminade's next major recital took place in February 1880 at the Salle Erard in Paris where she performed her Piano Trio No. 1, Op. 11. Romantic in spirit and broadly Brahmsian in style, this work was published at the time of its successful premiere by the respected music firm Durand, Schoenewerk & Cie. From then on, she was much in demand as a recitalist. In many of these recitals, her own compositions occupied a major portion of the program. Chaminade's growing confidence in her own creative gifts resulted in the composition of an opéra-comique, La Sévillane. Although the premiere performance of this large-scale work took place in the intimate setting of her parents' home in 1882, critics who were present were highly enthusiastic about its dramatic and musical qualities.

In April 1881, Cécile Chaminade presented a public performance of her first full-scale symphonic work, the Suite for Orchestra, Op. 20, before the National Society of Music in Paris. Although the reviews were mixed, all agreed that the work's orchestration deserved high praise for its color and originality. The Petit Journal predicted a bright future for the young composer, but this foray into major works of orchestral and operatic music was not sustained. Most of her energies went into composing works for solo piano, pieces that she could perform in recitals. Still, ambitious compositions such as the Piano Trio No. 2, Op. 34, continued to appear.

During the early years of her musical career, Chaminade performed and composed for amusement. The daughter of wealth and privilege, her drive to succeed was personal. All this would change in the 1880s, however. Family crisis was precipitated by the marriage in 1886 of

her younger sister Henriette to the pianist and composer Moritz Moszkowski (1854–1925). The marriage was considered a scandal because Moszkowski was German and Jewish, and Cécile's father broke all ties with Henriette. At the same time, the family began to suffer from a series of poor investments made by Hippolyte Chaminade. When he died in 1887, a death perhaps precipitated by his younger daughter's marriage, his estate was divided up and the family's opulent Paris house was sold. It soon became apparent that the Chaminades could survive economically only if Cécile marketed her compositions successfully and aggressively. She focused almost exclusively on the more commercial solo piano pieces and songs, spending much less time on largescale compositions like symphonic works, operas, concertos, and chamber music. Although several major compositions were completed in the late 1880s, these smaller works would become Chaminade's musical legacy.

Around that time, Chaminade wrote the full-length ballet Callirhoë, which was originally offered to Benjamin Godard; since he was occupied with another project, he suggested that Chaminade be given the commission. The ballet premiered in Marseille in March 1888 to a cheering reception. One local reviewer claimed that the work's success was "without precedent" in that city. The canny young composer took advantage of her ballet's popularity, publishing a piano arrangement soon after its orchestral premiere. Several movements became independent compositions of immense appeal, and the Scarf Dance became particularly well-known. Throughout her career, Chaminade's work was received with raves outside Paris, while her success in the capital was always less certain.

In April 1888, her choral symphony Les Amazones, conceived as a dramatic work for large orchestra, soloists, and vast choral forces, premiered in Antwerp. Chaminade was highly praised, one critic noting that she had succeeded in avoiding too slavish a reliance on the great orchestral master of the day, namely Richard Wagner. Another major achievement of this period was her Concertstück for Piano and Orchestra, which was also successfully launched in Antwerp along with Les Amazones. This success was repeated in Paris where she appeared as a soloist with the Lamoureux Orchestra in January 1889. Concertstück was performed in a number of European countries as well as in the United States, where the distinguished conductor Theodore Thomas included it on one of his Chicago orchestral programs in December 1896.

There is no sex in art. Genius is an independent quality. The woman of the future, with her broader outlook, her greater opportunities, will go far, I believe, in creative work of every description.

—Cécile Chaminade, 1908

By the early 1890s, Chaminade's goal was to lure audiences to her recitals and then to sell large quantities of her compositions as sheet music so that she and her aging mother could enjoy financial security. During this period, she produced a number of charming piano works and over 60 songs while becoming a major star on the international touring circuit. On her first concert tour abroad to Great Britain in June 1892, she discovered foreigners were considerably more sympathetic than a sometimes fickle Parisian public. Although Chaminade never learned English, she managed to charm her audiences on many trips to the British Isles. One of her most fervent fans was Queen Victoria . On at least one occasion, Chaminade was invited to chat with Her Majesty at Windsor Castle, and one of her compositions, the song Reste, was dedicated to Princess Beatrice , the aged-sovereign's daughter. While in London during the 1897 Diamond Jubilee celebrating the 60th anniversary of Victoria's reign, Chaminade received a Jubilee Medal. At Victoria's funeral in January 1901, the ceremonies included a performance of Chaminade's Prélude for organ, Op. 78. Most London critics were as enthusiastic about Chaminade as their sovereign. London's Daily Chronicle of June 24, 1892, declared that "both as composer and executant her success was beyond question," while the same concert prompted the Daily Telegraph to characterize it "a complete success." Chaminade concertized in London in 1893, 1894–95, as well as in 1897 and 1899. She returned again in 1902, 1907–08, for concerts and to record piano rolls for the Aeolian Company in 1913–14. Her last trips to London took place in 1922 and 1924 when she was in her 60s and in declining health.

When the 20th century dawned, Cécile Chaminade was known throughout Europe and the New World. She toured France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Great Britain as well as Germany, Austria-Hungary, and less-traveled places including Rumania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Turkey. During her 1896 tour of the Balkan region, she performed a benefit concert in Athens to raise funds for the music conservatory in that city. Throughout the 1890s, she gave "Chaminade Festivals" that customarily filled concert halls and elicited rave reviews. Her reputation in the United States was stellar as well, and by 1898 at least four Chaminade Clubs had been founded to disseminate her compositions.

For most of her life Cécile Chaminade was a single career woman, so her marriage to the music publisher Louis-Mathieu Carbonel, on August 29, 1901, was a surprise to many. Her husband, whose business was in Marseille rather than Paris, was more than 20 years her senior and had in fact long been a friend of her mother. During Chaminade's 1899 tour of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Louis-Mathieu had taken her mother's place as her traveling companion. Announcement of their marriage plans in July 1901 greatly upset the Chaminade family, even more so when they realized this would not be a conventional marriage. Cécile married only on condition that the marriage remain a purely platonic union without sexual relations. Furthermore, each partner continued to reside in her or his former home, she in Paris and he in Marseille. Her husband visited regularly and accompanied her on her concert tours. The arrangement worked well until 1903, when her aging husband fell ill with a lung disease. Cécile spent the next few years nursing her ailing spouse, but he never fully recovered and died in early 1907. Because Chaminade was an intensely private individual who destroyed her diaries before she died, her motives for this unusual marriage are unknown. Some evidence suggests that in the summer of 1888 she fell in love with and even became engaged to a "Dr. L." Some unspecified tragedy in his family prevented the marriage, however. A number of other men fell in love with her, including her teacher Benjamin Godard, who proposed to her on three occasions. Her rejection to other suitors was always the same: "I am wedded to my music." In an interview published in the New York Herald in November 1908, she stated that marriage "must adopt itself to one's career" because it was "difficult to reconcile the domestic life with the artistic. A woman should choose one or the other."

Chaminade's career continued to blossom. Well-known in the United States and Canada, she decided a tour of North America would enhance her earnings there. The mass-circulation press, including the Century Magazine, The Etude, and The Ladies' Home Journal, all featured articles about her life. Chaminade Clubs continued to appear, distributing her music and creating an ever-growing number of fans eager to see her perform in person. In 1908, a year after her husband's death, she traveled to the New World to expand her immense popularity. Chaminade arrived in New York City on October 17, 1908, for a two-month tour of America. A lengthy interview with her appeared the next day in the New York Sun, in which she discussed her first impressions of New York, her opinions about contemporary French composition, and her marriage. In another interview published several days later in the Evening World, she was described as the "World's Greatest Woman Composer." Her first recital in Carnegie Hall on October 24 was a tremendous popular and financial success. Many in the audience were members of Chaminade Clubs and gave her a rousing reception. The sold-out recital grossed $5,000—a huge sum in 1908. Commenting in the next day's New York Times, Richard Aldrich dismissed Chaminade's playing as "dull" and her compositions "small in compass, unpretentious in idea, aiming chiefly at attractive melody and rhythmic grace and claiming immediate acceptance by those whose knowledge and taste in music are not erudite." After such negative assessments, Aldrich backed off somewhat, noting that her compositions were "agreeable" and showed some distinction. A more positive note was struck by Reginald De Koven in The World. This critic regretted that none of Chaminade's orchestral works were on the program, but he was generally pleased by her interpretations, which were those of "a real artist," and which were made effective through their "grace and delicacy … and a fluent technique." Just before Chaminade departed for Philadelphia, she granted an interview to the Washington Post in which she spoke at length of the creative abilities and opportunities for women in music.

Her Concertstück with the Philadelphia Orchestra, on November 6, elicited three quite different reviews. For the reviewer of the Evening Bulletin, the work itself was "a somewhat ambitious composition," but the performance by the composer was vitiated by her lack of pianistic power. The Philadelphia Inquirer was much more negative regarding the Concertstück as a "vague, formless, incoherent, vacillating piece of work, without any thematic backbone or logical harmonic development." In strong contrast, the Ledger hailed the work as "a composition which does not suffer by comparison with the musical handiwork of man." Furthermore, this paper's critic was certain that Chaminade played as "she composes, like a woman sentient to every influence of nature."

After Philadelphia, Chaminade toured Louisville, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Chicago, and St. Louis—receiving positive reviews, enjoying full houses. On December 3, she performed in Indianapolis and then went on to Washington, D.C., for a December 8 recital at the New National Theater. Much of Washington society turned out for the recital, including the first lady, Edith Kermit Roosevelt . The critic for the Washington Post was delighted that Chaminade performed works largely unknown to an audience familiar with many of her pieces. This critic felt her "Troisieme Valse" was musically the equal of any of the Chopin waltzes customarily performed in concerts. Another pleasant aspect of the Washington leg of her tour was a luncheon at the French embassy and a meeting with Edith and President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House.

The tour ended with a return to Philadelphia, a performance in Boston on December 12, and a final recital in New York's Carnegie Hall on December 15. On Christmas Eve, a tired but considerably richer Cécile Chaminade set sail for France. Despite some negative reviews, the tour was a success. Even a sometimes lukewarm admirer like Lawrence Gilman wrote in the November 14, 1908, issue of Harper's Weekly that since she was a "maker of adored and ingenious music, let us offer gladly the salutation that is due the skillful and self-respecting craftsman, the music-maker of true and honorable talent." Paris was forced to take note of her success, and the December 1908 issue of Paris Musical et Artistique praised her as "more than just a French woman"; indeed, she was a "Parisian woman" who created an impressive reputation "in all the countries of the world." In 1913, the French government awarded her its highest honor, Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Although a number of French women had received this award before, Cécile Chaminade was the first female composer to receive it. Showing a shrewd sense of public relations, she asked that the presentation ceremony take place at a Paris orphanage in which she had been actively involved. To assure maximum public interest, the award ceremony was filmed and shown as a news item in cinema theaters.

World War I began a declining phase in the composer's career. After 1910, she composed fewer and fewer piano works and songs. Her large-scale works were now rarely if ever performed in concert. In 1915, she moved to a seaside villa at Tamaris, near Toulon, a home purchased in 1903 by her husband. She spent the war years ministering to wounded soldiers in a convalescent home in nearby Les Sablettes. A strong mystical streak in her personality became even more pronounced during the war when millions of lives were snuffed out and some meaning had to be salvaged from the general carnage. After her mother's death in 1912, Chaminade attended séances. Following a visit to Beethoven's birthplace in Bonn, she saw a flame that, she said, allowed her to experience the soul of the great composer. Strong-willed and eccentric, she adhered to a strange diet that may well have brought on serious health problems.

The world Chaminade had known disappeared with World War I. Her delicate and charming music seemed an echo from a dead world. Refusing to adapt to the radically changed mood of the postwar era, Chaminade became increasingly reclusive and in 1925 abandoned a Paris she no longer understood, selling her family property at Le Vésinet. Living year-round in her villa near Toulon, she became a recluse. After one final work appeared in 1928, she never composed again. Advancing years and her diet may have combined to cause deteriorating health. Attended by her niece, she moved to Monte Carlo, Monaco, in 1936. Several years later, her left foot had to be amputated. Stubbornly refusing to use a wheelchair, she became a bedridden invalid. Contacts with friends and fans dwindled, causing increasing despondency. In 1939, The Etude requested readers to communicate with Chaminade on her birthday. When several thousand did so, she was grateful and summed up her feelings in a 1942 letter to a friend in the United States: "Not to be forgotten, to live in the heart and memory of those who understand you—that is the supreme consolation for an artist."

World War II isolated Chaminade even more. Although she remained physically protected in Monaco, many of her compositions were out of print after the Nazi occupiers of France liquidated her publisher, Enoch, because it was a Jewish-owned enterprise. This act brought on a serious drop in royalty income. In the last months of her life, Radio Monte Carlo broadcast a concert of her works, and the day after she died, on April 13, 1944, the station aired a memorial program that included tributes and recordings of her immensely popular song "L'Anneau d'Argent" ("The Silver Ring") and the stirring finale of the Concertstück. Despite the war, a number of French publications wrote obituaries of varying length and accuracy, and in the United States, where she had been so immensely popular a generation earlier, short accounts of her career appeared in The New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and Time, while warm tributes could be found in the music journals The Etude and Musical America.

For a generation after her death, Cécile Chaminade remained an obscure, slightly ridiculous figure from the vanished world of Queen Victoria. Nicolas Slonimsky's mocking remarks in his highly regarded chronicle of musical events in the 20th century accurately reflected a widely held perspective on the composer's work. Unfortunately, many of these critics had never heard Chaminade's music. By the late 1970s, this changed when gifted musicians began to make excellent recordings of her major compositions. James Galway performed her charming Concertino for Flute and Orchestra, Op. 107. In the early 1990s, two superb recordings of Chaminade piano compositions, by the British pianists Peter Jacobs and Eric Parkin, received much critical praise. New ears were more sympathetic, and salon music regained its place as a valid form of musical expression.

Cécile Chaminade had few if any rivals as a composer of salon music. An accomplished artist, she possessed impressive business abilities, shrewdly gauging her market and becoming one of the first, if not indeed, the first fully professional female composer. For several decades, she earned a substantial annual income not only from recitals but from the publication of her compositions. For example, her song "L'Anneau d'Argent" was performed in countless countries for many decades, selling an immense number of copies. The greatest singers of the day, including Clara Butt and John McCormack, made this work even more well known. Her signature piece, Pas des écharpes, Op. 37 (Scarf Dance), had sold well over five-million copies by the time of her death in 1944. Opera singers of note, including Emma Albani , added Chaminade's song "L'Eté" to their recital programs, and the Viennese violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler dazzled countless audiences with the colorful and playful Sérénade Espagnole. In recent years, stars like Joan Sutherland and Itzhak Perlman included Chaminade works in their repertoire, often presenting them as encores. Finally, Cécile Chaminade is fully acknowledged as a genuine master of her craft, a superb musician who understood her gifts and her limits, establishing a reputation that continues to grow.


Briscoe, James, ed. Historical Anthology of Music by Women. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Citron, Marcia J. Cécile Chaminade: A Bio-Bibliography. NY: Greenwood Press, 1988.

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Hinson, Maurice. Guide to the Pianist's Repertoire. 2nd rev. ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Jezic, Diane Peacock. Women Composers: The Lost Tradition Found. 2nd ed. NY: The Feminist Press, 1994.

Johnson, Rose-Marie. Violin Music by Women Composers: A Bio-Bibliographical Guide. NY: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Kerr, Laura. Scarf Dance: The Story of Cecile Chaminade. NY: Abelard Press, 1953.

Meggett, Joan M. Keyboard Music by Women Composers: A Catalog and Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Olivier, Antje, and Karin Weingartz-Perschel. Komponistinnen von A-Z. Düsseldorf: Tokkata Verlag für Frauenforschung, 1988.

Slonimsky, Nicolas. Music since 1900. 4th ed. NY: Scribner, 1971.

Stern, Susan. Women Composers: A Handbook. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1978.

Weissweiler, Eva. Komponistinnen aus 500 Jahren. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1981.

related media:

Jacobs, Peter. Piano Music by Cécile Chaminade (Hyperion CD CDA66584, released 1992).

Parkin, Eric. Chaminade: Piano Works (Chandos CD CHAN 8888, released 1991).

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Chaminade, Cécile (1857–1944)

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