Emmanuel Chabrier

Portrait of Emmanuel Chabrier

Emmanuel Chabrier was a French Romantic composer and pianist although his family wanted him to become a lawyer. He was born on 18th January 1841 in Ambert, France and died on 13th September 1894 in Paris France aged 53.

Major Works

“Dix Pièces Pittoresques” (1880) 
“Trois Valses Romantiques” (1883)
“España” (1883) 
“Habanera” (1885)
“Joyeuse Marche” (1888)
“Le Roi Malgré Lui” (The King in Spite of Himself) (1887)

Biography Timeline

Emmanuel Chabrier was born on 18th January 1841 in Ambert in central France. His father Jean Chabrier was a lawyer and his mother was Marie-Anne-Evelina, née Durosay.

1846: He begins music lessons aged six in Ambert with a Spanish refugee called Saporta.

1849: The earliest of his compositions to survive in manuscript form are works for piano. 

1852: The family move to Clermont-Ferrand where he attends the Lycée Imperial as his father wants him to have a career in the law. He continues music lessons music lessons with the Polish composer and violinist Alexander Tarnowski. 

1855: He composes “Rêverie”.

1856: His family moves to Paris. He attends the Lycée St Louis for a year and passes his Baccalauréat and then goes on to Law School. A piano piece from this time exists called “Le Scalp!!!”. He takes a keen interest in the music of Richard Wagner copying out the score of “Tannhauser” and continuing his studies in composition, violin and piano.

1857: He composes his first official piece, a waltz for piano entitled “Julia”. 

1861: He graduates from law school and joins the Ministry of the Interior as a civil servant in October. He is taught piano by Edouard Wolff, violin by Richard Hammer and composition by Théophile Semet and Aristide Hignard. 

1862: He meets regularly with the circle of friends called the Parnassians in Paris which includes Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and the poet Paul Verlaine. He plans an operetta with Verlaine but it is never completed. He composes the waltz “Souvenirs de Brunehaut”.

1867: He begins “Jean Hunyade”, an opera on historical Hungarian themes but again abandons it half finished.

1869: Both his parents die within the space of eight days. 

1870: During the Franco-Prussian War and the later Paris Commune he continues at the ministry which is moved to Bordeaux then back to Versailles. He writes a setting of Charles Baudelaire’s “L’invitation au Voyage” for voice, piano and solo bassoon.

1872: In December he has a success with the opérette-bouffe “Le Service Obligatoire” at a private theatre, the Cercle de l’Union Artistique. It was written in collaboration with two other composers. He also composes “Suite des Valses”.

1873: He marries Marie Alice Dejean, the granddaughter of Louis Dejean, the manager of the Cirque d’été and the Cirque Napoléon. They go on to have three sons, one of whom dies at birth. He has a wide circle of friends including composers Gabriel Fauré and Ernest Chausson, artists such as Henri Fantin-Latour, Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet and writers such as Émile Zola. He composes “Impromptu in C major”.

1874: He composes “Lamento” for horn and orchestra which remains unpublished in his lifetime.

1875: He has another attempt at operatic comedy with Verlaine entitled “Fisch-Ton-Kan” which is performed in March.

1877: His first completed opera is the three-act opéra-bouffe “L’étoile” (The Star) which runs for forty-eight performances at the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens but is not revived thereafter in his lifetime.

1878: He composes “Cocodette et Cocorico” a comic duet for soprano, tenor and orchestra.

1879: He begins working on the operatic tragedy “Gwendoline”. He composes the one act opérette “Une Education Manquée” (An Incomplete Education), which receives only one performance and the piano cycle “Pièces Pittoresques”.

1880: On a trip with friends to Munich in March he discovers “Tristan und Isolde” by Richard Wagner and is transfixed. He gives up his job at the ministry, after being absent from duty several times, and devotes himself to music full time later in the year. Another incomplete opera he works on is “Les Muscadins”.

1881: “Pièces Pittoresques” are given their premiere with César Franck praising it heartily. He composes “Pas Redoublé” for four handed piano. 

1882: He travels to London to hear Wagner’s Ring cycle and later in the year he and his wife visit Spain which gives him inspiration for his famous work “Espana”.

1883: He travels to Brussels to hear Wagner’s Ring cycle once more. He composes “Trois Valses Romantiques” for two Pianos. “Espana” is premiered in November.

1884: He composes “La Sulamite” for mezzo-soprano, female chorus and orchestra.

1885: He composes “Habanera”, again inspired by his trip to Spain. He also works on “Souvenirs de Munich” for four handed piano which includes themes from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”.

1886: “Gwendoline”, set in Anglo-Saxon England, is refused by the Paris Opera but is a success at its premiere at La Monnaie in Brussels. It closes after two performances due to bankruptcy of the production manager. He composes “Le Roi Malgré Lui” (The King in Spite of Himself) in six months and it is premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. It is well received but sadly is curtailed when the theatre burns down in 1887.

1888: He is appointed as a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.  He makes sixteen arrangements of French folk songs for an anthology called “Le Plus Jolies Chansons du Pays de France”. He orchestrates several of his earlier piano works including “Prélude Pastoral and Joyeuse Marche”, Prélude et Marche Française,“Habanera” and “Suite Pastorale”.

1890: He composes “À la Musique” for soprano, female chorus and orchestra.

1891: He is troubled by financial problems due to the collapse of his bank as well as health problems from contracting syphilis in earlier life and the death of his wife. He works on his final opera “Briséïs”, which is inspired by a work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but only manages to complete one act. An orchestration of his “Bourrée Fantasque” is made by Felix Mottl.

1893: The Paris première of “Gwendoline” finally takes place in December. The composer is now so ill sitting in his family’s box that he cannot remember that he has written the work.

Emmanuel Chabrier died of general paresis on 13th September 1894 in Paris France. He wished to be buried next to one of his artist friends Eduard Manet in the Cimetière de Passy but, because a plot was not available, he was interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse instead.

Further Information

List of compositions by Chabrier.

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