Doing It Her Way With a Little Help from Her Friends

Omen? © Charles Thibo

A dark premonition must have been haunting the composer went she sketched this Lento. Or was it the legacy of her teacher, the influence of the late German Romantic masters? Franz Liszt is not very far indeed, for Marie Jaëll stayed with him in Weimar for quite a number of years, and Richard Wagner, well, Richard Wagner was omnipresent at the time. In 1871 Jaëll wrote her Sonata for piano in C major, dedicated to Liszt.

The beginning of the first movement may seem innocuous, however, the left hand sketches already a sombre, dramatic mood. Light and darkness, innocent joy and oppressing forebodings alternate in this movement. I can only guess at Jaëll’s intentions, but I can ascertain that the composer had impressive expressive skills. The Adagio starts on a reflective note, a meditation evolving into a more agitated, complex and increasingly passionate theme before returning to another meditation with darkness and light again held in a delicate balance.

The third movement is a lively little thing as the name “Tempo di minuetto” suggests, not without dramatic highlights recalling Jaëll’s teacher Liszt. The final Allegro features a playful alternation of a forceful, majestic, solemn theme with on the one hand light-hearted and one the other hand meditative parts – a kind of recapitulation of the previous movements. The German pianist Cora Irsen has recorded all of Jaëll’s piano works and this is one of the pieces that got me really hooked.

Pianist or composer?

In 1871, Jaëll had decided to let her career as a pianist rest for a while and devote her time exclusively to composition. After having shared the piano sonata with Liszt, Liszt wrote her a letter on July 18, 1871 saying: “I have read with passionate attention your Impromptu, Petits Morceaux and the grand sonata; these works have a strange note; they are full of new and keen ideas, that I do not dare criticize. However I would appreciate them even more, if I had the pleasure to hear them performed by their courageous, ambitious and sensitive composer.”

While Liszt was the dominant factor in encouraging Jaëll to keep composing and not restrict herself to a career as a pianist, another composer would complement her education in composition and become a friend and a paragon: Camille de Saint-Saëns. The two met in 1872. Initially the 16-year-old pianist, organist and composer from Paris struck her as mystic, according to Cora Irsen. But Jaëll sensed that their personalities had much in common and admired Saint-Saëns “encyclopedic spirit”.

Jaëll was a well-read person and the link between literature and her compositions is one of the hallmarks of her piano works. She hoped that with Saint-Saëns’ help, she could find answers to the many questions she had after having read works by William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin and Dante Alighieri. Poems by Victor Hugo would later inspire her to a piece called “Les Orientales”, while Dante would inspire her in 1894 to a large piano cycle of 18 piano pieces in three sections relating to La Divina Commedia, part of which I have discussed in a first post on Jaëll. More will follow. Spring is female.

© Charles Thibo


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de Chareli

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