A woman’s challenge: Finding a unique voice

Light. © Charles Thibo

A welcoming sound. A welcoming house. Back home where I belong to. The cello’s warm voice invites me in while the strings evoke the tense moments of the past. Does this piece mirror Marie Jaëll’s state of mind while she wrote her Cello Concerto in F major? In 1882, the year she wrote this piece, her husband had died. Does the composer try to find consolation in music? She did. She often sat in the wooden shed her father had built for her when she was young, absorbed by her music, and anyone knocking on the door would have to expect the reply: “Marie is not here, she’s in the realm of music.” An exceptional woman living an exceptional life.

The Palazzetto Bru Zane – Centre de musique romantique française in Venice has embarked on “the rediscovery of the French musical heritage of the years 1780-1920” and has edited in this context a series of essays on Jaëll in French and English. In two earlier posts about a piano cycle and a piano sonata I have mentioned already that Marie Jaëll was a child prodigy on the piano. She became an arduous composer, guided by two friends, Franz Liszt and Camille de Saint-Saëns, as well as by César Franck. The essays come along with recordings of some of Jaëll’s symphonic and piano works. The Cello Concerto in F major has been recorded by the Brussels Philharmonic under Hervé Niquet and the cellist Xavier Phillips for this project.

Caught between Germany and France

The dual influence on Jaëll’s of the late German Romanticism and the French Romanticism is not to be overseen in this piece. Take the first movement: While the orchestral part breezes the spirit of the symphonic poems of Liszt, the cello part recalls Saint-Saëns’ musical language. In the late half of the 19th  century French musicians hotly debated whether French music should follow the German example i.e. the music took under Richard Wagner, or rather seek to find its own path. Jaëll was caught up in the debate and, having been exposed to both influences, she felt the pressure to define her music and by this her allegiance.

Jaëll was born in 1846 in the east of France (Alsace), speaking both German and French. Her early music taste was defined by the Vienna classics and German Romanticism, but after she started to take piano and composition classes in Paris she became acquainted with French avant-garde music, looking beyond the German-Austrian tradition. Between 1855 and 1862 she gave no less than 145 concerts in France, Germany and Switzerland. In 1871 however, France suffered a humiliating defeat in the French-Prussian War and Germany annexed the Alsace, Marie Jaëll’s home country. Out of a sense of patriotism Jaëll refused to give any more concerts in Germany. Her husband Alfred, an acclaimed pianist himself, cancelled his plans to teach at the Conservatory in Leipzig as a successor to Ignaz Moscheles and to become editor-in-chief of the magazine Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, founded by Robert Schumann.

Wagner or no Wagner?

But Germany, its music and her old acquaintance with Liszt proved to be a strong force of attraction. 1882 was a key date fir Jaëll. The passing away of her husband after a long illness allowed her to devite more time to composition. The dello concerto saw the light and she started to pay regularly visits to Liszt in Weimar. He encouraged her to follow her dreams and was convinced that if her lieces would have been written by a man, they would be performed with enthusiasm all over Europe. And perhaps this is the key to Marie Jaëll and hervworks: German, French, male, female – those attributes did not make sense when it  ame to her music. She wanted to be seen as what she was: a composer, full stop.

Sébastien Troester, a researcher at Palazzetto Bru Zane, writes in his essay “A Passion of Composing” that Marie Jaëll “protested throughout her life against a Wagnerism she was reluctant to acknowledge”, her performance track record however “strengthened the impression that this woman, in her heart and her soul, looked to Germany”. During the war of 1870/71 she and her husband fled to Switzerlan where the met Wagner. She admired his music, but did not warm up to the composer with his nationalist ideas. She felt being French, she took the French citizenship after 1871 and she became the first female member of the Société des compositeurs de musique in Paris.

Paris, Leipzig and Vienna – all three cities were hot spots of classical music at the end of the 19th century and Jaëll took from both the French and the German-Austrian heritage what she could you use. Troester identifies some hallmarks that single out Jaëll’s individual musical language: the emphasis on colourful imagistic writing, the exploration of the soul and the contemplation of nature as themes and an orchestration technique the composer herself described as “architectural” in the sense that the complex individual voices of the instrument are fused into a single orchestral voice. Which brings us back to the cello concerto.

Colourful orchestration

The first movement confirms Jaëll’s penchant for a colourful, multi-layered orchestration. Though the cello dominates over the orchestra, both taken together lead to an introspective mood, apprehensive and at the same time expressing hope, warmth, comfort. Definitely German Romanticism, but the cello part has a French signature. The second movement starts on Beethoven-like tune that becomes the main theme – or is it a direct quote from the master’s incidental music “Egmont”? The tune also closes the movement, first rendered by the orchestra and then in a reprise by the cello. The finale could be best described as feverish, I couldn’t find anything like it in the German-Austrian realm, unless… Leos Janacek came to my mind. It reminded me however much more of Edouard Lalo, and I invite you to check out his Cello Concerto in D minor and let me know what you think.

So where does that leave us? The answer is very simple: We are not yet done with Marie Jaëll. I will give myself time to explore her works much deeper. Some composers are more accessible than others, but all deserve an equal chance to be heard and understood. This fascinating woman certainly merits a lot more attention.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.

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