The Rise and Fall of Cecile Chaminade

Composer Cecile Chaminade

Allison: I'm so happy to be back here with you today on WQXR, to talk about The Rise and Fall of Cecile Chaminade. I'm Allison Charney. 

Donna: And I'm Donna Weng Friedman. Together we've created a new series called Her/Music: Her/Story, to shine a light on the music and lives of women composers past and present.

You know Allison, it's always surprising to me when I find out how many people, including musician friends, who have never heard of Cecile Chaminade before. 

Allison: Including this musician friend.

Donna: But what's amazing is that she really was one of the most popular and successful composers, male or female, in the late eighteen hundreds - early nineteen hundreds. For instance, she was the first woman musician ever to have won the French Legion of Honor award. Queen Victoria was a huge fan of hers and awarded her the Jubilee Medal. President Teddy Roosevelt invited her to play at the White House. In this country alone there were 200 Chaminade clubs created with the sole purpose of playing her music. So tell me Allison, why was it that in 1944 at the age of 87 Cecile Chaminade died alone, and her music completely forgotten?

Allison: Let's first start with a little bit of biographical basic fun facts about Chaminade. The first one is one of my favorites -  you know, it's protocol to list a composer's birth date and if they're no longer living their death date on any sort of program where their music is being played, which is not so easy or it wasn't in the case of Chaminade, since she wanted to appear younger to the public, so she lied about her age by four years. 

Donna: Yeah, well we know she was born in 1857, although virtually all of her writings list her birth year as 1961.

Allison: She was born into a musical family and a wealthy family, both of which are really important to her life story. Her mother was a singer and a pianist and her first piano teacher, and more importantly she kept a scrapbook that documented Chaminade’s career. And it ended up being one of the main sources of information we have today about Chaminade.  And Chaminade's father was a violinist who really stood in the way of Chaminade's career in a sense, he wouldn't let her attend the Paris Conservatory which she had been recommended to by the likes of George Bizet, the composer of Carmen, which meant that she had to study privately. She did have great teachers like Godard, but she was not at the height of the inner musical circle of elite musicians, because she wasn't allowed to be at the Conservatory. We'd like to play a miniature piano solo, which is typical of the type of piece Chaminade would have programmed on her concerts, which she really began in earnest when she was 21, which really was 1878.  Les Sylvains, which is performed here by none other than my friend and colleague Donna Weng Friedman from Her/Music: Her/Story concert live at Steinway Hall.

Les Sylvains, Performed by Donna Weng Friedman

Donna: You know her miniature piano pieces were often called “songs without words”, because of their incredible melodies. But of course Chaminade also loved writing songs for voice and piano. She wrote 133 of them and her melodies were infectious. One of them, L'Anneau d'Argent, was programmed so frequently that it became known as her signature song, and she was known as the composer of The Little Silver Ring. In fact it was broadcast throughout France the day after Chaminade's death. Allison and I decided to see what all the fuss was about. And we too, fell in love with this charming beautiful song, and we'd love to play it for you today.

L'Anneau d'Argent performed by Allison Charney and Donna Weng Friedman (recorded live in WQXR studios)

Allison: Chaminade's songs and piano miniatures were really hailed by critics of the time. The thing that gets me though is the gender bias in really every single review, I'm going to read one of them: "There are distinctly feminine traits about Chaminade's music. There's one word that sums it all up; Charmant. There's a feminine charm if you will about Chaminade's music that makes it individual. I know of no other woman's music which has just that quality and of course no mere man could possess that identical quality to which I refer...". It's too bad Donna that the critics didn't listen to fellow composer Ambroise Thomas who said after hearing some of her compositions, and again I'm going to quote, that she should be known as a composer “Pure and simple rather than by the designation of woman composer..."

Donna: But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was considered somewhat positive for music to have feminine traits, such as charm and grace. But it's heartbreaking that those same characteristics ended up having a very negative impact on Chaminade's career later in life. 

Allison: All right. Donna you keep wanting to skip to the end of her story and get into the fall. You know I admitted at the beginning that I really did not know much about Chaminade before you and I met, and I'm wondering how you first learned about her.

Donna: It's actually a very sweet story. I think it was 1992 and I was getting ready to perform a solo piano recital at the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, and it was a dark and stormy night. And I mean torrential downpour. And I figured, well no one's going to come. But the great romantic virtuoso pianist Shura Cherkassky was there front and center. And I was terrified, except for at the end of the concert he led the audience in an ovation and he waited till everybody left and we hung out and we talked. And he said, “you know what I loved about your program the most was that group of Nocturnes.” And he said, “you know that was great but why didn't you play Chaminade's Nocturne? It's so gorgeous.”  And I said, I was so embarrassed and I said, “Oh, I don't know him. I don't know his music.” And he said with shock,” it's not a he, SHE just happens to have been one of the greatest romantic composers ever, and you go back to your home and you learn that piece!” So I went back to New York and this is before Google search days, and I couldn't find it. So I ended up buying an album called Kaleidoscope, which was Shura Cherkassky's favorite encore pieces. And on the album was another song by Cecile Chaminade called Autrefois.

Autrefois, performed by Peter Froudjian

Allison: So we've played a few of Chaminade’s short pieces. She did composed some larger works including Suite d'Orchestre which was, once again, the recipient of some, I would say shocking, at least to this modern reader, gender themed reviews such as this one, and again I'm going to quote: “How many in the audience were far from realizing that this symphony which reveals an uncommon talent and orchestration was written by a young lady...".

Donna: Oh my goodness.

Allison: You know reminds me of a quote about critics that one of my professors at Peabody Conservatory told us: "Critics are to art as pigeons are to statues". It's one of my favorites. Let's
move forward in time in 1898 Chaminade composed her full length ballet called Callirhoë which was a huge success. Interestingly her teacher, we mentioned before that she studied privately with Godard, he had been asked to write it. But he was too busy and so he offered the commission to Chaminade. The ballet had over 200 performances but not one in Paris, which was the epicenter for classical music, and I don't know. I think it could be that this was a result of her never having attended the Conservatory, and so she was never really accepted in that inner crowd of musical elites and they just didn't want her in Paris. 

Donna: Yeah absolutely. But nevertheless she persevered, and this did not deter her from being a very, very shrewd businesswoman. She knew how difficult and expensive it was to produce an entire ballet. So what she did was she made piano arrangements of the score, broke the ballet down into several smaller shorter piano pieces, sold each of them individually and made a lot of money. 

Allison: Brilliant.

Donna: Yeah. But it came in handy, and especially after her father's death because Chaminade's financial status plummeted. Now one of those pieces from that ballet which I can't pronounce. 

Allison: Callirhoë

Donna: Is called Scarf Dance. And it was Chaminade's best seller. In fact it sold five million copies during her lifetime. Let's listen to Stephen Hough, the MacArthur grant winner, play Scarf Dance. 

Scarf Dance, performed by Stephen Hough

Donna: The Scarf Dance by Cecile Chaminade, performed by Stephen Hough. Chaminade wrote, and I quote: "In 1889 I at last came before the public with a Konzertstück for Piano and Orchestra...”. Audiences loved it.

Critic reviews did span the gamut from praising her “incomparable handling of orchestral color...”, to an attack on the “brutal handling of brass and percussion...”

Allison: One critic wrote that the Konzertstück was “too virile... For me, I almost regretted not having found further those qualities of grace and gentleness that reside in the nature of women...'' Here is Cecile Chaminade's Konzertstück. 

Konzertstück, performed by Rosario Marciano and the Radio Luxembourg Symphony Orchestra

Allison: Chaminade's Konzertstück performed by pianist Rosario Marciano with the Radio Luxembourg Symphony Orchestra. 

Donna: Now interestingly enough, there were a few male critics who actually thought Chaminade was a man.

Allison: Just like you did. 

Donna: Yes that's right. But I didn't write these reviews. They wrote these glowing reviews about Monsieur Chaminade's music. One musician, when he found out that Chaminade was actually a woman, well he wrote an entire article on how his entire view of women composers had changed because of Chaminade's music.

Let's take a quick break and we'll be right back with Her/Music: Her/Story -  The Rise and Fall of Cecile Chaminade.


Donna: Welcome back to Her/Music: Her/story - The Rise and Fall of Cecile Chaminade. 

Allison: It turns out that Chaminade recorded many of her own pieces on piano rolls, right Donna?

Donna: That's right. 

Allison: And she made gramophone recordings of seven of her compositions for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company. And these are among the most sought after piano recordings by collectors today. We'd like you to take a listen to just a one-minute fabulous piece of Chaminade herself playing a piece called Pierrette, Opus 41 in E flat major.

Pierrette, performed by Cecile Chaminade

Allison: That was Cecile Chaminade, playing Cecile Chaminade. What a treat. 

Donna: Well it's you know, it's interesting. I listened to several of those recordings and she plays her own pieces so fast.

Allison: So fast.

Donna: But you know who else did that? Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff recorded his Concerti, and they were so fast and I learned only recently, was, back then they had a limited amount of time to do the recordings. So they had that time frame and she had to record all these songs so they had to play it as fast as possible. 

Allison: Well she was very practical and a great businesswoman. So whatever it took to be commercial I'm sure. You know we mentioned earlier that Chaminade was not permitted by her father to go to the Paris Conservatory. Even still, she ended up composing a piece for the Conservatory’s final exams which I think is amazing. This piece was obviously meant to be extremely difficult to play so that it could test the students technical abilities, their musical understanding, control etc... And this piece, her Concertino for flute and orchestra, is notably one of the only pieces of hers that is still played regularly today. 

Flute Concertino, performed by Michel Debost and the Miskolc Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Francois-Xavier Roth

Donna: Wasn't that great? Legend has it that the Flute Concertino was a revenge piece. She composed it for an ex lover who happened to have been a flutist and who also happened to have dumped her to marry another woman. So she made it as difficult as possible hoping that he would perform it in concert and fail. But fortunately he played it brilliantly and people loved it. 

Allison: Donna, that is one piece of Chaminade's. I think it's unbelievable to note that she composed 400 pieces in her lifetime and every single one of them was published. 

Donna: Well I did mention that she was a very shrewd business woman didn't I? And it might help to know that Chaminade married a music publisher who was 20 years older than she was, and who died 6 years after they were married. It was a platonic match, and she made the rules. They would live separately. There would be no sex. He would visit her and accompany her on tours. It was completely a marriage of convenience that would preserve her independence as a composer. Not bad huh? 

Allison: You know she once said in an interview I'm going to quote her: "Marriage must adapt itself to one's career. With a man, it is all arranged and expected. If the woman is the artist it upsets the standards and usually ruins the woman's art. A woman should choose one or the other. The artist must have freedom not restraint, when a woman of talent marries a man who appreciates that side of her, such a marriage may be ideally happy for both...". 

Donna: Yeah well so for 30 years or so, Cecile Chaminade's music was extremely popular, what possibly could have gone wrong? 

Allison: All right Donna we finally, can get to the fall for you. I guess the general consensus is that her decline into oblivion was really due to a slew of negative press. Critics often blamed her unsophisticated compositional style and her lack of a proper Conservatory musical education -so back to her father again, not letting her go to the Conservatory. 

Donna: Yeah but that's so hypocritical, because right around the same time there was a male composer, in fact, a good friend of hers, named Emmanuel Chabrier, and he was getting glowing reviews from critics because of his lack of Conservatory training. They actually said that his music was great because it was free from the rigid constraints of formal musical education. How do you like that? 

Allison: You know these, these reviewers really preyed upon Chaminade's insecurity, you know, she was insecure in so many ways. As a performer she had crippling stage fright, and as a composer she wrote: "I am reluctant to have my work published immediately, preferring to keep it hidden in a drawer for some considerable time until I come across it again. If I find then that it continues to please me, I send it to the publisher...".

Donna: Well I'm certainly glad that she was pleased with her piano trio, it's stunning. 

Piano Trio in G Minor, performed by The Rembrandt Trio

Donna: In the early nineteen hundreds. Chaminade toured the U.S., And performed recitals of her own music at Carnegie Hall several times. The tour started out just fine, but the tide was already turning. After one of her Carnegie Hall concerts in 1908, her music, that critics once referred to as “charmant” in a good way, was now being trivialized as being nothing more than charming salon music, which was not a good thing. And then one very influential critic of the New York Evening Post gave a scathing review. He wrote: "Her music has a certain feminine daintiness and grace. But it is amazingly superficial and wanting in variety...". And here it comes, this is the good one; "But on the whole this concert confirmed the conviction held by many, that while women may someday vote, they will never learn to compose anything worthwhile...". Horrible huh? 

Allison: I am speechless. It's... Every time I hear you quote that, because you've often mentioned that in our live performances as well, it just takes my breath away. 

Donna: Yeah. 

Allison: Although her response was pretty priceless.

Donna: Yeah.

Allison: Which was published just a little bit later in The Washington Post no less. She wrote: "There is no sex in art. Genius is an independent quality...".

Donna: You go girl. Right? 

Allison: Exactly. "...I do not believe" she went on, "that the few women who have achieved greatness in creative work are the exception. But I think that life has been hard on women. It has not given them opportunity. It has not made them convincing. She is handicapped and only the few through force of circumstances or inherent strength have been able to get the better of that handicap...". 

Donna: And I believe she was very sincere when she predicted “the woman of the future with her broader outlook for greater opportunities will go far, I believe, in creative work of every description...”. 

Allison: So during the last 10 years of Chaminade's life she had already begun to feel really obsolete as a composer. She wrote in a letter to an American friend: "I just received your exquisite letter which for me was a great joy and a great comfort. I see that you haven't been forgetting your musical friends and they're deeply grateful. Not to be forgotten, to live in the heart and memory of those who understand you, that is the supreme consolation for an artist. Thanks to all who remember...''.

Donna: Simply heartbreaking. So let's all try to remember Cecile Chaminade by listening to and playing her music again. And if the music you heard today made you smile and you'd like to hear a little more Chaminade, you're invited to hear us live when we are featured on Preformances with Allison Charney at Merkin Hall right here in New York City. Allison, It was so great to be with you today and talk about The Rise and Fall of Cecile Chaminade. 

Allison: Special thanks to our fabulous production team, Curtis Macdonald, Sapir Rosenblatt, Greta Rainbow, Max fine and Mike Shobe. Her/Music: Her/Story is from Classical New York WQXR. I'm Allison Charney.

Donna: And I'm Donna Weng Friedman. We hope you'll tune in again next week when we talk about the Women of Our Times. 


We are deeply grateful to Marcia J. Citron , author of  Cecile Chaminade, a Bio-Bibliography, the "first scholarly book on Cecile Chaminade".


Copyright © 2019 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at for further information.


New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.