(b Paris, 8 Aug 1857; d Monte Carlo, 13 April 1944). French composer and pianist. While it is striking that nearly all of Chaminade’s approximately 400 compositions were published, even more striking is the sharp decline in her reputation as the 20th century progressed. This is partly attributable to modernism and a general disparagement of late Romantic French music, but it is also due to the socio-aesthetic conditions affecting women and their music.
The third of four surviving children, Chaminade received her earliest musical instruction from her mother, a pianist and singer; her first pieces date from the mid-1860s. Because of paternal opposition to her enrolling at the Paris Conservatoire, she studied privately with members of its faculty: Félix Le Couppey, A.-F. Marmontel, M.-G.-A. Savard and Benjamin Godard. In the early 1880s Chaminade began to compose in earnest, and works such as the first piano trio op.11 (1880) and the Suite d’orchestre op.20 (1881) were well received. She essayed an opéra comique, La Sévillane, which had a private performance (23 February 1882). Other major works of the decade were the ballet symphonique Callirhoë op.37, performed at Marseilles on 16 March 1888; the popular Concertstück op.40 for piano and orchestra, which was given its première at Antwerp on 18 April 1888; and Les amazones, a symphonie dramatique, given on the same day. After 1890, with the notable exception of the Concertino op.107, commissioned by the Conservatoire (1902), and her only Piano Sonata (op.21, 1895), Chaminade composed mainly character pieces and mélodies. Though the narrower focus may have been due to financial, aesthetic or discriminatory considerations, this music became very popular, especially in England and the USA; and Chaminade helped to promote sales through extensive concert tours. From 1892 she performed regularly in England and became a welcome guest of Queen Victoria and others.
Meanwhile, enthusiasm grew in the USA, largely through the many Chaminade clubs formed around 1900, and in autumn 1908 she finally agreed to make the arduous journey there. She appeared in 12 cities, from Boston to St Louis. With the exception of the concert at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music in early November, which featured the Concertstück, the programme consisted of piano pieces and mélodies. The tour was a financial success; critical evaluation, however, was mixed. Many reviews practised a form of sexual aesthetics that was common in Chaminade’s career and that of many women composers in the 19th and 20th centuries (see Citron, 1988). Pieces deemed sweet and charming, especially the lyrical character pieces and songs, were criticized for being too feminine, while works that emphasize thematic development, such as the Concertstück, were considered too virile or masculine and hence unsuited to the womanly nature of the composer. Based also on assumptions about the relative value of large and small works, complex and simple style, and public and domestic music-making, this critical framework was largely responsible for the decline in Chaminade’s compositional reputation in the 20th century.
Prestigious awards began to come her way, culminating in admission to the Légion d’Honneur in 1913 – the first time it was granted to a female composer. Nonetheless, the award was belated and ironic considering that she had been largely ignored in France for some 20 years. In August 1901 Chaminade married Louis-Mathieu Carbonel, an elderly Marseilles music publisher, in what may have been a platonic arrangement; he died in 1907 and she never remarried. While her compositional activity eventually subsided because of World War I and deteriorating health, Chaminade made several recordings, many of them piano rolls, between 1901 and 1914. Aeolian produced additional piano rolls of her works after the war, now with the improved technology of the Duo-Art system. In later years, by which time she was feeling obsolete, she was tended by her niece, Antoinette Lorel, who attempted to promote Chaminade’s music after her death in 1944.
Chaminade was well aware of the social and personal difficulties facing a woman composer, and she suggested that perseverance and special circumstances were needed to overcome them. Her output is noteworthy among women composers for its quantity, its high percentage of published works and for the fact that a large portion – notably piano works and mélodies – was apparently composed expressly for publication and its attendant sales (Enoch was the main publisher). Chaminade composed almost 200 piano works, most of them character pieces (e.g. Scarf Dance, 1888), and more than 125 mélodies (e.g. L’anneau d’argent, 1891); these two genres formed the basis of her popularity. Stylistically, her music is tuneful and accessible, with memorable melodies, clear textures and mildly chromatic harmonies. Its emphasis on wit and colour is typically French. Many works seem inspired by dance, for example Scarf Dance and La lisonjera. Of her larger works, the one-movement Concertstück recalls aspects of Wagner and Liszt, while the three-movement Piano Sonata shows the formal and expressive experimentation that was typical of the genre by the late 19th century (see Citron, 1993, for a feminist analysis of the first movement). The mélodies are idiomatic for the voice and well-suited expressively and poetically to the ambience of the salon or the recital hall, the likely sites for such works. The Concertino has remained a staple of the flute repertory; while it is a large-scale work and thus represents a relatively small part of her output, the piece still provides a sense of the elegance and attractiveness of Chaminade’s music.