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A Forgotten Gem

Abstract:

Auguste Chapuis, a French composer and organist from the late 19th to early 20th century, has largely faded into historical obscurity, despite once having a street in Paris named after him. Notably, his contributions to double bass literature have endured through two works composed for the Paris Conservatoire in 1907 and 1924. This article focuses on the latter piece, the Choral, shedding light on its historical context and the unique collection of works for double bass initiated by the Paris Conservatoire.

Chapuis, born in 1858, studied under renowned mentors at the Paris Conservatoire and left a lasting impact on the musical landscape. The Choral, composed for the 1924 competition, is explored for its musical intricacies, drawing inspiration from Ravel and Debussy. The analysis emphasizes Édouard Nanny’s role, a pivotal figure in French double bass technique, and the technical aspects of the piece, originally in solo tuning but later adapted for both solo and orchestral tunings.

Choral, a concise yet captivating composition lasting slightly over three minutes, emerges as a hidden gem in double bass music. The solo line, coupled with an inventive piano accompaniment, reflects Chapuis’ ability to seamlessly blend lyricism, passion, drama, and energy. Despite its relative obscurity, Choral showcases the potential to grace any recital stage, deserving recognition for its rich and opulent musical language. The piece’s sole recording by Russian double bassist Alexander Michno in 1998 underscores the need for a renewed appreciation of this overlooked masterpiece.

In the shadows of historical neglect, Auguste Chapuis surfaces as a forgotten gem among French composers of the early 20th century. While his name has dimmed, the enduring legacy of his contributions to double bass literature, particularly through the Choral, merits rediscovery. This exploration reveals a piece rich in musical language and historical significance, urging soloists, teachers, and students to embrace this neglected masterpiece and celebrate its place in the vast landscape of musical history.

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Publication date:

ISSN: 2792-8349

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International Journal of Music

Auguste Chapuis (1858 – 1933) was a French composer, organist, and teacher, but his name, on the whole, has long ago been consigned to the history books. Fame during a lifetime doesn’t always translate to a reputation for posterity, but the fact that a street in Paris was named after him, and the house where he died bears a plaque, and that he was a member of the “Legion of Honour” does give some indication of his fame and importance during the early decades of the 20th-century. The rue Auguste-Chapuis is in the 20th arrondissement of Paris and connects to the Rue Mendelssohn.

The interest for double bassists is in two works by Chapuis for double bass and piano — the first published in 1907 and the second in 1924. Both were composed for the Concours du Conservatoire National de Musique de Paris — a treasure trove of pieces by some of the leading French composers and teachers of the day, and written for the final recital of the double bass students who were to graduate from the Paris Conservatoire that year. This collection of amazing music was always a driving force for me to commission so many works for the double bass over the past 40 years, and the initiative by the Paris Conservatoire has created a unique collection of works for double bass, many of which have certainly stood the test of time and entered the solo and educational repertoire.

Auguste Chapuis was born in Dampierre-sur-Salon (Haute-Saône) on 20 April 1858 and died in Paris on 6 December 1933. He was a student of Théodore Dubois, Jules Massenet, and César Franck at the Paris Conservatoire, and subsequently became organist of Notre-Dame-des-Champs and St. Rochelle. Chapuis taught harmony at the Paris Conservatoire, and both Lili and Nadia Boulanger were among his students. He composed three church masses, three operas, chamber music, choral and educational music. His music for harp is still in print, but sadly the vast majority of his music has been forgotten today.

Choral for double bass and piano was written for the Concours du Conservatoire National de Musique de Paris – 1924 and published by Alphonse Leduc the same year. Although lasting only a little over three minutes, this is a gem of a piece that, for some unknown reason, has fallen under the radar of most double bassists — performers and teachers alike. It is dedicated “to my colleague and friend Édouard Nanny,” who has been recognized as the founding father of the French double bass technique. Édouard Nanny (1872 – 1942) taught at the Paris Conservatoire for 20 years and was instrumental in persuading composers to write for double bass, alongside his own original compositions and transcriptions for the instrument. Originally in solo tuning, Recital Music produced a new edition of Choral in 2004 for both solo and orchestral tunings.

Choral is full of wonderful music, with effective challenges to keep most bassists happy, and the influence of Ravel and Debussy are never far away from the musical language and style. The independent and inventive piano accompaniment contrasts and compliments the solo line, which combines lyricism and passion with drama and great energy. It ventures into thumb position, primarily in scale or arpeggio themes, but there is nothing here to frighten the horses and much to enjoy. Choral would fit easily into any recital and for any audience, and its rich and opulent musical language produces an exquisite miniature that deserves to be better known. The piece makes effective use of the orchestral register of the instrument, and it is likely that Édouard Nanny helped with the technical aspects of the piece.

To my knowledge, Choral has only been recorded once — by the great Russian double bassist Alexander Michno with pianist Galina Sčastnaja. The CD was released in 1998, and all the works had been recorded between 1976 and 1988. Michno is a very lyrical and musical soloist, allied to an excellent virtuosic technique, and is a powerful advocate of the piece.

For many years Choral was out of print, the fate of much double bass music alas, and my own original copy is an old French edition, now yellowing and falling apart, and I wonder if the lack of a good available edition has led to its neglect? Many solo pieces enter the repertoire, some worthy and some not so, but others are forgotten. I hope that this short Bass Blog will go some way to redressing the balance and persuading soloists, teachers, and students to take a look at this beautiful, evocative and dramatic piece which is worthy of study and performance almost a century after it was written.

Conclusion

In the shadows of historical neglect, Auguste Chapuis emerges as a forgotten gem among the French composers of the early 20th century. While his name may have faded over time, the legacy of his contributions to double bass literature endures through two captivating works composed for the Paris Conservatoire. The Choral for double bass and piano, crafted for the 1924 competition, stands out as a neglected masterpiece deserving of rediscovery.

This brief exploration into Chapuis’ Choral reveals a piece rich in musical language, drawing inspiration from the styles of Ravel and Debussy. Its expressive solo line, complemented by an inventive piano accompaniment, presents challenges that intrigue and delight. Despite its brevity, Choral encapsulates drama, energy, and lyricism, making it a versatile addition to any double bassist’s repertoire.

While the historical trajectory of Choral has been marked by a single recording, the hope is that this Bass Blog serves as a catalyst for a resurgence of interest. The absence of a widely available edition may have contributed to its neglect, but the enduring beauty of this composition merits a closer look from soloists, teachers, and students alike. As we celebrate the rediscovery of Chapuis’ Choral, it joins the ranks of timeless works that transcend the eras, offering a poignant reminder of the hidden treasures awaiting acknowledgment in the vast landscape of musical history.

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