Cecile Chaminade - French Composer and Pianist December 24 2021

Cécile Chaminade, in full Cécile Louise Stéphanie Chaminade (1857 – 1944), is a French Composer and a popular concert pianist. Though a very gifted and versatile composer, she was chiefly known for her graceful and romantic piano music and songs, which were very appropriate for the Parisian salon music events where they often used to be interpreted. 

Cecile Chaminade Photograph

Throughout her life, she made around 400 compositions. Almost all of them were published during her lifetime and were a financial success. About half of her works are short piano pieces. Her works also include 125 songs, as well as a few larger pieces like the ballets, operas, symphonies, and orchestras.


[Image] Gorgeous black-and-white photograph of Cécile Chaminade in her mature years


She also composed two orchestral suites and a handful of chamber works, including two trios. All of which have won acclaim from both the public and critics alike. Her own music was known to be tuneful, elegant, and witty, but at the same time accessible. However, it sometimes got tough critical evaluations. Several Critics of Chaminade’s music proclaimed that her works were too emotional. Some even described them as being superficial and lacking depth and that they were only meant to be consumed at home for the light entertainment of women. It is probable these critical evaluations of her works were mainly due to the gender stereotypes implemented in the 20th century, rather than the quality of the music.

Chaminade was an intensely private individual and she destroyed her diaries shortly before she died. However, she wrote articles about her compositions that shed light on her life and musical style. Most of her performance records were found in her mother’s scrapbook while her life stories were told by her niece Antoinette Lorel. Most of Chaminade's life events and accomplishments were recounted based on these sources.



Cécile was born in Paris on 8 August 1857 in a prosperous do family. She was the third of four surviving children. The Chaminades valued music highly. Her father, Hippolyte Chaminade, a manager in the Paris office of the British insurance firm, Gresham, played the violin. Her mother was an amateur pianist and a singer. In the early 1860s, the family mainly lived on the fashionable Rue Brochant in Paris, spending their holidays at the Château de la Farge, their villa in Périgord. In 1865, they purchased a property in Le Vésinet, now a Paris suburb. Le Vésinet had become a vacation home for the family and a site where regular salon songs were performed.

Cécile started her earliest music studies with her mother. Among the Chaminades' neighbors in the village of Le Vésinet, was the luminary Georges Bizet. Upon hearing her perform, Bizet predicted that Cécile was destined for a brilliant music career. He often referred to her as “My little Mozart”, and advised her parents to send her to the Paris Conservatoire to study piano and composition. Cécile was then taken to the Conservatoire to have her musical talents assessed by Félix Le Couppey, a professor at the same Conservatoire.

Le Couppey was pleasantly surprised by her proficiency, and he advised her to enter the institution for instruction in musical theory. However, her father believed that it was not suitable for a woman of her social class to formally attend a public institution or pursue a musical career. He forbid her from enrolling in the conservatory. This didn’t stop Cécile from pursuing her passion, even if this means that she had to do it behind her father’s back.

Fortunately, her mother supported her dreams, and sent her to private teachers recommended by Bizet. Some of these private studies were with Félix Le Couppey on piano, Marie Gabriel Augustin Savard and Martin Pierre Marsick on violin. She also studied music composition with the famous Benjamin Godard, whose taste seems to have marked her own decisively. 


Cecile Chaminade cabinet photograph

At the age of seven, Cécile composed her first piece : La Pastorale Enfantine, and by the time she was eight years old, she had already composed several pieces of music for her local Catholic church.


[Image] Cabinet Photograph of Cécile Chaminade by photographer Bary, Paris


In the years 1870 and 1871, the Chaminades' pleasant life was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War. The family took refuge from the siege of Paris in nearby Angoulême, avoiding the terror of the war. However, despite the ongoing war, there was a renascence of French musical life in the 1870s. 



The year 1875 marked a noteworthy musical experience for Chaminade. It was the year she attended the disastrous premiere of Bizet’s opera, Carmen. She had a behind-the-scenes look at how Bizet suffered in the name of musical establishment. This experience left a profound impact on the child prodigy that was later evident in her opera-writing career. It was also in the year 1875 that Chaminade did her first recital. She accompanied her violin teacher, Marsick, in a Mozart violin sonata in their place of residence. The performance was a success and her first review appeared.


Cécile Chaminade's Concertino for Flute Op.107 performed by Duo du Reve (2017)


In 1877, when her father was away on a business trip, she gave her first public recital in the Salle Pleyel in Paris. Around the same time, she had her Etude Op 1 published. But her true entry into the world of composition came the following year when she did a recital dedicated to her own works in their residence. 


The year 1880 also marked another major musical event in Chaminade's life. She did a successful recital of her works at the Salle Erard. From that time, her work as a composer gained steadily in favor. In this recital, she featured her first Trio for piano op.11, which was very well received by the public. 


Cecile Chaminade at the piano

In 1881, Chaminade’s piano teacher organized a portrait concert for the Société Nationale, which featured the premiere of her Suite d'Orchestre. The reviews regarding this orchestra were mixed, but they all agreed that the work's orchestration deserved high praise for its color and originality.


[Image] Beautiful photograph of Cécile Chaminade at the piano


The orchestra got new performances in the Concerts des Champs-Elysees and Concerts populaires. In the same year, Chaminade's growing confidence in her own creative gifts resulted in the composition of the comic opera La Sévillane. This work most evidently shows the influence of Bizet’s Carmen.

In 1882, Cécile directed a private performance of this opera at her parents' residence in Paris. the event's invitations were issued to various personalities and figures in the musical and press industry. Despite being a success, the opera was never staged and failed to ensure an engagement at the Paris Opéra-Comique.

It was speculated that Chaminade never pursued a public performance because she was fearful of a repeat of the fiasco that happened in Bizet’s Carmen. She had probably predicted that the masculinized musical world would be very critical of any major works she might publish due to society’s gender prejudices during that century. 

Meanwhile, the rising artist began to perform on a steady basis. She was much in demand in chamber concerts and recitals. In most of these recitals, her compositions occupied a major portion of the program. 


Cecile Chaminade music quote

Authentic Autograph Music Quote signed by Cécile Chaminade, dated in New York, 1908

Two important personal events colored this period of the young composer’s life. In 1886, her younger sister, Henriette married  Moritz Moszkowski, a well-known composer and pianist and a member of Cécile’s artistic circle. This resulted in deep strife within the family. Their father, Hippolyte was opposed to his daughter’s marriage to a Jewish German.

The second event was the father’s sudden death in 1887, a death perhaps precipitated by Henriette’s marriage scandal. This death placed the family's financial security in jeopardy. During the early years of her musical career, Cécile performed and composed for amusement.

Being a daughter of wealth and privilege, her drive to succeed was personal and not financial. However, following the death of her father, 30-year-old Chaminade had to support herself and her mother with her compositions and recitals.

This resulted in a shift in her artistic activities. She veered away from composing symphonies, operas, concertos, and chamber music, to focus on making small and commercial songs and solo piano pieces. Although Chaminade completed several major compositions in the late 1880s, these smaller works would become her musical legacy.

Meanwhile, Cécile’s ballet Callirhoë accompanied by the famous dance "Scarf Dance" was premiered in march of 1888, in Marseilles. The story behind Callirhoë was inspired by a poem by Anacreon and the scenario was written by Elzéard Rougier. The work was originally to have been composed by Benjamin Godard, but he was busy with another project so he offered it to Chaminade instead. This work found major success and was performed over two hundred within the next twenty years before eventually disappearing from the stage after 1910.


Deux Morceaux pour Piano score by Cecile Chaminade

Chaminade followed this artistic success with a dual triumph: the introduction of her only piece for piano and orchestra, Concertstfick, and her only symphony Les Amazones. Both were performed in 1888 as well and in provinces as well.


[Image] Deux Morceaux pour Piano score by Cecile Chaminade


In fact, Chaminade's work was always received with raves outside Paris, while her success in the capital was always less certain.

Cécile’s fame only grew from there. She made her debut in England in 1892 where she witnessed unprecedented popularity. Even Queen Victoria was an adamant fan of hers and gifted her, in 1897, a Jubilee Medal and a signed photo.

Cécile’s Prélude for Organ Op 78 was even performed at Queen Victoria's funeral. Chaminade became a regular visitor of England. She made various premières with signes such as Blanche Marchesi and Pol Plançon. Her last visit to England was said to be in 1924. In addition to England, Cécile made various international concert tours throughout France and the European continent. She regularly presented her works to packed concert halls in Germany, Vienna, Belgium, and many other countries.

The 1890s definitely marked the peak of Chaminade’s artistic career. She enjoyed a reputation as a composer which has never been equaled by any women composers. In fact, It was during early 1890 that she published most of her works. This was mainly due to financial reasons; Her goal was to lure the audience to her recitals and then to sell large quantities of her compositions as sheet music, so that she and her mother could enjoy financial security.

In the waning years of the century, she started working on another opera project in collaboration with Armand Silvestre. However, Armand died in 1901 before they got to finish the opera. 


Soprano Joanna Malaszczyk sings Chaminade's "Rosamonde", "Reve d'un soir", and "Tu me dirais", in recital (2018)


It seems that up until 1901, Cécile avoided getting involved in a romantic relationship for fear of being subjected to male authority. However, Some evidence suggests that in the summer of 1888 she fell in love with a "Dr. L." and even became engaged to him but an unspecified tragedy in his family prevented their marriage and eventually lead to their separation.

In august of 1901, Chaminade's personal life underwent a major change: she married Louis-Mathieu Carbonel, a music publisher from Marseilles, and an old friend of her mother. Carbonel was more than twenty years her senior and their relationship was more of a platonic nature. The pair never lived together, nor shared any sexual relations. Carbonel would only accompany her on her concert tours.

On account of all these pieces of information, it was rumored that their marriage was one of convenience. In 1907, seven years after their marriage, Carbonel died of lung disease and Cécile did not remarry after that. Since Cécile’s diary was destroyed, her motives for this bizarre marriage are unknown. 

In 1902, Chaminade composed a Concertino for Flute, a 8-minute composition for solo flute and orchestra. This piece was originally composed to be an examination composition for students attending the Paris Conservatoire.  

Ever since the mid-1890s, Chaminade had been invited to perform in America. she repeatedly refused because she dreaded the long and dangerous trip and didn’t want to leave her aging mother alone for an extended period of time.

Cécile Chaminade plays her own work "Les Sylvains" Op.60 recorded in 1901.


However, in 1908, Chaminade overcame her reservation about doing the long-awaited tour. perhaps in part to escape painful memories and find new inspirations, but also to make a large sum of money and maintain her good standing among her enthusiastic American admirers. She visited the United States for the first time, in 1908 where she toured twelve cities from Boston to St. Louis.

The tour was sponsored by the John Church Company, American agent for her music, and managed by one Metzer. Her compositions were tremendous favorites with the American public and such pieces as the ‘’scarf dance’’ or the ballet music were to be found in the music libraries of most piano lovers of that time.

Her songs, such as Ritournelle and The Silver Ring, were also great favorites. There were even over two hundred Chaminade clubs dedicated just to her from the 1890s onward, and she even performed the solo part of her Concertstück with the Philadelphia Orchestra. In addition to her artistic career, Chaminade also wrote several literary articles. One of which was a chapter in the The International Library of Music on the life of her neighbor Georges Bizet.

During her lifetime, Chaminade received several awards, and in 1913, she became the first female composer to be admitted to the French National Order of the Legion of Honour. In praising Cécile, the French composer Ambroise Thomas once said, “This is not a woman who composes, but a composer who is a woman.” Isidor Philipp, head of the piano department of the Paris Conservatory, also supported her works. 


Cécile Chaminade's "Scarf-Dance" Op.37 performed by pianist Rina Cellini (2003) 



Cécile’s lifelong companion, her mother, died in 1912. Following this death, strong-willed and eccentric, Chaminade adhered to a strange vegetarian diet that would later bring her serious health problems.

Three years later, in 1915, Chaminade moved to her seaside villa at Tamaris, near Toulon. World War I began a declining phase in the composer's career and her popularity witnessed a significant drop. Cécile spent the war years attending wounded soldiers in a convalescent home.

This was a life-changing experience for her. At the same time, she recorded many piano rolls. She became increasingly reclusive and eventually, in 1925, she sold her family property at le vécinet, abandoning a Paris -she no longer understood- for good.

Parallelly, her health kept deteriorating as a result of years of a stringent vegetarian diet. She was eventually diagnosed with decalcification of the left foot, in 1926. This illness eventually left her immobile. After one final work appearing in 1928, her Creative activity ceased entirely. In 1936, Cécile moved to Monte Carlo, with her niece, Antoinette’s, help. Two years later, when she was around eighty years old, she had to get her left foot amputated. 



Cécile died on April 18, 1944, at eighty-six years old in Monte Carlo. This death was due to old age, accentuated by her degenerating health. The later 20 century witnessed a general disparagement of late-Romantic French music.


Cecile Chaminade and her house

Reward Card celebrating the life and work of Cécile Chaminade


Therefore, by the time of her death, her music had already been forgotten by the public and especially the French. Despite being one of the most popular and most successful composers of her time, she had quickly faded from the public’s memory. She just became a name in the relatively short list of successful women composers. It’s fair to say that history has been cruel to Cécile Chaminade.

This century, however, witnessed a renewed interest in women composers, Cécile’s work has been rediscovered in recent years, appearing on major labels.



- Cécile Chaminade Cabinet Photograph

- Cécile Chaminade Autograph Music Quote

- Composers Autographs (Signed Photographs)

- Manuscripts by Composer (Genuinely Signed)

- Concert Programs Signed by Composers



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