Marie Jaëll, String Quartet in G Minor (1875)
Ciompi Quartet: Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku, violins; Jonathan Bagg, viola; Caroline Stinson, cello. Recorded September 2-3, 2020 in Baldwin Auditorium, Duke University, by Rick Nelson.
Rediscovering Marie Jaëll
by R. Larry Todd, Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Music in Trinity College of Arts and Sciences
Among the voices of nineteenth-century musicians largely silenced by undeserved neglect and the withering passage of time is that of Marie (Trautmann) Jaëll (1846-1925), an Alsatian piano prodigy, composer, and pedagogue. In addition, she wrote several studies about the physiology of playing the piano, all in an attempt to improve the efficiency of the hand, and to promote in a scientific way the pianist’s awareness of the physical aspects of performance. At the age of sixteen she won the coveted first prize in piano at the Paris Conservatoire; a few years later, in 1867, she married the pianist Alfred Jaëll, with whom she toured extensively in Europe and Russia. She was known for her performances of the music of Robert Schumann and Liszt, but perhaps the zenith of her concertizing career came in 1893, when she dispatched at the Salle Pleyel in Paris the herculean feat of performing the thirty-two piano sonatas by Beethoven, the very first French pianist to do so.
Jaëll was an intimate of Saint-Saëns in Paris and Liszt in Weimar. Saint-Saëns inscribed to her his juvenescent Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 17 (1858), while the senescent Liszt dedicated to her one of his adventuresome late works, the Third Mephisto Waltz (1883). Her engaging performances led Saint-Saëns to declare that other than Liszt, only Jaëll could convincingly play his music. Jaëll’s students included the polymath Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), who later distinguished himself as a theologian, humanitarian, doctor, organist, and author of a two-volume study of J. S. Bach.
Today Jaëll’s music is still relatively unknown, though there are clear signs of a revival, including of her impressive String Quartet in G minor of 1875, restored and performed here by the Ciompi Quartet in a recording made this past summer in Baldwin Auditorium. A thorough assessment of Jaëll’s full catalogue is still wanting, but suffice it to say that she explored a wide variety of genres, from solo and four-hand piano music (much of it performed with her husband), and songs (for some of which she created her own texts), to chamber works, concerti (two for piano, and one for cello), the symphonic poem, and opera. Liszt and Saint-Saëns appear to have been the dominant influences on her style, but a critical appraisal must await further publication and performances of her music.
The String Quartet in G minor dates from 1875, just a few years after the crushing defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War and the horrors of the Paris Commune. Conceivably, the quartet may reflect what the musicologist Joël-Marie Fauquet has termed the “crisis of conscience into which losing the Franco-Prussian War had thrown the French nation.” To some degree this entailed for French composers a renewal of chamber-music genres firmly associated with the Austro-German tradition. In this regard it is significant that Jaëll’s sole quartet predates by some fourteen years the much more celebrated String Quartet in D major of César Franck, which, with its use of cyclic techniques between the various movements, cast a heavy influence on Debussy’s sole—and, it should be added, distinctly un-Germanic quartet of 1892—as well as the chamber music of Fauré, Ravel, and others. Like Franck’s quartet, Jaëll’s betrays the long shadow of Beethoven’s sixteen quartets, evident in particular in the outer movements. In four movements, the quartet begins with an energetic motive of ten notes, interrupted by a brief (Beethovenian) silence, and then repeated and extended. Out of this motive Jaëll spins the first movement, in the middle of which she indulges in a fugato-like treatment of the material. Beethovenian too is the playful third-movement scherzo, where counterpoint is again invoked, though here in a mock display of erudition. The lyrical Andante slow movement, on the other hand, features a singing melody in the first violin accompanied by the other instruments, reminiscent perhaps of the French musical romance, popular first in opera and then transferred to instrumental combinations.
Well crafted, Jaëll’s quartet displays a convincing engagement with the string quartet genre, a sound knowledge of its past history, and imaginative understanding of its potential for French music in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. It remains one of the few string quartets from the time by women composers, and now joins Fanny Hensel’s String Quartet in E-flat major of 1834, lost to history until 1988, when its first edition was issued (an early recording by the Ciompi Quartet followed in 1997).