Cécile Chaminade: An Interview with Leone Buyse
Research, interview, and production by Claire Oplinger
Faculty Advisor: Dr. Rebecca Cypess
Video editor: Elly Toyoda
Photos and Audio courtesy of Leone Buyse
August 8, 1857: Cécile Chaminade was born in Paris, France.
April 18, 1888: Concertstück Op. 40 for piano and orchestra was premiered in Antwerp, Belgium.
Circa 1900: Chaminade clubs began to form in the United States.
1902: Chaminade was commissioned by the Paris Conservatoire to write the Concertino Op. 107 for the annual Concours.
1908: Chaminade toured and performed in the United States, appearing in 12 cities.
1913: Chaminade became the first female composer to receive the Légion d’Honneur.
April 18, 1944: Chaminade died in Monte-Carlo.
French composer and pianist Cécile Chaminade was born in Paris on August 8, 1857. Leading a rich and diverse musical life, Chaminade’s first music instruction was from her mother, who taught her to sing and play the piano. She began exploring composition seriously in the early 1880s and this led to her prolific career as a composer, publishing over 400 works throughout her lifetime. Her father would not allow her to study composition at the Paris Conservatory due to social conventions limiting women’s formal education. But she did study privately with Couppey, Marmontel, Savard and Godard. She continued to develop as a composer and concert pianist, performing both in Europe and America.
In 1902, she was commissioned by the flute professor of the Paris Conservatory to compose the Concertino Op. 107 for the annual event known as the Concours. This piece holds substantial pedagogical and stylistic significance and continues to be performed frequently. To explore the Chaminade Concertino’s unique legacy within the flute world, I spoke with Leone Buyse, who is a renowned performer and educator.
My name is Leone Buyse and I am the professor of flute at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. My career began in orchestral playing and I have played with three different orchestras, the Rochester Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Boston Symphony. When I moved to full time academic teaching, I went to the University of Michigan. I was there for four years, and this is now my 25th year teaching at Rice University. I’ve also taught at the New England Conservatory and Boston University. My interests in music are broad, of course, orchestral music, flute repertoire. I have an interest in women in music. So I’m delighted to be here, speaking with Claire, about Cécile Chaminade.
Beginning in 1897, Paul Taffanel, the Paris Conservatory’s flute professor, began an annual practice of commissioning living composers for the “concours” which occurred at the end of each academic year. As Professor Buyse recalls from her time studying in Paris, the “concours” is one of the central features of the institution and is equivalent to a final examination, where every member of the flute studio performs one piece written for that occasion. Other woodwind studios at the Conservatory were also following a similar process.
Cécile Chaminade was commissioned to write the famous Concertino, Op. 107 for the 1902 “Concours” and over the last 120 years, it has become a staple of the flute repertoire. And its place in the output of Chaminade, who is a woman composer, means that it bears great importance during a time when composition and performing professionally were considered inappropriate for women.
The Chaminade Concertino is probably one of the most if not the most frequently performed works from the Morceaux de Concours repertoire. It stands out in terms of its length among the works being composed in the early 1900s. If you look at the Faure Fantasy or the Enesco Cantabile and Presto, those take roughly five minutes, between five and six minutes, to perform. The Chaminade Concertino is larger in scope and can take anywhere from almost eight minutes to ten or even a little bit longer. It’s interesting to realize that Chaminade was following her language very closely in the Concertino. She was a romantic composer– Saint-Saens was the person whom she admired the most. So her harmonic language was very much romantic. An example would be starting in D major and modulating to B flat major. I remember learning in “History of the Symphony” how Brahms would modulate a third from the tonic key. So there you have it: the harmonic language of the romantics. Also, she was very much into three part form. And for all of us who grew up with a model of the concerto movement: exposition, development, and recapitulation, her ternary form is actually very comforting. What’s special, I feel, about the Concertino is the cadenza. That moment is especially satisfying to play.
And melody is a key element, obviously, in Chaminade’s work. And that brilliant Presto Coda at the end– who wouldn’t love that? What’s not to love?
So, the significance of her work is broad. If you go to YouTube, who is performing the Concertino? Emmanuel Pahud from the Berlin Philharmonic or soloist Jasmine Choi, or Yubeen Kim, another wonderful soloist and Sir James Galway. They all want to play the Chaminade Concertino, because it’s such an accessible work musically.
In its rich harmonic language and florid passages, this piece presents a myriad of challenges for the flutist which certainly matches the prestige and difficulty of an education at the Paris Conservatory. It demands both technical control and musical sensitivity, often at the same time, and it demonstrates the wide sonic breadth of the flute.
As a modern flutist, Professor Buyse reflects on some of the challenges of learning and performing Chaminade’s Concertino.
[Some challenges include] Phrasing, which means knowing how to breathe well, and where to breathe. Also, technical control scales, arpeggios, those wonderful triplets in the middle section that are so much fun to navigate. And not only those, the articulation of (demonstrates), and making sure that your sound is balanced, so that the bottom range doesn’t disappear, or the top range stick out. So tonal beauty also would enter into this.
In addition to sharing her experience of preparing the Concertino for performance, Professor Buyse notes some of the challenges for students tackling this piece.
I think sometimes students are given this piece before they are technically ready. And they’re given it for different reasons. Maybe they heard somebody older play it, and they begged their teacher to give it to them to learn. Or maybe it’s the required piece for a particular competition. But I have a lot of trouble with students wanting to play too fast too soon, when they’re working on this piece. And you as a flutist understand that it’s fun to play fast. It’s fun to move your fingers quickly, and just enjoy the speed element. There’s also the aspect of intonation, trying to make sure that going from a D, which tends to be a little unfocused and maybe high, to an E, which sometimes is a little low– that opening interval is not in tune. So if you’re trying to teach the whole student, you want to teach their aural acuity, and work with them to be listening for intonation, as well as the technical aspect and the tonal aspect as well.
I think she had in mind a real depth of accompaniment, with the piano chords, et cetera. And I think sometimes that could be problematic for students if they’re overpowered by that. Or, to me, even though she wasn’t a flute as there weren’t unplayable aspects for the flutist to deal with, simply challenging aspects. And why not be challenged when you work on something? That makes the success at the end of the journey all the more sweet.
Apart from the Concertino’s rich musical and pedagogical value, another aspect of the work which makes it so popular today is that there are several arrangements. Arrangement is an important and legitimate component of musical practice throughout history, and the arrangements of the Concertino are no exception. Such adaptations help us to understand the many roles that the Concertino has played in concert life, teaching, learning, performing, and listening since its first composition.
Today, there are arrangements for flute and piano, for flute and orchestra, and also for flute and wind ensemble. This provides diverse opportunities for performance. When asked about a specific memory of performing this work, Buyse recalls playing the Concertino with a wind ensemble and then later with an orchestra.
I learned this work when I was a sophomore at Eastman because my high school band director, Frank Battisti, who was an native Ithacan– I am a Native Ithacan– and later went on to the New England Conservatory to found the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble. Mr. Battisti had invited me to perform with the Ithaca High School Wind Ensemble at the annual Midwest band clinic in Chicago at the Palmer House. So this was a very big deal. I remember taking the train from Rochester to Chicago, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea yet of flying in 1966. And it was a thrill for me to play with the wind ensemble– it was a very good arrangement of the orchestral version– and have an opportunity to appear with my former band director who had been so supportive of me. And my brother was sitting there in the trumpet section, my kid brother. So that was a very special moment for me. I loved the piece. I loved playing in a big ballroom in a fancy hotel, and feeling that I was able to really communicate the style and also how Chaminade showed the elements of flute playing that are so important to share: beauty of sound and facile technique. I also performed the Chaminade later when I was in the Boston Symphony with a colleague’s orchestra– a violinist colleague had a community orchestra on the North Shore. And it was a real pleasure. I was so much older at that time, at least twenty-some years older. And it was again, very rewarding.
The Concertino is certainly Chaminade’s most popular work for flute today, but it is not the only work she wrote. Two other pieces for flute, Serenade Aux Etoiles and the Air de Ballet are receiving more recognition in modern performance as the work of women composers comes to the forefront. While the scale of these pieces is much smaller, they retain many of the same compositional elements.
It’s interesting to compare the dates of composition–1884 for the first one– the Air De Ballet Op. 30, and that she arranged herself– she transcribed from a piano work, which you can hear her perform on YouTube, to flute and piano. And then 1911 for the Serenade aux Etoiles. And it’s fascinating to understand how she was extremely conservative and did not evolve stylistically, and actually was very anti anything impressionist. She was interviewed in New York, and said that she thought Debussy was gray, and very insincere in his writing, and that Ravel was an eccentric. So you can see that her style remained her style throughout her life as a composer.
While Chaminade’s vast musical output provides a rich and thrilling experience for the performer, it also carries the significance of her identity as a female composer. Chaminade faced barriers throughout her musical career, and her work was often met with mixed reviews. In the United States, her work was quite well-received among the public and “Chaminade Clubs” began to form around the turn of the 20th century. Yet when she traveled to America in 1908 to perform, critics evaluated her work through a biased and gendered lens, calling some pieces too feminine and others too masculine. The overall acclaim of her work gradually waned throughout the rest of the 20th century.
Although Chaminade passed away many decades ago in 1944, there are often still assumptions made about her lifestyle, aptitude, dedication to music, and family life. Some of these misconceptions have permeated professional spheres to a concerning degree, despite the popularity of the Chaminade Concertino.
One thing that I found rather annoying was, when I was teaching at the University of Michigan, I attended a recital by Sir James Galway that was sponsored by the University Musical Society. He was playing the Chaminade. And as an introduction to it, he said something about her composing this with kids running around, tugging at her apron strings. I’m sorry– Cécile Chaminade never had children. She didn’t even marry until much later in life. And she married someone considerably older than she, who unfortunately passed away just a few years later. So I resented that kind of assumption that she was married with kids and composing on the side. After reading Marcia Citron’s Bio-Bibliography, I learned that she was a concertizing pianist. She has played in Carnegie Hall, Symphony Hall in Boston– both stages where I’ve spent many hours performing. And so it really was upsetting to me that Galway would say what he said.
In order to combat the challenges and misconceptions which women face in music, Buyse recalls progress which has been made in the industry, and how modern musicians are advocating for the performance of music by underrepresented composers.
Awareness– awareness has definitely changed. I began really thinking about women composers, seeking out Sofia Gubaidulina, or works of Lily Boulanger, or Jennifer Higdon is a friend, Valerie Coleman…I mean, in the past, I would say 25 years, I’ve been very much on that track. So since arriving at Rice, although I did do a lot of solo work starting from when I left the Boston Symphony, that was 1993 because I had an opportunity to arrange my own schedule and do recitals. And I chose to learn works by female composers, just because I thought that would be the way to go. And it has made a difference, I think for me, and one of my former grad students is now a professor herself at a university in Michigan. And she has made a much expanded repertoire list from the one that I had given her when she was at Rice and added works of many, many BIPOC and women composers. So it’s really exciting to me that it’s a continuum. I mean, I wasn’t aware when I was your age, and now I’m very aware and very much reinforcing the idea of its importance– to seek out lots of works that are very fine and yet not played.
Studying the life of Cécile Chaminade can help us understand the myriad ways in which she experienced discrimination and how her music–as well as the music of many other women composers–was historically excluded from the canon.
However, by considering the important role that Chaminade’s Concertino has played in musical life, we can also understand how she and performers of her work have resisted and combatted such discrimination. By continuing to engage with Chamiande’s compositions, we can create a platform for empowering women performers and composers both now and into the future.
Citron, Marcia J. Cécile Chaminade: A Bio-Bibliography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Citron, Marcia J. “Chaminade, Cécile.” Grove Music Online (2001), retrieved September 21, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.05388.
Citron, Marcia J. Gender and the Musical Canon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Chaminade, Cécile. “How to Play My Best Known Pieces.” The Etude. 26 (1908): 759–60.
Chaminade, Cécile. “How to Sing and Play my Compositions.” Ladies’ Home Journal. 22 (1905): 19.
Pendle, Karin. Women and Music: A History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. 123–141.