Scent-sational Composer

By Tim Lihoreau

History. According to Napoleon Bonaparte it’s ‘the version of past events that people have decided to agree on’. True, but how cruel it can be, sometimes, if you don’t set out, like Winston Churchill famously, to write yourself into it (‘History will be kind to me for I intend to write it’). That latter quote, in particular, came to mind when we were doing some digging on Cécile Chaminade (for Alex James’s A – Z of Classic FM Music, Sundays at 3 pm) and how unkind it can be, too.

It’s quite amazing that Chaminade is not better remembered today. Having already had to battle against her own parents to simply study music in the first place – she was prevented from studying at the Paris Conservatoire, and allowed to take only private lessons – she persevered and succeeded through sheer talent. In the end, across her life, she wrote some 400 pieces – or time-pieces, if you like because they so beautifully capture the spirit of the late Romantic Parisian society – and, remarkably, pretty much all of them were published (it didn’t harm her posterity rating that she married a music publisher).

She also began to enjoy not just mere popularity but widespread fan worship. Clubs grew up around her music not just in France but far and wide and she was able to cultivate and extend her renown with concert tours. At the height of her fame, she even had her own perfume, ‘Chaminade’ produced in London and New York. So, Rihanna (‘Reb’l fleur’) Britney (‘Hidden Fantasy’) and Kylie (‘Darling’) – Cécile Chaminade beat you to it by some hundred and twenty years. Late on in life – too late, by most of her friends’ reckoning – she was recognized with a Légion d’Honneur but by then she was already 56. Nevertheless, she lived on until 1944, recording piano rolls and eventually vinyls of her own music. So, why did she fall out of fashion? Was it simply that she was a woman in an almost exclusively man’s world? Who knows? It’s obviously the version of past events that people have decided to agree on.

Catch Alex James’ A-Z of Classic FM Music at 3 pm on Sundays on Classic FM.