Composer Marie Jaëll: French flair, Russian pathos

Marie Jaëll, photo credit Wikipedia

If her name had been Marc, not Marie Jaëll (1846-1925), she would undoubtedly be considered one of the leading French composers of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. But she was a woman – therefore unimportant. During her lifetime praised by none less than Franz Liszt, she was quickly forgotten after her death. At best she lives on in her piano method, which is still widely used in France. Palazzetto Bru Zane puts her music back on the map with an exemplary edition of three CDs, included in a book written in both French and English.

It is to be hoped that concert organizers are willing to listen to and programme her compelling compositions. My experiences in this respect are not very promising. But we live in 2018 and women are on the rise, so I keep my fingers crossed for Marie Jaëll. The more so because her powerful music is performed at the highest level, by such forces as the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hervé Niquet.

Her orchestral song cycle La Légende des ours (The Legend of the Bears) sketches the tragic love affair of a bear couple. Jaëll immediately grabs you by the throat with pounding rhythms and growling strings in the low registers, evoking the image of a bear storming wildly at us. She is a sorceress with timbres, masterfully painting the many different atmospheres: from exuberant cheerfulness to expectant excitement, loveable silence, and utter sadness. Passages rising from the lowest regions dissolve into the most ethereal heights. Yet, no matter how dense and sonorous the texture, the music remains transparent.

The soprano Chantal Santon-Jeffery is the ideal interpreter, bringing across every single emotion with her supple voice and heartfelt interpretation. Striking are the quasi Spanish embellishments in the soprano part, which give the music a joyful and exotic touch. At the same time, Jaëll creates an un-French kind of heaviness, evoking associations with the pathos of her Russian contemporary Tchaikovsky. This highly theatrical song cycle makes it all the more regrettable she never completed her opera Runéa.


Jaëll’s flair for writing appealing melodies and vibrant harmonies is further illustrated by the other orchestral works. Jaëll gives individual musicians ample opportunity to shine in smooth solos. In terms of lyricism, her Cello Concerto is no less appealing than Antonin Dvorák’s or those of Camille Saint-Saëns – with whom she studied for some time. The cellist Xavier Phillips is the ideal advocate; his warm tone and soaring melodies are superbly accompanied by a resonant Brussels Philhamonic under Niquet.

That Jaëll started out as a piano virtuoso is evident from her two passionate Piano Concertos. They are performed with great skill by David Violi (nr.1) and Romain Descharmes (nr.2), both accompanied by the Orchestre de Lille under the baton of Joseph Swensen. Rippling piano runs and hammered chords are counterbalanced by sweet lyricism, embedded in a swirling orchestral accompaniment. No wonder her contemporaries compared Jaëll with Franz Liszt, whose music she often performed. Much to his delight, apparently: ‘She has the brain of a philosopher and the fingers of an artist’, he said about her.

The CDs also feature her two piano cycles Les Beaux Jours and Les Jours pluvieux. In their poetic beauty they emulate the much better known Kinderszenen by Robert Schumann. Parts of the more experimental Ce qu’ on entend…. give an insight into the scientific way in which she investigated the possibilities of sound projection. The accompanying book sketches a good picture of life and work of the idiosyncratic Jaëll, whose powerful voice deserves to be heard in every concert hall.

Hello concert organizers out there, are you listening?!

More info and cd
The above is an adapted translation of the review I wrote for Cultuurpers in 2016. The German pianist Cora Irsen won the Echo Klassik Award 2017 for her recording of all Jaëll’s piano works. 

About theaderks

Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, who studied musicology at Amsterdam University. She' specialized in contemporary music and always has an eye open for women composers. In 2014 she wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw and in 2018 she published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
This entry was posted in music, review, women composers and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Composer Marie Jaëll: French flair, Russian pathos

  1. theaderks says:

    Thanks! May Marie Jaëll’s music finally be embraced by concert programmers.


  2. Clare Shore says:

    Dearest Thea,
    I am thrilled to see this info, which is all new to me. Is there a way I can share this article on Facebook?
    Thank you,


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