It’s always been interesting to me that so few great and enduring works of classical music have been inspired by the Arthurian legends (or “the Matter of Britain”). There’s some crossover in the operas of Richard Wagner, mostly in his use of the Grail in Lohengrin and Parsifal, but that’s really about it, outside of the work of today’s composer, French Romantic Ernest Chausson. I suppose this can be possibly explained by the fact that nationalism in art also arose during the Romantic period, so when composers were most inspired by legend and myth they also tended to be inspired by their own nation’s legends and myths. This, coupled with the fact that very few of the “great” composers of the Romantic era came from Britain, may explain the paucity of Arthurian operas and symphonies and tone poems.
Except for this Frenchman, Ernest Chaussons, who wrote a tone poem and an opera directly inspired by the Arthurian legends. Chausson was a “bridge” figure, connecting the earlier era of French romanticism with the emergent forms of Impressionism that followed the Romantics. Chausson was primarily influenced by Wagner and by Cesar Franck, and even though his output was small, his music is highly individual and deeply felt. In this way–and in his untimely death–Chausson almost seems like a French counterpart to Alexander Borodin.
The tone poem Viviane is inspired by the love affair between Merlin the wizard and the maiden Viviane, which ends tragically in the eternal imprisonment of Merlin inside a cave of crystal. The work is lush and mostly introspective, but with passages of rapturous passion before concluding on a sad note. One can definitely hear in this work the drama of a Wagner but also the atmospheric introspection of the impressionists to come.
Here is Viviane by Ernest Chausson.