An old-school French violinist and composer navigates a new world

Charles Dancla
Bibliotheque nationale de France
Charles Dancla

On Sunday musicians from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute perform a program at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum including Charles Dancla’s Variations on “Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman,” an 1884 showpiece for four solo violins. Dancla’s long, disparate career as a violinist, composer, and pedagogue formed a précis of his era, navigating a representative variety of 19th-century French institutional and national politics.

Born in 1817 in Bagnères-de-Bigorre, at the foot of the Pyrenees, Dancla attracted local civic interest with his talent: A well-connected family friend arranged a letter of introduction to violinist and Conservatoire professor Pierre Rode; Rode paved the way for a successful audience with the school’s head, composer Luigi Cherubini. Dancla studied with the most classically minded of the Conservatoire’s violin professors, Pierre Baillot, whose blessing propelled the young violinist into high-profile concertmaster posts. The job Dancla really wanted was his teacher’s. Upon Baillot’s 1842 death, however, Dancla was passed over for the Belgian virtuoso Lambert Massart, to whom (according to Dancla) the French minister overseeing the Conservatoire owed a favor. Fifteen years later, another political intervention — this one by Achille Fould, Louis-Napoleon’s minister of state — put Dancla on the faculty.

It wasn’t Dancla’s first mix with power. The revolutions of 1848 (which Louis-Napoleon so effectively capitalized on) had alarmed Dancla enough that he pulled some strings and, for two years, served as postmaster in Cholet, some 200 miles southwest of Paris. (It helped that the government’s main postal administrator was a music lover.) Two decades later, the revolution came to Dancla; when representatives of the 1870-71 Paris Commune — “a dozen or so robust fellows decked out in various uniforms and armed to the teeth,” as Dancla remembered — requested his participation in concerts organized by that radical government, Dancla agreed, rationalizing it as a duty “to place one’s talent and goodwill at the service of the unfortunate.”


Those observations come from Dancla’s 1893 “Notes and Souvenirs,” a rambling combination of autobiography, gossip, musical analysis, and discreet score-settling. Upon an 1892 change of government, Dancla was unceremoniously removed from his Conservatoire position. The book was, in part, a reminder of how much wisdom was being cast aside, though that wisdom was distinctly old-fashioned. (Ten years after Richard Wagner’s death, Dancla was still wait-and-see chary about his music.)

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Dancla retired to the country, where Toulouse-Lautrec painted him: a gaunt, gray 83-year-old, a violin still under his chin. Eventually Dancla moved to Tunisia, to live with his son; it was there, a long way from Paris, that the last master of the old French school of violin playing died, in 1907.

Musicians from Curtis, with violinist Ida Kafavian, perform Telemann, Takemitsu, Bartók, Berio, Prokofiev, and Dancla at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum April 16, 1:30 p.m. Tickets $12-$36. 617-278-5156,

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at