Imagine you are the Princesse de Polignac in late 19th-century Paris, intent on an excellent dinner provided by your hosts. Your neighbour, a rotund gentleman of middle age, kindly passes you the asparagus – but accompanies it by saying, “Have some of this, Madame, but it does terrible things to your urine.” Do you exclaim in horror? Go purple in the face? Retire to a fit of the vapours on the chaise longue? The princess seems to have accepted the advice, before duly inscribing it in the fund of upper-class gossip. It testifies at least that whatever was lacking in Emmanuel Chabrier – the gent in question – he had charm in abundance.

Emmanuel Chabrier
Emmanuel Chabrier. Wikimedia Commons

As does his music. In the words of Francis Poulenc, one of his most...