“Music exists to elevate us as far as possible above everyday life.” – Gabriel Fauré
My favourite class in college was an elective called “Music 1B: Introduction to Western Music from Beethoven to the Present”, to which I owe so much of what I’ve written in this blog. Strangely enough, one of my most vivid memories from the class was a remark made about a composer that didn’t appear on the syllabus: Fauré. Our professor, who was deeply passionate about the subject matter and talked about every composer as if they were his favourite, explained that there was no time to cover Fauré, but urged us to “run, not walk, to his music.” And what great advice that is! Fauré is not a name a casual listener of classical music is likely to hear too often, a great shame as his music has broad appeal and is easy to listen to. Classic FM writes that “His distinctive harmonies can be savoured like an exotic liqueur”, and indeed Fauré’s music is always of exquisite taste; perfectly balanced yet beguilingly sensual in its quintessentially French sound, it “flows effortlessly, magically combining Monet’s liquid cool with the warmth of a Pissarro landscape.”
Élégie, Op. 24, played by Lukas Sulic and the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Ivo Lipanovic
Fauré’s music is often thought of as bridging the gap between the Romantic and Modern eras of music, much like Beethoven’s was seen as heralding the end of the Classical period. Like Beethoven, Fauré also suffered from deafness in later life, and began writing in increasingly complex harmonic and melodic styles. Gradually, his music assumed a darker, more introspective tone. But it wasn’t always so for Fauré, who entered the world of music as a young boy of five, gripped with a fascination for the harmonium (a small reed organ) at his local school chapel. He would amuse himself for hours there, recalling “I played atrociously; no method at all, quite without technique, but I do remember that I was happy.” It’s said that his child-like experimentation caught the attention of a blind woman, who informed Fauré’s father that his son was gifted. With some further encouragement from family acquaintances, Fauré was sent to the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse in Paris, where he made such an impression that he was granted a full scholarship. As he later described it, “the regime was austere, the rooms gloomy, the food mediocre, and the required uniform elaborate” – but the musical education was excellent, and Fauré would study there for the next eleven years. He won many prizes for his compositions while at the school, including the first prize at his graduation with Cantique de Jean Racine, Op. 11, here sung by the Choir of New College, Oxford.
After leaving the school in 1865, Fauré took a job as a church organist. He quickly grew bored however, and was less than a model employee: known for sneaking out of sermons for a cigarette, he was ultimately fired for being “outlandishly dressed” in church. Indeed, despite Fauré’s apparent austerity and the formality of his education, he was not known for his restraint, particularly when it came to women. Affectionately known to his friends as “the cat” on account of his physical grace, Fauré was by all accounts considered extremely attractive, and conducted numerous love affairs (including one with the future wife of Debussy). Perhaps none affected him more deeply than his relationship with Marianne Viardot, the daughter of a famous contralto singer, whose decision to end their engagement dealt Fauré a psychological blow from which he took years to recover. His palpable heartache can be heard in the beautiful song Après un rêve (“After a Dream”), Op. 7, No. 1 from Trois mélodies, here arranged for violin and piano, played by Janine Jensen and Itamar Golan.
Fauré eventually married, but never seemed entirely suited to married life. For one thing, his proclivity for love affairs went on unabated, much to the chagrin of wife, and he had a self-professed aversion to the monotony of domestic life which he referred to as “horreur du domicile”. Nonetheless, despite all this his wife remained his confidant throughout his life, and they enjoyed a cordial, if not intimate, relationship.
Written in the period after his marriage, though hopefully not inspired by it, was one of Fauré’s most celebrated works, his Requiem, Op. 48. Below is a brief excerpt, In Paradisum, sung by the choir of St Mary’s Cathedral.
Fauré’s stature in the musical world was elevated considerably when he was appointed a position at the Paris Conservatory. Among his students were many of France’s finest burgeoning musicians, though none with more resplendent talent than the young Ravel, who appears to have inherited from Fauré his impeccable taste and singular craftsmanship. Fauré was known to be a devoted and open-minded teacher, capable of offering constructive criticism and maintaining objectivity when confronted with music not to his personal taste. This characteristic extended also to his role as a music critic for the newspaper Le Figaro, where he was unfailingly fair in his reviews; despite having an aversion to Italian opera, for example, he conceded that Puccini’s Madame Butterfly offered “a feast of pleasure for the listener.”
Sicilienne from Pelléas et Mélisande, Op. 80, played by the Orchestre national du Capitole de Toulouse, conducted by Michel Plasson
When a scandal broke in 1905 at the Conservatory over Ravel’s early elimination in his candidacy for the prestigious Prix de Rome, the Head of the Conservatory was forced to resign, and Fauré took his place. Thus Fauré had risen to the very top of the French musical establishment, and his music began to rise in popularity both at home and overseas. Invited to play at Buckingham Palace in 1908, he met the English composer Elgar, who remarked that Fauré “was such a real gentleman – the highest kind of Frenchman and I admired him greatly.” In his final years, Fauré was awarded the Grand-Croix of the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest national honour, and the French President Alexandre Millerand arranged a public tribute for him. At this point however, he was already deaf and heard only sounds with horrible distortions. According to The Musical Times, “He sat gazing before him pensively, and, in spite of everything, grateful and content.”
Although Fauré wrote a large quantity of chamber music, he judiciously avoided writing in its most challenging form – the string quartet – until the very end of his life. Indeed, he had been urged by Ravel (who dedicated his own String Quartet in F Major to Fauré) to write one some twenty years earlier, but refused on the grounds that it was too difficult. Perhaps sensing that his time was running out, he finally embarked on the project in 1923 with considerable trepidation, writing to his wife “I’ve started a Quartet for strings, without piano. This is a genre which Beethoven in particular made famous, and causes all those who are not Beethoven to be terrified of it.” Unusually meditative, the piece captures Fauré in the final philosophical moments of his life. The day before he died, Fauré told his family “I did what I could, now let God be my judge.”
String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 121, played by the Amati Quartet
Here are some more favourites from Fauré:
Berceuse, Op. 16, played by Sarah Chang and Charles Abramovic
Romances sans paroles, Op. 17, No. 3, played by Jean Martin
Pavane, Op. 50, played by The Philadelphia Orchestra. In a letter to his wife, Fauré described the creative process behind perhaps his most famous composition: “While I was thinking about a thousand different things of no importance whatsoever, a kind of rhythmical theme in the style of a Spanish dance took form in my brain…. This theme developed by itself, became harmonized in different ways, changed and modulated; in effect, it germinated by itself.”
Aquarium, the 7th movement from Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns, who was Fauré’s professor of composition during his later years at school
And here’s a great piece by a contemporary of Fauré, Léo Delibes – The Flower Duet from Lakmé (unfortunately better known nowadays as “The British Airways Theme”) sung by Elīna Garanča and Olga Peretyatko. Apologies for the annoying French intro, but I thought it was worth posting this rendition for the spectacular setting.
Lastly, thanks to everybody who’s stuck with me from the beginning as it’s almost a year since I started writing!