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Music Memories: Gabriel Fauré

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Portrait of composer Gabriel Fauré in 1905

Gabriel Fauré was born on May 12, 1845. Fauré was a composer whose career spanned nearly 60 years; he is best known for his art songs, piano music, and chamber music.

His father was the director of a small academy for the training of teachers, and Fauré showed his musical inclinations early. At the age of four, he enjoyed slipping into the school's chapel to play on the harmonium, a type of organ powered by foot pedals. There wasn't much musical instruction available in his small town, but as soon as his parents thought him old enough—when he was nine—Fauré went to Paris, and spent eleven years as a boarding student at music school.

The École Niedermeyer was a conservative institution, and its primary purpose was to train organists and choirmasters for churches. The curriculum was restricted primarily to church music. That changed a bit in 1861, when composer Camille Saint-Saëns became the new piano teacher. After the required material had been covered in each day's lesson, Saint-Saëns spent additional time with the students, introducing them to secular and contemporary music that fell outside the school's curriculum.

Fauré graduated in 1865 with degrees in organ, piano, and composition, and capped his academic year by winning the school's composition prize with the Cantique de Jean Racine, a choral work that remains firmly in the standard repertoire.

three album covers by Faure

Fauré took a position as a church organist, and supplemented his income by giving piano lessons. The priest was not fond of Fauré, and doubted his religious sincerity. That was probably a reasonable doubt, given Fauré's habit of sneaking away from the organ during the sermon for a cigarette. When he showed up for Mass one Sunday still wearing his evening clothes, having been at a party all night, Fauré was asked to resign his post.

He volunteered for military service during the brief Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and was awarded a medal for his distinguished service. After the war, he accepted another church position, this time as choirmaster. His supervisor was the church organist, Charles-Marie Widor, one of the era's most important composers of organ music. Fauré was a fine organist himself, and the two would occasionally perform together on the church's two organs, each trying to outdo the other in improvisation.

Fauré did not enjoy these church positions; as noted, he was not an intensely religious man, and he found that he had too little time left over for composition. Not a prolific composer under the best of circumstances, Fauré wrote relatively little music in this stage of his career, and most of what he did write was religious music for the choir which has not survived.

He had his first major public success as a composer in 1877, with his first violin sonata. In the 1880s and 1890s, he wrote most of his important contributions to the art song repertoire.

And in 1887, Fauré premiered the first version of his Requiem, which would be revised several times, taking its final form in 1900. It is an unusually gentle Requiem, and has been called a "lullaby of death;" the most angry passages have been omitted from the traditional Requiem text, and Fauré's vision of death is one of calm and consolation. "It is thus that I see death," Fauré wrote, "as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience."

three Faure album covers

Fauré began to find more time to devote to composition, and became somewhat more prolific, in the 1890s. He took a position as inspector of provincial music schools; he disliked the required travel, but the job provided enough steady income that he no longer had to take private pupils. And in 1896, he became part of the composition faculty at the Paris Conservatoire.

In 1905, he was promoted to director of the Conservatoire, where he radically altered the curriculum—more modern music—and the admissions policy. No longer would the faculty be allowed to give their own students preferential treatment; instead, a panel of external judges would make decisions regarding admissions and the school's competitions.

It may seem odd that this discussion of Fauré has so far focused on his non-composing career, with relatively little mention of his actual music. In part, that's because of the type of music he wrote. Fauré wrote mostly small pieces, not the sort of thing that get grand premieres, but that are first performed at smaller recitals. He wrote a great deal of piano music, but it was usually published and premiered one small bit at a time; his thirteen nocturnes, for instance, were not written as a large set, but individually over a 45-year period.

Fauré wrote relatively little music for orchestra. He completed a symphony in 1885, but was unhappy with it, and destroyed the manuscript; he wrote no concertos. His best-known orchestral works are a pair of suites—Masques et bergamasques, music written for a 1919 theatrical evening in honor of Prince Albert of Monaco; and Pelléas et Mélisande, excerpts from his incidental music for Maurice Maeterlinck's play.

Several of Fauré's chamber works are frequently played, including two piano quartets, two cello sonatas, and a piano trio. His final composition was his only string quartet, a form that had always intimidated him, and it is generally considered one of his finest works. It was not premiered until after his death, and he chose not to hear it performed in his final days; he had mostly lost his hearing in the last decade of his life, and would only have heard an unpleasantly distorted version of the piece.

Perhaps the greatest frustration of Fauré's life came from his attempts at opera. He had been commissioned to write his first opera in 1890, to a libretto by poet Paul Verlaine, but that project fell apart because Verlaine was drinking too heavily to complete the libretto. Fauré did write two operas, but both had only brief runs, and neither is often performed today. Pénélope is perhaps the "what might have been" of the two; it was well received on its opening in 1913, but less than three weeks later, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. The piece's controversial reception, bordering on riot, was all that anyone in Paris musical circles could talk about, and Pénélope was forgotten.

In 1920, Fauré retired from his position at the Conservatoire because of his deafness and generally declining health. He was celebrated in 1922 with a grand national festival, culminating in a concert of his music at the Sorbonne, with many of France's finest musicians taking part. Fauré died of pneumonia on November 4, 1924, and was honored with a state funeral.

In addition to the recordings linked above, many more recordings of Fauré's music are available for streaming and download at Freegal.