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Gabriel Fauré
Gabriel Fauré


Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Fauré is sometimes overshadowed by the generation of composers that followed the trail he had quietly illuminated. He was more than the composer of one much-loved piece, the Requiem. He was crucial to a movement that aimed to establish a characteristically French style of composition. The youngest son of a schoolmaster in south-west France, he rose to become director of the Paris Conservatoire and was mentor to the composers Maurice Ravel, Georges Enescu and Nadia Boulanger. The restraint and subtlety of his music concealed a passionate heart. When he was sent as a nine-year-old to the Niedermeyer School for church music in Paris, Fauré had no intention of becoming a composer. His aim was a nice, secure job as a choirmaster and organist. But he was soon under the influence of his school piano teacher, the dynamic composer Camille Saint-Saëns. Just ten years Fauré's senior, it was Saint-Saëns who encouraged him to set pen to paper. He wrote his first song, ‘Le papillon et la fleur’, in the school dining room, aged 16. Fauré remained close to Saint-Saëns all his life, and owed the older composer most of the posts he ever held. Fauré was a complex character. Sometimes dreamy or depressive, he was frequently diplomatic, always charming and definitely a party animal. This last proved an advantage, since his primary opportunities to perform his own music were in the grand salons of Paris. These included that of the Princesse de Polignac, one of his chief patrons. Fauré proved irresistible to women. Yet though he had many affairs, he kept his innermost self private and let his music speak for itself. He made early steps as a teacher and church organist, and composed songs, piano music and church pieces on the side. But when war broke out between France and Prussia in 1870, he joined the army. He won a military decoration, but his experience left him shaken and horrified. He returned to Paris after the collapse of the short-lived Commune government. With the help of Saint-Saëns he took a post as organist at Saint-Sulpice. His breakthrough composition was his Violin Sonata no.1, dedicated to Paul Viardot, the violinist son of the great opera singer Pauline Viardot. (For four years Fauré had courted Paul’s sister, Marianne, and was briefly engaged to her.) The sonata is full of youthful exuberance and élan. It was Fauré's first published work and drew serious attention to him for the first time. That same year, 1877, he became choirmaster of the Église de la Madeleine. Fauré was a founder member of the Société National de Musique, along with Saint-Saëns and the composers Henri Duparc, Ernest Chausson and Emmanuel Chabrier. The aim of the Société's concerts of new music was to encourage an indigenously French style of musical composition and shake off German influence. It paid special attention to chamber music. This had until then been under-represented in 19th-century Paris, where opera was the predominant measure of a composer’s success. Indeed Fauré too spent a long time looking for a workable libretto. But he only completed one opera, Pénélope, which was first performed in 1913. In 1883 he married Marie Fremiet, daughter of the sculptor Emmanuel Fremiet. Besides his post at the Madeleine, Fauré earned a living as a teacher and an inspector of music colleges around France. He was a slow and painstaking composer, and was only able to write in the summer holidays. In 1896 Fauré became a teacher of composition at the Paris Conservatoire. However, some considered him too radical, and he was outside the French musical establishment. He had been refused the job four years previously, and his appointment came only thanks to some fevered internal politics. In 1905, his pupil Ravel failed to win the prestigious Prix de Rome award for composition. A scandal ensued, from which it emerged that the jury was corrupt. Many of the Conservatoire’s leaders were removed and Fauré himself was appointed director. Once installed, he stripped away many of the place’s outdated traditions and set about dragging it into the 20th century. Fauré's music was characterised from the start by an innate sense of balance and beauty. Its purity of sound derived from the plainsong and Renaissance church music he had studied at the Niedermeyer School. Saint-Saëns was naturally a tremendous influence. So were Liszt, whom Fauré met through Saint-Saëns, and Chopin, on whose piano genres Fauré substantially built. Schumann was also a great favourite and Fauré's Thème et Variations has much in common with the German composer’s Études Symphoniques. Wagner left less of an impact, however. Fauré used Wagnerian techniques, such as leitmotifs, only if and when he had to. Fauré's earlier works are probably his most popular. They include his two Piano Quartets, his early to mid-career barcarolles and nocturnes for piano, and his incidental music to Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande. And, of course, the Requiem. But Fauré's style was continually evolving. In the mid−1890s he had a liberating love affair with Emma Bardac (who later became Claude Debussy’s second wife). Around this time, he moved on from a decorative sound world suggestive of Art Nouveau to something more adventurous. This is especially notable in his song cycle La bonne chanson. After this his works became more concentrated, abstract and exploratory. Tragically, he began to lose his hearing in his mid-fifties. By the time he retired from the Conservatoire after World War One, he was completely deaf. Although it was forced, retirement left him free to devote himself to composition for the first time. He produced an extraordinary ‘Indian summer’ of music. This included his Piano Trio, his Second Piano Quintet, late song cycles including the radiant L’horizon chimérique and his sole String Quartet. The last, intriguingly, quotes the theme of a violin concerto that he had abandoned in the 1870s. Fauré's influence lived on not only through his works but also through his pupils. He helped them strengthen voices that were as individual as his own. This might explain the profound differences between Ravel, Enescu, Charles Koechlin, Florent Schmitt and Arthur Honegger.Fauré's quiet strength and his commitment to innovation, independence and integrity laid the foundations for many crucial developments in French music. At the Conservatoire he was nicknamed variously ‘the Archangel’ or ‘Robespierre’. These days, we tend to think of him as the former.

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