The French composer Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) is often dismissed as a salon composer, best known for small forms such as songs and short piano pieces. However, he was the most advanced composer of his generation, writing music that was unmistakeably French but uniquely personal, especially in its use of harmony. His music embodies order and restraint, with clear texture and form.
Fauré was born on 12th May 1845, the youngest of six children. In 1854 he was sent to the École Niedermeyer in Paris, to train as a choirmaster and organist. One of his teachers was the composer Camille Saint-Saëns, who influenced him enormously. The training he received in the polyphonic music of the Renaissance era, plainsong and Church Modes (scales that are not major or minor but have different arrangements of tones and semitones) was crucial to his later style. He liked to create ambiguity between major and minor chords, and often flattened the leading-note in a key, creating a modal effect.
In 1871 Fauré formed the Société Nationale de Musique with fellow composers d'Indy, Lalo, Duparc and Chabrier, in order to champion French music. In 1874 he joined the music staff at the Madeleine church in Paris. In 1883 he married Marie Fremiet, with whom he had two sons. With a family to support Fauré needed to continue with the work he found tedious, namely his job at the Madeleine and teaching piano and harmony. There was little time for composing except in the summer holidays and he was extremely critical of his own work and often depressed.
Nevertheless, Fauré's piano music from the 1880s is elegant and captivating. Influenced by Mendelssohn and Chopin, the music is lyrical rather than virtuosic. Many of his finest piano works date from this period, including, amongst others, his 13 Nocturnes and 13 Barcarolles.
Fauré has been called the greatest master of French song, writing nearly 100 throughout his life. Après un rêve (1878) is Italian in style, while Clair de lune of 1887 was a setting of a poem by Verlaine, a poet whose work he set with great success, conveying atmosphere and feeling rather than specific images. During this period he also composed the enduringly popular Pavane (1887).
In the 1890s Fauré finally began to realise some of his ambitions. In 1896 he was promoted to chief organist at the Madeleine and succeeded Massenet as teacher of composition at the Paris Conservatoire of Music, where his pupils included Ravel. He finally achieved success with larger scale works, mostly incidental music for plays, and in 1900 he finished the orchestrated version of his Requiem<.i>, which he had begun composing in 1877.
The work is a hauntingly beautiful setting of the Latin Requiem Mass, set for choir, organ and orchestra with soprano and baritone soloists. Fauré's characteristic unfolding of a melody, making much use of one or two melodic and rhythmic ideas, is clearly heard in both the 'Sanctus' and the 'Agnus Dei'. The lines are spun out with an inevitability and sense of direction that is not interrupted by his sudden keychanges and often ambiguous harmony. The famous soprano solo 'Pie Jesu' is a beautifully simple melody over a gentle accompaniment. Other famous works of this time include the haunting Elégie (1896) for cello and orchestra, and his Dolly suite for piano duet (1894-7).
In 1905 Fauré became director of the Paris Conservatoire and finally achieved fame and recognition. The latter period of his life was his most productive, despite deafness and distortion that affected his perception of the highest and lowest sounds. His compositions gained more expressive force, with bold harmony. His nine Preludes for piano date from this time.
In 1920 Fauré retired from the Conservatoire a celebrity and was finally free to concentrate on composition. He was awarded the Grand Croix of the Légion d'Honneur, an unprecedented honour for a musician, and was much admired by younger French composers.
In his last years he concentrated on composing some extremely fine chamber music. He was in poor health for the last two years of his life and died in Paris on 4th November 1924. He had linked the end of the Romantic era in France with the 'modern' style emerging in the twentieth century, and remained the most technically advanced French composer until Debussy.
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