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Published on May 13, 2020

Composer of the month of May: Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Fauré

Every month, we will dedicate 4 chapters to the life and work of a composer. An overview at the beginning of the chapter will allow those on the go to glean the key points of each chapter. For those who are seeking to deepen their knowledge, the full article is at your disposal, along with musical listenings to enrich the experience.

Chapter 1: The Struggling Young Artist


Spring has been rather tardy in coming to Montreal, and for the first installment of our “Composer of the Month” series we have selected a composer who could also be considered a late bloomer: Gabriel Fauré. Born on May 12, 1845 near Pamiers in southwestern France, Fauré displayed great promise from a young age, but he struggled tremendously for the first half of his life to gain recognition for his works. History has been kinder to Fauré however, and he is now recognized for the fine craftsmanship and originality of his works, and for the important influence he had on composers such as Maurice Ravel, Florent Schmitt, Nadia Boulanger, and Arthur Honegger.

After completing his studies at the École Niedermayer in Paris, where the focus on religious music had a major impact on Fauré’s style, Fauré worked primarily as a private teacher and organist, and eventually attained the post of choirmaster and deputy organist at La Madeleine in Paris thanks to his close friendship with Camille Saint-Saëns.

As a composer, Fauré’s initial focus was on solo piano works, songs, and chamber music, such as the Violin Sonata No. 1 and Ballade for Piano, and his cheeky homage to Wagner’s Ring cycle, the Souvenirs de Bayreuth. Such works allowed Fauré to reach only a very limited audience, but those that heard Fauré’s music were astonished by his creativity and craftsmanship. In the early part of his career, Fauré became a fixture of the many salons in Paris during the late 19th century, where he mingled with some of the most talented minds of other artistic fields, and cultivated relationships with wealthy patrons, which would lead to important commissions for major works later in his career.

To be continued….

An in-depth look

As a young composer who lacked the proper connections to gain entry into the Parisian musical establishment, Fauré instead turned his focus to the many artistic salons held in private homes, where he quickly became the darling of these gatherings, and more importantly, captured the attention of several wealthy patrons. Composing did not pay the bills however, and so Fauré was forced to work as an organist and private teacher, which as a result severely curtailed the time he could devote to composing - for most of his life in fact, he could only find time to compose during his summer vacation.

The other difficulty that Fauré faced at this time was finding an audience for his work. His natural inclination towards chamber works more suitable for small gatherings, and the difficulties he faced in having them published, limited his public exposure. Large-scale orchestral pieces would have allowed him to reach a far larger audience, but early compositions such as a violin concerto and a symphony in D minor remained only abortive attempts at such works.

Had Fauré even succeeded in completing these works, he then would have had to contend with the difficult reality that many French composers faced from the mid-19th century onwards: the hegemony of German composers in the realm of symphonic music, and the stranglehold that opera had on French musical life. There was little appetite in Paris at that time for symphonic music, and the only surefire way for a composer to earn widespread public acclaim was through opera. Even Fauré felt compelled to attempt composing an opera despite his inexperience and lack of aptitude for the genre, and he would pursue various unsuccessful projects before he completed Pénélope, the sole opera in his output, in 1913.

An Unconventional Education

Fauré’s distinctive style was formed in part by his rather unconventional musical education; rather than passing through the Paris Conservatory or competing for the Prix de Rome as would be expected of an ambitious young composer, at nine years of age Fauré was sent to the École Niedermayer in Paris, which focused on educating musicians for a career in the church. The study of works ranging from Josquin to J.S. Bach had a profound influence on the young Fauré, as did that of the church modes - the medieval predecessors of the major and minor scales that form the basis of tonal harmony. Echoes of this centuries-old music are heard in the simple, modally-tinged melodies of many of Fauré’s works, as well as the counterpoint that ripples beneath the surface and the linear conception of his music.

Fauré and Saint-Saëns

The other great influence of Fauré’s youth was Camille Saint-Saëns, who was a young professor at the École Niedermayer when Fauré first arrived there. Saint-Saëns introduced his pupils to the latest works of Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, and Chopin, and for Fauré his role surpassed that of a teacher to be his mentor, substitute parent, and lifelong friend and confidante. It was Saint-Saëns who assisted Fauré in finding employment after graduation, first as a church organist in Rennes, and eventually as choirmaster and deputy organist at La Madeleine in Paris, then one of the most fashionable churches in the city.


Violin Sonata No. 1 – The Beginnings of a distinct style

Gabriel Fauré - Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 13

Violin Sonata No. 1

Masterpieces from Fauré’s early period include the Piano Quartet No. 1 and the Ballade for Piano - whose intricate filigree-like figurations entangled Liszt’s fingers when Fauré presented it to him in 1882 -, as well as the Violin Sonata No. 1 composed in 1875, in which Fauré firmly established his style while also displaying astonishing creativity. Fauré’s passionate temperament seems to flow through the entire work - from the very first measure it bounds forward with youthful exuberance, barely able to contain its ecstasy.

It is in early works such as this that Fauré established what would become stylistic trademarks of his output: a heavily chromatic, ambiguous harmonic character, and a predilection for rising scale motifs over syncopated rhythms - a device used here in the final movement, and one to which Fauré would return in many other compositions. The third movement also displays his unique take on the scherzo: a sunny and nimble movement with the lightness of bubbles in a glass of champagne.

Encadré Proust

Souvenirs de Bayreuth – Fauré and Wagner

Fauré/Messager - Souvenirs de Bayreuth

At the time Fauré was in the process of establishing himself as a composer, one figure towered over the world of music: Wagner. Fauré first encountered Wagner’s music in the classes of Saint-Saëns, and in early adulthood ventured to Germany on several occasions to experience the master’s operas in person. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Der Ring des Nibelungen thrilled him, while Lohengrin left him indifferent and Tristan und Isolde aroused a virulently negative reaction; and yet, unlike his colleagues, Fauré was not swept up in the craze of “Wagnérisme.” He rummaged through Wagner’s music for material that was useful to him, but it seems Fauré quickly realized that Wagner’s aesthetic and his own were fundamentally incompatible - the overflowing emotions of Wagner’s operas were the antithesis of the restraint and poise of Fauré’s carefully sculpted works.

Fauré’s admiration for Der Ring des Nibelungen, however, did not impede him from paying tribute to Wagner’s epic with the tongue-in-cheek Souvenirs de Bayreuth, composed for piano duet with his friend André Messager. Various leitmotifs from the cycle are transformed into four foppish quadrilles, their open-ended harmonies securely tied down with an emphatically tonal cadence at the end of each section - here, the heroic Siegfried has traded his hunting horn and helmet for the frock coat and spats of a proper bourgeois dandy!

by Trevor Hoy

Georg Unger Siegfried
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