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CD-16262 -
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Elizabeth Schwarm Glesner


If the worst fate a composer can suffer is to be utterly forgotten, then the second worse fate may be for one’s reputation to rest only on a single work, with all others over which one has labored languishing in obscurity. In the case of Frenchman Gabriel Fauré, the average lover of classical music would be hard-pressed to recall anything beyond his famed Pavane, yet the composer himself thought little of that gracious miniature. “Elegant, assuredly,” he admitted, “but not particularly important.” Rather than standing loyally beside his most popular creation, Fauré preferred to think of his other musical endeavors—songs, chamber pieces, piano music, and stage works—compositions that richly reward their listeners with a tapestry of flowing melody and imaginative harmony.

The youngest of six children, Gabriel Urbain Fauré was born May 12, 1845 in Pamiers, in the Pyrenean region. Soon, however, his father moved the family to Montgauzy (near Foix) so as to accept a position as principal of a teacher-training college, and it was here that the boy was raised. In his last years, Fauré recalled how, at this point, music entered his life. “The only thing I remember really clearly is the harmonium in that little chapel [at the college]. Every time I could get away, I ran there—and I regaled myself… I played atrociously… No method at all, quite without technique, and whatever came into my head, for I had never been taught. But I do remember that I was happy; and if that is what it means to have a vocation, then it is a very pleasant thing.” Yet once Fauré’s parents became aware of his talent, the decision was made to send the precocious nine-year-old to Paris for appropriate training. The choice fell upon École Niedermeyer, founded by the Swiss born composer and pedagogue Louis Niedermeyer, whose own compositions would prove to be of far more limited effect than those of his best students. École Niedermeyer was a boarding school where studies ranged from harmony and counterpoint to Latin, and where discipline and dining were of a nature that might have been offered to Oliver Twist. It was not an environment in which a child could be a child. “But,” as Fauré later remembered, “we made music,” and that, it seems, was enough.

École Niedermeyer was a conservative institution, where the curriculum focused upon the achievements of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Yet the school’s piano instructor, Camille Saint-Saëns was never a conformist and apparently saw no reason why keyboard students could not delve further into the repertoire. Thus, along with the standard classical studies, his students also explored more adventurous fare: Liszt, Schumann, and Wagner. It was Fauré’s first exposure to the controversial radicals of his day, the composers who, though members of his father’s generation, were driving out musical schisms that would alter the future of classical music. Throughout his career, Fauré would show a fascination for such new ideas, and though his own works are less overtly progressive, he would remain a friend of modern music to the end of his days. Fauré’s own compositions first attracted favorable notice in 1861, when two of the fifteen-year-old’s fugues received an honorable mention in the school’s composition competition. Other awards followed, culminating in 1865 in a first prize for his exquisite choral setting Cantique de Jean Racine. In July of that same year, Fauré left École Niedermeyer to begin work as an organist at the Church of St. Sauveur in provincial Rennes. A few competent singers and the occasional musically inclined youth in need of instruction offered little inspiration. Were it not for encouraging letters from his old teacher Saint-Saëns, Fauré might have lost touch with his earlier ambitions. After the brief diversion of military service during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, Fauré returned to his beloved Paris, where church music again provided his income. He filled a succession of organ posts at prestigious Parisian churches. The first was St. Sulpice, where he and Charles-Marie Widor confused their congregation with contests of improvisation. Later, Fauré transferred to the Madeleine, where he filled in during the frequent absences of his mentor Saint-Saëns. Fauré also traveled to Weimar, where he met Liszt, and to Cologne and Munich where Wagnerian opera took center stage. The Frenchman was delighted to come so close to a composer whose music he had long admired. “I am in ecstasies!” he wrote to a friend. “After The Mastersingers, I wanted to see Nuremberg. It’s marvelous! But how marvelous The Mastersingers is, too!” Falling under the Wagnerian spell, Fauré composed a piano fantasy entitled Souvenirs of Bayreuth. Yet never did he allow much Germanic influence into his own scores. The rest of the world might be mad for Wagner; Fauré preferred to admire from a distance.

In the summer of 1876—the same summer in which Wagner’s Ring premiered at Bayreuth—Fauré produced his first masterpiece of chamber music while summering in Normandy with wealthy friends, Camille and Marie Clerc. Aware of the Clerc’s passion for chamber music and drawing upon the advice of another summer guest, the Belgian violinist Hubert Léonard, Fauré began a sonata for violin and piano. He finished the piece with unusual alacrity, but then faced the difficult task of getting the work into print. Facing a lack of interest from French publishers, Fauré turned to his friend Clerc for assistance, and Clerc, with the confidence that comes from being a successful businessman, submitted his young friend’s work to the prestigious Leipzig firm of Breitkopf and Härtel. The response, though not quite a rejection, was less than encouraging: “The Sonata in question is undoubtedly a remarkable piece of work and we like it very much, but M. Fauré’s name is not known in Germany and the musical market is saturated with works of this kind, though in many cases inferior to this one. We should have great difficulty in recovering our costs were we to give the composer a royalty worthy of his work, or, to put it bluntly, we cannot publish this Sonata unless M. Fauré renounces a royalty.” Despite the ungenerous terms, Fauré accepted the offer. Publication of the Violin Sonata no. 1 in A major, op. 13, occurred in 1877, a few months after the composition’s January 27 premiere at the Société Nationale de Musique in Paris. The composer himself served as pianist on the occasion, joined by violinist Marie Tayau. “This evening exceeded all my hopes!” Fauré wrote jubilantly to Marie Clerc. “The Scherzo was encored so insistently that we had no choice but to play it again. Many of my colleagues were there, and I must say they showed themselves extremely enthusiastic.” Saint-Saëns, who was also in attendance, remarked wistfully to Fauré upon the pain that a parent must feel upon realizing that a child has truly grown up: the mentor suddenly realizing that his student was coming into his own.

Although two different violinists—Mlle. Tayau and M. Léonard—had participated in the sonata’s creation, the honor of a dedication was granted instead to Paul Viardot, son of the renowned singer and sometime composer Pauline Viardot-Garcia. Fauré counted the Viardots amongst his closest and most valuable friends. Through their connections, he would meet Gounod and other influential figures, and for a few months in 1877, Fauré would be engaged to Mme. Viardot’s daughter Marianne. The eventual breaking of the engagement by the young lady would cause Fauré much pain. His marriage in 1883 to Marie Fremiet, daughter of a noted sculptor, would only partially salve the wound. Violin and piano returned to Fauré’s attention later in the year in the form of a one-movement Romance in B-flat major, op. 28, that he and Paul Viardot premiered in Bougival in September. This work enjoyed less immediate success than its lengthier predecessor. Of the occasion, Fauré recalled, “At first hearing, it was received with much grinding of teeth; at second hearing, the lights began to go on, and at third hearing, it provoked comparison with a limpid stream coursing through green meadows! What a pity one cannot always begin with the third hearing.” Despite these encouraging responses to his early works, Fauré would face difficult years ahead, years in which he would labor at a multitude of employments with a minimum of compensation. Playing organ at the Madeleine, teaching piano and composition: Fauré’s attempts to support his wife and sons Emmanuel and Philippe demanded so much attention that only during summer vacations could he find time to compose. Yet his obscurity remained so entrenched that, in 1890, the newspaper Le Figaro reviewed a concert that Fauré had conducted and credited instead one Jean-Baptiste Faure, then a noted operatic baritone. The composer’s revenge would have to wait until 1903 when the same newspaper that had slighted him took him on as its principal music critic.

Despite the indifference of publishers and journalists, Fauré shone in the grand salons of Paris, where his handsome appearance and facile piano technique won for him devout supporters amongst the aristocratic and artistic elite. It was in an earlier generation of this same social class that Chopin had made his mark; now Fauré, too, found the advantages of high connections. His patrons included the Princess Edmond de Polignac (née Winnie Singer, daughter of the American sewing-machine manufacturer) and the Countess Elisabeth Greffulhe, for whose salon he composed his famed Pavane. Through such venues, he also won an audience for his music amongst influential literary figures, such as Montesquiou and Proust, the latter of whom once observed to Fauré, “Not only do I like, admire, indeed adore your music, I have for some time been and continue to be in love with it.”

In 1903, Fauré accepted a new obligation: that of music critic of Le Figaro. He would continue in that capacity until 1921, a period of nearly twenty years in which French concert halls were shaken by increasingly daring musical innovations. This was a time in which many critics sharpened their daggers upon the radical creations of great men, yet Fauré was not one to indulge in such cruelty. He could never bring himself to pan a work, even if he personally disliked it, and was ever determined to find something supportive to say about even the most scandalous endeavor. In 1907, in a review that outlined the musical and dramatic brutalities inherent in Richard Strauss’ opera Salomé, Fauré softened the blow by adding, “These criticisms do not denote weaknesses, but only musical means with which I cannot sympathize.“ His journalistic colleagues may have judged him soft hearted, but his musical colleagues appreciated his circumspection.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Fauré was nearly seventy. Some of his younger colleagues, fearful of German assaults, took refuge in Switzerland, but Fauré remained in Paris for what would be some of the most productive years of his compositional career. His music took on a forcefulness rarely heard in France at that time; even in chamber music, he produced works of energy and fire. It was in this period, after the passage of forty years, that he finally fulfilled the promise of his early Violin Sonata with a second offering in the same genre. The Violin Sonata no. 2 in e minor, op. 108, premiered at the Société nationale November 10, 1917. The next day, Paul Dukas wrote to Fauré of the pleasure he had found in the piece: “Here at last is music that restores music to its rightful place, that is neither Javanese nor Russian no Polynesian and in which the reasons of the mind blend with the reasons of the heart without preventing it from taking wing, from moving and delighting us. I thank you most warmly for the beautiful moments that you allowed me to experience.”

In October 1920, increasing deafness and the trials of old age forced Fauré’s retirement from the Conservatoire. He was seventy-five, and in his time had seen the graceful melodies of Mendelssohn give way to the tumultuous rhythms of Stravinsky. Many a man of less open mind might have stepped back from the fray and refused to participate in a musical world so changed, yet Fauré never lost patience with the new ideas, even toying with them in his own late compositions. When he died in 1924, rather than being brushed off as an aged relic of an earlier time, he was lamented as a man still in touch with what the world had to offer, as a composer who, through his works and his writings, touched multiple generations of musicians and audiences alike. In his chamber music, his songs, and his other varied works, Fauré serves as the summation of a century of musical progress.

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