Not all great composers are also greatly popular. Some, like Berlioz and Wagner, are so idiosyncratic that their music will probably always exercise a polarizing effect on audiences. Others, like Elgar or Sibelius, are perfectly accessible to their own countrymen but less immediately appealing to listeners whose tastes have been formed in different cultural climates.
Even more puzzling are those composers who are all but worshipped by connoisseurs yet fail to please the public at large. Sometimes their obscurity proves temporary—Gustav Mahler and Erik Satie are perhaps the best-known examples of “composer’s composers” who over time have become truly popular—but more often they stay in the shadows, unknown to the many while loved by the few.
Among such figures, few have been so ardently admired and so insufficiently performed as Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). In France, Fauré is regarded as a major master. Elsewhere, however, he is known almost entirely for his Requiem, Op. 48 (1887-99), and a handful of songs. Even the two pieces of chamber music that first brought him fame—the A Major Violin Sonata, Op. 13 (1876), and the C Minor Piano Quartet, Op. 15 (1879)—are now heard only infrequently in other countries. Yet his music has been taken up by many non-French artists, including George Balanchine, who made one of his finest ballets, Emeralds, to a selection of Fauré’s orchestral music, and Aaron Copland, a lifelong Francophile who declared in 1945 that “the true believer in the genius of Fauré is convinced that to hear him is to love him.”
To his admirers, Fauré’s near-complete failure to thrive outside the French-speaking world has been no surprise. Copland himself went on to say:
In a world that seems less and less able to order its affairs rationally, Fauré’s restraint and classic sense of order may appear slightly incongruous. . . . [O]ut-side France the public has been slow to appreciate his delicacy, his reserve, his imperturbable calm—qualities that are not easily exportable.
Indeed, such qualities have never gone over well with the average music lover, whether in or out of France. But Fauré’s music, for all its surface poise, is in fact anything but imperturbable—it is very often passionate to the highest degree—and to understand why so many listeners find it elusive one must look elsewhere.
Fauré, as I have suggested, was in no way lacking in strong passions. To the contrary, he was unabashedly emotional, intensely ambitious, and subject throughout his life to spells of crippling depression that found their counterpart in the dark undercurrents running through much of his music. He married unwisely and late, then spent the rest of his life seeking solace from other women. Unable to support himself and his family solely by composing, he worked as a church organist, a teacher and administrator, even a music critic—the last a particularly thankless chore in the notoriously corrupt journalistic environment of fin-de-siècle Paris.
The sixth child of a family whose toehold in the bourgeoisie was tenuous, Fauré was pushed toward a musical career from earliest childhood. His hard-working father, a schoolmaster turned educational bureaucrat, enrolled him as a scholarship boy in a musical boarding school in Paris when he was just nine years old. Fauré would spend the next eleven years at the Ecole de Musique Classique et Religieuse, learning his trade and finding a patron and friend in his most important teacher, the composer Camille Saint-Saëns.
From Saint-Saëns, who had been one of the most awesomely endowed child prodigies in the history of classical music (and in addition appears to have been a discreet homosexual who found young Gabriel attractive), he learned the value of sheer craftsmanship and mastery of traditional form. At the same time, his daily exposure to the plain-chant and Renaissance choral music he sang in school made him comfortable with contrapuntal textures and gave him a taste for the mo-dally inflected melodies that would become one of his trademarks.1
Yet Fauré was never a true neoclassicist à la Saint-Saëns. From the start of his composing career, romanticism was in his blood, and his first important instrumental works, the A Major Violin Sonata and C Minor Piano Quintet, are large-scale, sweepingly romantic statements that owe as much to the impetuous example of Robert Schumann as to the neat, dapper pieces of Fauré’s famous teacher. Also like Schumann, Fauré expressed himself more readily through songs, piano pieces, and chamber music than through the medium of the symphony orchestra, for which he wrote little of consequence, though this was out of choice rather than necessity.2 Nor did he have any gift for the theater (his one opera, Pénélope, is all but forgotten). He would always remain a lyric poet, making intimate confessions to small audiences.
Fauré’s only composition scored for large forces that has entered the international classical-music repertoire is itself an anomaly. The Requiem, originally written for chorus and organ-dominated chamber orchestra and only later rewritten for a more conventional ensemble, is completely lacking in high drama. Darkly colored and at all times understated, the Fauré Requiem is less a piece of liturgical theater in the spectacular manner of Berlioz or Verdi than a gentle, consoling meditation on the last things.
It was the Requiem that pointed the way to Fauré’s late style, whose essential qualities, though unmistakably French, are nevertheless “French” in a personal manner that defies easy categorization. For one thing, the mature Fauré never resorts to charm. He is, instead, utterly serious, though never heavy or ponderous, much less sentimental. His instrumental textures are light, even luminescent, with a floating quality that is emphasized by his increasingly radical harmonic language. Though no kind of experimentalist, he became less firmly moored to traditional concepts of tonality, and in such works as the D Minor Trio, Op. 120 (1921), he moves so freely from one harmonic area to another that even the most alert listener may find himself briefly disoriented at times. (“I simply can’t get used to never settling down in any key,” Saint-Saëns grumbled about these compositions, “to consecutive fifths and sevenths and to chords demanding a resolution that never comes.”)
In addition, Fauré’s musical personality grew more introverted, no doubt in part because he began to lose his hearing in middle age. The disorder terrified him:
I’m knocked sideways by this disease which has attacked the very part of me I needed to keep intact. It’s disrespectful or, at least, ill-judged to compare myself with Beethoven. But the second half of his life was nothing but despair! There are passages of music and isolated timbres which I simply can’t hear at all!
Like Beethoven, Fauré did not need to hear in order to compose—his painstaking early training served him well in that regard—but it seems clear that his gradual detachment from the physical world of sound pushed him in the direction of an austerity and concentration far removed from the Schumann-like expanssiveness of his younger years. Still, he never lost touch with his emotions, and in such late pieces as the Nocturne No. 13 in B Minor, Op. 119 (1921), his most powerful work for solo piano, Fauré explored to the fullest an interior world of disillusion and despair.
All this may sound like a recipe for the making of “difficult” music, and it cannot be denied that a few of Fauré’s late pieces, in particular the E Minor String Quartet, Op. 121 (1924), his last composition, present real problems of understanding (though they are easier to grasp when performed with the straightforwardness that is invariably appropriate to his music, early or late).3 But there is nothing impenetrable about the Thirteenth Nocturne, the D Minor Trio, or any number of other works from the second half of Fauré’s life. To be sure, they demand close attention; but they repay it, too.
Is it likely that Gabriel Fauré’s music will ever speak to a wider audience? Not really. For all its beauties, it lacks a quality normally present in the work of romantic artists: it is not forthcoming. To appreciate Fauré, you must come to him, in the same way that you might open yourself up to a painter like Edouard Vuillard. It is as though you were talking with a shy person whose voice is only audible in a quiet room. If the room is too noisy—or if you insist on doing all the talking—then you will hear nothing at all.
But if you choose instead to listen, closely and carefully? Then you may find yourself responding with the fervor of a Copland or a Marcel Proust, who told Fauré that “I not only admire and venerate your music, I am in love with it” and went so far as to use him as one of the models for Vinteuil, the composer in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. It was a remarkable tribute from one great artist to another. But, then, Fauré had a way of inspiring such tributes. John Singer Sargent painted him. Maurice Ravel studied with him. “I know of no other music which is more purely and uniquely music,” said the composer Arthur Honegger, “except, perhaps, that of Mozart or Schubert.”
No doubt Fauré himself would have squirmed to hear such talk. When he referred to his art, it was invariably with the balance and moderation of a modest man. Asked how he planned to run the Paris Conservatory, whose directorship he assumed in 1905, he replied:
I should like to take a line that is both classical and modern, sacrificing neither contemporary practice to hallowed traditions nor traditions to the fashion of the moment
One might well say the same thing of his own music. It is classical and modern, expansive and inward, contemplative and impassioned—and lovable.
Fauré on CD: A Select Discography
Comparatively few of Fauré’s major works were recorded on 78’s. It was not until the introduction of the LP that his music came into its own, and even now it is hard to find first-rate recordings of certain lesser-known masterpieces, just as several of the finest performances of the past (like Sir Thomas Beecham’s 1959 recording of the Pavane, Op. 50, and Gerard Souzay’s song recordings of the early 60’s) are now out of print. Here are ten important Fauré recordings currently available on CD:
1927: The violinist Thibaud and the pianist Alfred Cortot were the two most admired French instrumental soloists of the 20th century (though they were also well known for their chamber-music performances with the cellist Pablo Casals). Their sharply contrasting yet mysteriously compatible styles can be heard to inimitable effect in the A Major Violin Sonata, coupled on CD with equally persuasive performances of the Debussy and Franck violin sonatas (EMI Classics 63032).
1927-30: Claire Croiza ranked among the very greatest of French vocalists. (In truth, she was the Paris-born daughter of an Irish-American expatriate and his Italian wife.) All of her extremely rare 78’s, including unforgettable performances of Fauré’s “Après un rêve,” “Les berceaux,” “Clair de lune,” “Prison” and “Soir,” have been collected on a two-CD set available through www.marstonrecords.com. It is a priceless document of prewar French singing at its most subtle and refined (Marston 52018-2, two CD’s).
1937: Fauré was drawn to the French voice type known as the baryton-martin, a high baritone with an easy, heady top. L’Horizon chimérique, Op. 113 (1921), his last song cycle, was written for the baritone Charles Panzéra, a much-admired exponent of the French mélodie whose “creator recording” of this work is sung with a matchless blend of vigor, cultivation, and finesse. On the same CD is Panzéra’s 1936 recording of La bonne chanson, Op. 61 (1894), Fauré’s great cycle on texts by Verlaine (Dutton CDBP 9726).
1959: Robert Casadesus, Cortot’s successor as the outstanding French pianist of the postwar era, performed and recorded numerous duets and works for two pianos with his wife Gaby, including a wonderfully fresh version of Dolly, Op. 56 (1896), Fauré’s delightful children’s suite, currently available as part of the Casadesus volume in the Great Pianists of the 20th Century series (Philips 456 739-2PM2, two CD’s).
1970: Arthur Rubinstein recorded the C Minor Piano Quintet twice, the second time with the then-new Guarneri Quartet, a performance that shows both the pianist and his much younger colleagues at their most warmly communicative (RCA Red Seal 09026-63074-2).
1975-78: The French pianist Jean-Philippe Collard recorded Fauré’s complete chamber music with piano in the 70’s, and these long-unavailable performances are now being reissued on CD. The first volume contains the D Minor Trio, the complete sonatas for violin and cello, and shorter pieces for both instruments, all heard in elegant yet rhythmically direct performances that also feature the violinist Augustin Dumay and the cellist Frédéric Lodeon (EMI Classics 69261, two CD’s).
1976: Late in his life, Vladimir Horowitz began playing the Thirteenth Nocturne in public, and made a live recording that conveys all the anguish of that profoundly unsettling work (RCA Victor Gold Seal 60377-2-RG).
1986: George Balanchine’s Emeralds (the first panel of Jewels, his 1967 triptych of plotless ballets) is set to the choreographer’s own sequence of instrumental excerpts from Fauré’s incidental music for Shylock and Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Op. 80 (1898). This highly effective eight-movement suite has been recorded by Robert Irving and the New York City Ballet Orchestra as part of A Balanchine Album, which contains the scores to four of Balanchine’s best-known ballets (Nonesuch 79135, two CD’s).
1987: Matthew Best leads the Corydon Singers and the English Chamber Orchestra in a restrained yet deeply felt performance of the Requiem. It has now been recoupled on CD with a similarly effective version of Maurice Duruflé’s haunting 1947 Requiem, itself composed in homage to Fauré’s masterpiece (Hyperion CDA67070).
1992: The best available anthology of Fauré’s most popular songs (including “Après un rêve” and “Lydia”) is by the contralto Nathalie Stutzmann and the pianist Catherine Collard (RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-61439-2).
Except as indicated, these CD’s can all be purchased online by viewing this article during the month of June on COMMENTARY’s website:
1 The main theme of one of his most popular songs, “Lydia,” is in the Lydian mode.
2 Contrary to popular belief, Fauré was perfectly capable of orchestrating his own music, and he never composed anything more purely beautiful—or frankly sensuous—than the little-known love music he wrote to accompany Shylock, Op. 57 (1889), a loose French adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, on which George Balanchine drew for his score to Emeralds.
3 Fauré never failed to warn the performers with whom he worked that his music should be played briskly and with an absolute minimum of rubato. When the mezzo-soprano Claire Croiza asked him how to sing the popular “Après un rêve,” he said only: “Without slowing down, without slowing down.”