Refined and gentle impressionistic music is the signature of Gabriel Fauré’s groundbreaking modernism. His song works are infused with harmonic freshness, sudden modulations and supreme elegance.
Fauré was born (1845) in Pamiers, a market town near Foix in La Basse Ariège area of southern France – a rich, fertile region and just about as far from metropolitan Paris as any French town can be. But it was to Paris at the age of nine that he was sent by enlightened parents who recognised their son’s talent. He secured a place on a full bursary, at the Niedermayer School, an establishment that specialises in Church music, and became an organist. Saint Saëns, his senior by only ten years, was one of his professors.
After receiving La Croix de Guerre as a young man for army service in the Franco-Prussian War, Fauré returned to Paris in 1871 to be assistant organist and accompanist to the choir at Saint-Sulpice, then later at the Madeleine Church – again following in Saint Saëns footsteps. Following a series of misunderstandings, the fraught and fragile engagement to his beloved Marianne Viardot was broken and he married Marie Fremiet. This was a rather unhappy marriage, as it transpired, but he remained married to Marie for the rest of his life in spite of his relationships with other women.
They had two sons and to support his family, Fauré supplemented his church income by teaching piano and harmony – composing during summer holidays but making very little money from it as his publisher bought the works and their outright copyrights for about fifty francs each (plus ça change!…). In the 1880s, after these tribulations, the previously cheerful Fauré became prone to bouts of depression. Described by him as ‘spleen’, this is reflected in many of his songs. Disappointed, self critical and uncompromising, he destroyed many of his works during this period.
By the 1890s, however, things had improved for him professionally. In 1892 he became inspector for the provincial conservatories and by 1896, was chief organist at the Madeleine. He followed Massenet as composition professor at the Paris Conservatoire, teaching, among others, Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger. In 1905, he was appointed its director, making changes in the establishment that upset many. He remained in this post until the deterioration in his hearing caused him to relinquish it in 1920. He died in Paris four years later.
This complex, quietly unsentimental, modernising and iconoclastic composer, whose work in developing harmonic theory was based on a complete mastery of classical structure, pushed the contemporary boundaries of harmony forward into the twentieth century. Most well known in singing circles for his iconic Requiem, his beautiful but ‘edgy’ songs demonstrate his innovations wonderfully. There are 96 in all. Along with his subtle unforgiving, unbroken rhythmic lines and staggering use of syncopation, they are ruthlessly ‘driven’, and demanding – perhaps not for the faint-hearted singer (or accompanist!), but worth all the physical and intellectual effort they call for.
Try the early and delightful ‘Le Papillon et La Fleur‘ (Opus 1 No 1); the later, exuberant ‘Notre Amour‘ (Opus 23 No. 2); the inconsolable ‘Spleen‘ (Opus 51 No 3); the impressionistic ‘Le Ramier‘ (Opus 87 No 2) as well as all-time favourites, ‘Prison‘, ‘Après Un Rêve‘, ‘Automne‘, ‘Les Berceaux‘, ‘Mandoline‘ and ‘Soir‘.
They would all be considered as challenging pieces and feature frequently on the higher level singing grade syllabuses. Here are some of our favourite renditions: