La Belle Epoque (5) – Fauré

It can be a little difficult at times to penetrate into Fauré’s music and the life of this composer. For many he remains something of a mystery and somewhat difficult to pin down. He remains something of an enigma both about the nature of his musical output and about the man himself. What is also problematic is placing him in time.
His music to begin with does not exactly make you jump out of your chair. The 19th century is overloaded with heroics, fate knocking at the door, elation, emotion, hysteria and dramatics. Its dependence is on form, question and answer, exposition and recapitulation. With Fauré there is none of this. The one quality which constantly comes through is restraint. His works rarely contain carefully sculptured and repeated themes as of a Beethoven or of a Cesar Franck. Often Fauré’s compositions, his piano quintets for example, appear simply to unfold from point to point as if improvised. It is almost a style of creative anonymity which in turn reflects on our perception of him as a person, who he was and also when he was. It is a fairly safe bet that most people know Fauré from only a very few of his works. The best known and most loved is his Requiem with its tranquil and devotional character, and of course the ever popular Pavanne, with or without choral supplement, and whose popularity reached a far wider audience than Fauré could ever have envisaged with the 1998 World Cup hosted in France even though it never had a chance in hell of outdoing the Italians with the Three Tenors. Still, despite Nessun Dorma, Italy went to sleep in its attempt to win the World Cup and it was France who won at the Stade Français, thanks to Zinedine Zidane …and Gabriel Fauré
Incidentally I am prepared to hazard a bet that when it comes to the next World Cup in Brazil, we are going to hear Bachianas Brasilieras No 5 by Villa Lobos. If you don’t know it, sample it now, preferably the recording sung by Victoria de Los Angeles, before they ruin it for you.
Now I stated above “who he was and also when he was”. Most people if asked and, familiar with the Requiem and the Pavanne, would rightly say late 19th century. The perception is that Fauré would have come and gone by the turn of the century to be followed by Debussy and the impressionists and the twentieth century modernists. It therefore comes as a shock to find that Fauré’s long active musical life extends to 1924. He not only outlived the Belle Epoque, was principal of the Conservatoire when Debussy was at his height, but outlived Debussy and still continued to compose. He travelled across time, a suitable companion Dr. Who may be with his droopy moustache. One can easily be misled in that he was born in 1845 and thus a contemporary of Dvorak and Tchaikovsky. A more appropriate comparison might be made with the English composer Charles Villiers Stanford, born 1852 and who died the same year as Fauré. Stanford is little known today but he was a stalwart of Victorian England, writing hymns, anthems and much religious music as well as seven symphonies. He became unfairly in my view consigned to the world of the forgotten. Fauré on the other hand continued to write, notwithstanding deafness, aware of emerging new trends and even flirting with atonality. His cause was taken up by Aaron Copland, who as a young man in the early twenties took lessons in France.
Fauré was born in Midi-Pyrénées, in the south of France, the youngest of six children and the only one of them to display musical talent. His father became a schoolmaster. He recalled in his last years, “I grew up, a rather quiet well-behaved child, in an area of great beauty. … But the only thing I remember really clearly is the harmonium in the little chapel of my school”.
Helped by a scholarship from the local diocese, Faurés father arranged to send him for his education to a new school run by one Niedermeyer in Paris. There, from age 9 till he was 20 Fauré was educated at a boarding schoold in a gloomy austere régime. Niedermeyer, whose goal was to produce qualified organists and choirmasters, focused on church music. When Niedermeyer died, Camille Saint-Saëns took charge of piano studies and introduced contemporary music, including that of Schumann, Liszt and Wagner. Fauré recalled in old age, “At the time I was 15 or 16, and from this time dates the almost filial attachment … the immense admiration, the unceasing gratitude I had for Saint-Saëns, throughout my life.”
Saint Saens who was ten years older became his mentor and the close friendship between them lasted until Saint-Saëns died sixty years later. Fauré won many prizes while at the school, including the Cantique de Jean Racine, the earliest of his choral works to enter the regular repertory. He left the school in July 1865, as a laureate in organ, piano, harmony and composition, a Maître de Chapelle .
Fauré’s first appointment from 1866 was as an organist at Rennes in Brittany. During his four years there he supplemented his income by taking private pupils. He continued to compose, but none of his works from this period survive. He was generally bored at Rennes and had an uneasy time with the parish priest who in early 1870, decided to give Fauré the push after he turned up to play at Mass one Sunday still in his evening clothes after a night out at a ball. Almost immediately and with the help of a quiet word from Saint-Saëns, he secured the post of assistant organist at a church in the north of Paris but he was to remain there for only a few months. On the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 he volunteered for military service. He took part in the action to raise the Siege of Paris, and saw action in other theatres. He got awarded a Croix de Guerre.
With the defeat by Prussia there followed the Paris Commune with its brief but bloody conflict from March to May 1871. Fauré got out and took up a teaching post at the École Niedermeyer, which, to avoid the violence in Paris, had temporarily relocated to Switzerland. His first pupil at the school was the composer, André Messager, who became a lifelong friend. (Messager could do with a separate note. He was a distinguished organist and conductor. He was known for opera, operetta and light music. He conducted the first performance of Debussy’s Pelléas and Melisande, he conducted Wagner at the Opéra whilst becoming also chief conductor at the Folies Bergères. Messager came to London and was the only French composer to be commissioned by D’Oyly Carte for one of the Savoy operas).

When Fauré returned to Paris in October 1871 he was appointed choirmaster at Saint Sulpice under the composer and organist Charles-Marie Widor. During some services Widor and Fauré improvised simultaneously at the church’s two organs, trying to catch each other out. Fauré regularly attended Saint-Saëns’s musical salons. He was also a founding member of the Société Nationale de Musique, formed in February 1871 to promote new French music. Other members included Saint-Saëns, Bizet, Chabrier, d’Indy, Franck, Lalo and Massenet. Fauré became secretary of the society in 1874 and a number of his works were first presented at the society’s concerts.
In 1874 Fauré moved from Saint-Sulpice to the Église de la Madeleine, in order to deputise as principal organist for Saint-Saëns during the latter’s many absences on tour. He was gradually moving up the ladder of distinguished churches with their organs albeit on the coat tails of his more famous mentor. Fauré had made it to the top as an organist but although he played the organ professionally for four decades, he left no solo compositions for the instrument. He preferred the piano to the organ, which he played only because it gave him a regular income.
1877 was a notable year for Fauré, both professionally and personally. In January his first violin sonata, an impassioned work compared with later, was performed at a Société Nationale concert with great success and marked a turning-point in his composing career. In March, Saint-Saëns retired as official organist from the Madeleine and was succeeded as organist by his choirmaster, Dubois. So Fauré was appointed choirmaster to take over from Dubois.
On the domestic front Fauré became engaged in July to Marianne Viardot. She was the daughter of Pauline Viardot Garcia, a founder member also of the Société Nationale de Musique, a famous mezzo of the day and a rare woman composer of the period. We are told that Fauré was deeply in love with Marianne but for whatever reason and to his great distress which he no doubt got over, she broke off the engagement in November 1877. Well these things do happen. Saint-Saëns again came to the rescue and, to distract Fauré, took him off to Weimar where he was introduced to Franz Liszt. This visit gave Fauré a taste for foreign travel, which he pursued for the rest of his life. The next year, he and Messager made trips abroad to see Wagner operas at Cologne , a complete Ring cycle in Munich and again at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London and Die Meistersinger in Munich and at Bayreuth, where they also saw Parsifal. Fauré admired Wagner, as did many of his French contemporaries, and had a detailed knowledge of his music. Nevertheless whilst he enjoyed listening to his Wagner he remained one of the few composers of his generation who did not come under Wagner’s musical influence. Fauré and Messager frequently were to perform as a party piece a joint composition, the irreverent Souvenirs de Bayreuth. This short, up-tempo piano work for four hands sends up themes from The Ring.
In 1883 Fauré married Marie Fremiet, the daughter of a prominent sculptor. The marriage was affectionate, but Marie did not share his passionate nature, according to his biographer, Duchot who presumably gathered his evidence under the bed. Marie became resentful of Fauré’s frequent absences, his dislike of domestic life – “horreur du domicile” – and his love affairs, while she remained at home. How not understanding is that! Fauré valued Marie as a friend and confidante, writing to her often when away from home. According to Duchot, Fauré was extremely attractive to women and “his conquests were legion in the Paris salons.” The bourgeois looking man with the droopy moustache now begins to resemble something out of Collette. A romantic attachment to the singer Emma Bardac from around 1892 was followed by another to the composer Adela Maddison. In 1900 Fauré met the pianist Marguerite Hasselmans. This led to a relationship which lasted for the rest of Fauré’s life. He maintained her in a Paris flat, and she acted openly as his companion. A good French tradition maintained still by the present President of the Fifth Republic.
Now with a family to support, Fauré spent most of his time in running the daily services at the Madeleine and giving piano and harmony lessons. His compositions however earned him very little. Having sold them outright to his publisher at an average of 60 francs a song, Fauré received no royalties. During this period, he wrote several large-scale works, in addition to many piano pieces and songs, but he destroyed most of them after a few performances. One work to survive from this period fortunately is the Requiem. It was begun in 1887 and revised and expanded until its final version dating from 1901. After its first performance, in 1888, the priest in charge told Fauré, “We don’t need these novelties. the Madeleine’s repertoire is quite rich enough”.
During his thirties he began to suffer with bouts of depression not helped by his broken engagement and his lack of success as a composer. In 1890 he received a prestigious and remunerative commission to write an opera but Verlaine, his librettist, failed to deliver which plunged Fauré into so deep a depression that his friends became seriously concerned about his health It took a trip to Venice and writing some songs for him to recover his spirits and it was at this time that his liaison with Emma Bardac began. His principal biographers all agree that this affair inspired a burst of creativity and a new originality in his music. Bardac had a daughter, Hélène, known as “Dolly” and there is some suspicion that Fauré was her father although it is said to be unlikely. Come what may, Dolly was the inspiration for a suite for two pianos, a delightful work which is not susceptible to DNA testing. It is better known in its orchestral version of 1906
During the 1890s Fauré’s fortunes improved. His career is like something out of Shepherd Meade’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”. You follow someone; you give them your support and you help them to get promotion and then you step into the hole which they have left behind. In 1892, the position of professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire became available. Saint-Saëns as usual encouraged Fauré to apply for the vacant post. The Conservatoire regarded Fauré as “dangerously modern”, and its head, Ambroise Thomas, blocked the appointment. Instead, Fauré was appointed as inspector of the music conservatories in the French provinces. He disliked the prolonged travelling around the country but it was enough to put him on the first rung of the academic ladder and gave him a regular income which enabled him to give up teaching amateur pupils. Four years on, Ambroise Thomas died, and Dubois – remember him, the organist at La Madeleine – took over as head of the Conservatoire. So Fauré took a step up and succeeded Dubois as chief organist of La Madeleine. Dubois’ move created another hole to fill. Jules Massenet, professor of composition at the Conservatoire, had himself more than fully expected to succeed Thomas and might well have got the job. But he got greedy by insisting on being appointed for life and was promptly turned down. He was probably a football manager at some time. Thus it was that Dubois was appointed instead of Massenet who resigned his professorship in fury and thus it was that Dubois got Fauré appointed professor of composition in his place. Another shunt up the ladder.
Amongst the up and coming composers that came under Fauré were Ravel, Florent Schmitt, Charles Koechlin, Louis Aubert, George Enescu, Alfredo Casella and Nadia Boulanger. Fauré’s ensured his students obtained a firm grounding in the basic skills, a task which he delegated to his assistant. His role was to develop each student’s individual talents, not to hand out recipes for composing according to his style. Each of them were to find their own paths in differing and often opposed directions.
Fauré’s works of the last years of the century include incidental music for Maeterlink’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Prométhée, a tragedy composed for outdoor performance. The work is unusual for Fauré being originally scored for huge instrumental and vocal forces. From 1903 to 1921, Fauré undertook musical criticism for Le Figaro but he was too nice and only liked to emphasise the positive aspects of a work.

Fauré’s further climb to the top of the conservatoire hierarchy eventually came about in 1905 some 13 years after he had started out as a teaching member of staff. The occasion centred around Fauré’s pupil, Maurice Ravel, who was already by then established as a composer. Most composers of note had managed to win the country’s top musical prize, the Prix de Rome, if not always at the first attempt. Berlioz who had had four goes described in his Memoires the difficulties and opposition he had met from the Establishment. Ravel is the most distinguished of French composers not to have won the Prix de Rome at all. It was in 1905 that a scandal of near Dreyfus proportions erupted in French musical circles after Ravel, at his sixth attempt, the top favourite, was eliminated in an early round. Reactionary elements within the Faculty had played their part. Dubois, him again, head of the Conservatoire, became the target of the protest and, whether because he had been actively involved or simply because it happened on his watch, he announced his retirement and stepped down. And who was there to fill the gap in his place? Yes, you’ve got it in one. None other than Gabriel Fauré with Government support to boot. This mild looking man radically changed the administration and curriculum. He appointed independent external judges to decide on admissions, examinations and competitions, a move which enraged faculty members who had not only formed the jury but had given preferential treatment to their own private pupils. Deprived of what had been a good earner, many of them resigned. Fauré became dubbed “Robespierre” by the old guard as he modernised and broadened the range of the musical curriculum which now included not only some Wagner – previously an unmentionable name within the Conservatoire – but was extended so as to range from Renaissance polyphony to the works of Debussy.
Previously, when he was struggling to earn a living as an organist and piano teacher Fauré did not have as much time for composition as he would have liked. Now, with his new position, he was decidedly better off financially and he became much more widely known as a composer. Still, running the Conservatoire left him with no more time for composition than before. If he had only one thing in common with Mahler it was to spend the summer months, usually by a lake, in composition. His works from this period include his opera, Pénélope, a number of songs and for the piano some of his Nocturnes and Barcarolles written between 1906 and 1914. I was first introduced by Matthew Taylor to Fauré’s piano works during his Chopin series and I was struck by their musicality, more than I had been of his more celebrated predecessors, Chopin or Liszt. That’s purely personal.
In 1909 Fauré was elected to the Institut de France, a body grouping together five académies including the Académie française. It helped to have two long-established members canvassing on his behalf. One as ever was Saint-Saëns and the other Fauré’s father in law, the sculptor Emmanuel Fremiet, whose equestrian statues including Napoleon on horseback and Joan of Arc on horseback, bedeck Paris. During this period, Fauré began to develop serious problems with his hearing. Not only did he start to go deaf, but sounds became distorted, so that high and low notes sounded painfully out of tune to him.
He began to visit England frequently where he was invited in 1908 to play at Buckingham Palace, the year of the first London performance of Elgar’s First Symphony at which he was present as well as dining with the composer afterwards. Elgar described him as a real gentleman – the highest kind of Frenchman whom he admired greatly. Elgar tried hard to get Fauré’s Requiem performed at the Three Choirs Festival, but it did not actually get its first English performance until 1937, nearly fifty years after its first performance in France.
Faure was in Germany at the outbreak of the First World War but managed to get back to Paris. He remained in France for the duration of the war. He was against a boycott of German music led by Saint-Saëns but their disagreement did not affect their friendship.

In 1920, at the age of 75, Fauré retired from the Conservatoire because of his increasing deafness and frailty. In 1922 a presidential public tribute was accorded to him, a national homage, at the Sorbonne. Despite not being able to hear a single note it was nevertheless a great joy for this illustrious composer surrounded by other illustrious artists to receive such acclaim.

In his last months Fauré struggled to complete a string quartet. Twenty years earlier he had been the dedicatee of Ravel’s String Quartet. Ravel and others urged Fauré to compose one of his own. He refused for many years, on the grounds that it was too difficult. When he finally decided to write it, he did so, telling his wife, “I’ve started a Quartet for strings, without piano. This is a genre which Beethoven in particular made famous, and causes all those who are not Beethoven to be terrified of it.”

Aaron Copland wrote that although Fauré’s works can be divided into the usual “early”, “middle” and “late” periods, there is no such radical difference between his first and last periods as is evident with many other composers. Copland found premonitions of late Fauré in even the earliest works, and traces of the early Fauré in the works of his old age.

Fauré suffered from poor health in his later years, brought on in part by heavy smoking. Despite this, he remained available to young composers, including members of Les Six, most of whom were devoted to him. Fauré died in Paris from pneumonia on 4 November 1924 at the age of 79. He was given a state funeral at the Église de la Madeleine.