Fauré’s stylistic development links the end of Romanticism with the second quarter of the 20th century, and covers a period in which the evolution of musical language was particularly rapid. When Fauré was born, Berlioz was writing La damnation de Faust; he died in the age of Wozzeck and early Shostakovich. He nevertheless remained the most advanced figure in French music until the appearance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. As early as 1877–9 he was using some elements of the whole-tone scale (the Sérénade toscane) and anticipated Impressionism (Ballade op.19). Furthermore, he developed an immediately identifiable style and (even rarer) created a personal musical language.
His music may be divided into four styles, roughly corresponding to chronological periods, which represent his responses to the musical problems of his time. After early attempts (1860–70) in the Classical manner of a follower of Haydn and Mendelssohn, his first personal style shows him assimilating the language and aesthetics of Romanticism; he initially set poems by Hugo and Gautier, but he also set Baudelaire, and his best passages are either sombre (La chanson du pêcheur, L’absent, Elégie) or express rapt emotion (Le voyageur, Automne, the chorus Les djinns). His second period was that of the Parnassian poets, and coincided with his discovery of Verlaine, as in Clair de lune (1887), which accorded with his sprightly yet melancholy temper. He also sometimes yielded to the gracefulness of the ‘1880s style’ – melodious, tortuous and languid – which he used in certain piano pieces and the works for women’s chorus (such as Caligula). The success this music achieved in its own time has since damaged his reputation. In the 1890s his third style matured with an accession of bold and forceful expressiveness; the great piano works and La bonne chanson have real breadth. This expansiveness is particularly evident in the lyric tragedy Prométhée, which sums up all the facets of his style at the turn of the century: delicacy and profundity, but also measured force. In the style of his last period, he pursued a solitary and confident course, ignoring the attractive innovations of younger composers and the beguiling elements of his 1880s style. The increasing economy of expression, boldness of harmony and enrichment of polyphony give his work of this period an authentic place in 20th-century composition; the expressive dissonances of the Nocturne no.11 (ex.1), the whole-tone writing in the Impromptu no.5 (ex.2) and such highly chromatic music as the Scherzo of the Second Piano Quintet are representative.
In spite of Fauré’s continuous stylistic development, certain traits characterize nearly all his music. Much of his individuality comes from his handling of harmony and tonality. Without completely destroying the sense of tonality, and with a sure intuitive awareness of what limits ought to be retained, he freed himself from its restrictions. Attention has frequently been drawn to the rapidity of his modulations: these appear less numerous if they are viewed according to the precepts of Fauré’s harmonic training, contained in the Traité d’harmonie (Paris, 1889) by Gustave Lefèvre, Niedermeyer’s son-in-law and successor. This harmonic theory can be traced back to Gottfried Weber, whose ideas had been disseminated in France by Lefèvre and Pierre de Maleden, the teacher of Saint-Saëns. Their concept of tonality was broader than Rameau’s classical theory, since for them foreign notes and altered chords did not signify a change in tonality, 7th and 9th chords were no longer considered dissonant, and the alteration of the mediant was possible without a change of tonality or even of mode. So a student of Fauré’s harmony (with its delicate combination of expanded tonality and modality) must consider entire phrases rather than individual chords. Thus the opening of Les présents op.46 no.1 (ex.3) is in F, despite its hints of A. The mobility of the 3rd (A to A) and the harmonic alternations are typical of Fauré’s style. His familiarity with the church modes is reflected in the frequently modal character of his music, particularly in the elision of the leading note (the E is flattened in ex.3) facilitating both modulation to a neighbouring key and the pungent use of the plagal cadence (ex.4). But the flexibility of the modulations to remote keys and the sudden short cuts back to the original key are unprecedented aspects of Fauré’s originality.
Fauré’s harmonic richness is matched by his melodic invention. He was a consummate master of the art of unfolding a melody: from a harmonic and rhythmic cell he constructed chains of sequences that convey – despite their constant variety, inventiveness and unexpected turns – an impression of inevitability. The long entreaty of the ‘In paradisum’ in the Requiem is a perfect example of such coherence: its 30 bars form one continuous sentence. In Fauré’s music the relationship between harmony and melody is complex; often the melody seems to be the linear expression of the harmony, as in ex.4.
Close study of Fauré’s use of rhythm reveals certain constant features of his style, in particular his predilection for fluidity within bars; his association of duple and triple time and subtle use of syncopation link him with Brahms (ex.5). Yet Fauré never emphasized rhythmic values; once a rhythmic formula was established, he tended to maintain it for long passages, thus incurring the charge of monotony. The idea of line was too important for him to tolerate sudden interruption in the manner of Beethoven.
Fauré’s early chamber works have traditional formal structures and his early songs are in strophic or rondo form, but for the piano Ballade op.19 he invented a new and peculiarly unifying three-theme form. In his last chamber works he moved away from Classical schemes and generally adopted a four-section form. The free variations in his finales show great richness of melodic and contrapuntal invention. He also had a liking for the scherzo – not the fantastic nocturnal dance of the German Romantics but a sunny, skipping movement with bursts of pizzicato, whose prototype was established in the First Violin Sonata op.13 (1875). Fauré could be described as the creator of the ‘French scherzo’ that Debussy and Ravel used in their quartets.
Fauré is widely regarded as the greatest master of French song. Apart from the important song cycles and some individual songs, his works in this form are grouped in three collections (1879, 1897 and 1908), each containing 20 pieces (the second volume originally had 25 songs, but a few items were reordered with the publication of the third). The first includes romances and songs from his youth. The influence of Niedermeyer and Saint-Saëns is clear, though Fauré’s association with the Viardots from 1872 to 1877 inclined him temporarily towards an Italian style (Après un rêve, Sérénade toscane, Barcarolle, Tarentelle for two sopranos). His most successful works are those in which the music is inspired directly by the form of the poem, as in L’absent, where the dialogue is as restrained as it is dramatic, or La chanson du pêcheur, in which a second theme is introduced, thus foreshadowing later songs. Many of the songs of the second collection use the ABA scheme (Automne, Les berceaux), while the boldest pieces, such as the familiar Clair de lune, anticipate the formal invention of the third collection. In Spleen and Le parfum impérissable from the final set, the melodic curve coincides with the unfolding of the poem, while in Prison the movement of the music matches that of the poetic syntax and the melody develops continuously, with a consistent forward movement. It is regrettable that the third collection, in which prosody, melody, harmony and polyphony achieve a beautiful balance, is much less known than the second, and that a masterpiece such as Le don silencieux is rarely performed simply because it was not published in a collection.
The criticism that Fauré composed almost half his songs to rather mediocre poems ignores the fact that he sometimes chose his texts for their pliability, lack of reference to sounds and, particularly, lack of visual descriptions that would restrict him (hence his predilection for such poets as Armand Silvestre). He apparently remarked that he aimed to convey the prevailing atmosphere rather than detailed images in poems of this kind. The most ‘pliable’ poems were most easily adapted to his melodic inspiration, and in setting them, he often took great liberties with the prosody. In Les berceaux, for example, he superimposed a strong and varied musical rhythm on the flat rhythm of Prudhomme’s verses, creating contradiction, though a felicitous one. Such settings contrast strikingly with his treatment of such poems as Verlaine’s.
From 1891 Fauré broadened the scope of his melodic invention by giving a novel structure to a song cycle. The Cinq mélodies op.58, and still more La bonne chanson op.61, have a dual organization: a literary organization, by virtue of the selection and arrangement of Verlaine’s poems to form a story; and a musical organization based on the use of recurrent themes throughout the cycle. The harmonic and formal novelty of La bonne chanson shocked Saint-Saëns, and even daunted the young Debussy; the expressive power, the free and varied vocal style and the importance of the piano part seemed to exceed the proper limits of the song. It was difficult to go beyond the form of La bonne chanson, so Fauré looked for other means of unifying the song cycle. In La chanson d’Eve, a sequel to La bonne chanson, he reduced the number of recurrent themes from six to two, concentrated the vocal style and gave a new polyphonic richness to the piano accompaniment. The last three cycles, Le jardin clos op.106, Mirages op.113 and L’horizon chimérique op.118, no longer have common themes; the unity is in the subject, the atmosphere and mainly in the writing, which renounces luxuriance and moves in the direction of total simplicity.
Fauré’s stylistic evolution can also be observed in his works for piano. The elegant and captivating first pieces, which made the composer famous, show the influence of Chopin, Saint-Saëns and Liszt. The lyricism and complexity of his style in the 1890s are evident in the Nocturnes nos.6 and 7, the Barcarolle no.5 and the Thème et variations. Finally, the stripped-down style of the final period informs the last nocturnes (nos.10–13), the series of great barcarolles (nos.8–11) and the astonishing Impromptu no.5. The piano writing, based on the flexible undulations of the arpeggio, achieves a free counterpoint that is always expressive, as in the opening of the Nocturne no.13, the summit of Fauré’s piano writing, where the dissonances result from a kind of time-lag between the hands.
Unlike Saint-Saëns, Fauré was not interested in piano writing as such and cannot be recognized from particular formulae. Characteristic is the way in which arpeggios break the music into pieces like a mosaic, the accompaniment, in syncopation, working itself into the interstices of the melody. Even more original and characteristic is the equal importance of the hands, which in many passages alternate and complement each other for the presentation of a theme or the execution of a run. This trait (which reflects the fact that Fauré was ambidextrous), together with the finger substitutions familiar to organists, have discouraged many performers from attempting these otherwise admirable pieces. Nevertheless, the piano is central to his work. It is used in all his songs and in his two concertante works, the Ballade and the Fantaisie.
In Fauré’s chamber music the piano is also prominent; he freed himself from it only in his last work, the String Quartet op.121. With the songs, the chamber music constitutes Fauré’s most important contribution to music. He enriched all the genres he attempted: the violin sonata, cello sonata, piano quintet, quartet and trio. In chamber music he established his style most rapidly; the First Violin Sonata (1875, 11 years before Franck’s), and the First Quartet (1876–9) display astonishing novelty of conception.
Fauré’s apparent lack of interest in the orchestra is sometimes criticized as a weakness. He had a horror of vivid colours and effects, and showed little interest in combinations of tone-colours, which he thought were too commonly a form of self-indulgence and a disguise for the absence of ideas. Nevertheless, his orchestral writing has substance, and certain piano pieces and his greatest chamber music, even La bonne chanson, have convincing power and an almost symphonic breadth.
For long Fauré did not attempt musical stage works; he felt no contempt for them (as has been suggested), but had difficulty in finding a subject that suited him. There are about ten abandoned projects. His early incidental music led to the highly successful Prométhée (1900), a lyric tragedy with spoken interludes, which is easily adapted to concert performance with a narrated text (the usual solution, for the original text is now dated). In Pénélope, begun seven years later, Fauré found a subject that enchanted him, and this lyric drama contains his personal solution to the problem of post-Wagnerian opera; Pénélope can be described as a ‘song opera’, since it uses neither the classical aria with recitative nor Wagner’s continuous melody but rather a sequence of short lyrical flights, without repetition, linked by passages of arioso and, less often, plain recitative, sometimes without accompaniment. Pénélope thus meets the challenge of maintaining a balance between the voices and the orchestra, whose role is important because it provides a commentary on the action by means of several leitmotifs in the manner of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, which in other respects it does not resemble at all. Like Pelléas and Wozzeck, Pénélope proposed an original solution, but like them it had no true successors. Yet Fauré felt too much distaste for theatrical effects to be able to create a popular work. Pénélope is a powerful masterpiece, but a masterpiece of pure music.
printed works published in Paris unless otherwise stated; most MSS in F-Pn
many published in collections: i (1879), ii (1897), iii (1908); numbering follows revised order of 1908
Super flumina, chorus, orch, 14 July 1863, ed. (1997)
Cantique de Jean Racine, chorus, org, 1865 (1876), rev., chorus, hmn, str qnt, 1866, orchd, 1906
Cantique à St Vincent de Paul, 1868, lost
Ave Maria, 3 male vv, org, Aug 1871 (1957)
Cantique pour la Fête d’un supérieur, c1872, lost
Ave Maria, 2 S, org, 1877, cf op.93
Libera me, Bar, org, 1877, lost, rev. version in Requiem, op.48
Messe basse, solo vv, female chorus, hmn, vn, 1881, Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei only, Kyrie, O salutaris by A. Messager, expanded and orchd Messager and Fauré, 1882; rev. 30 Dec 1906 with org (without movts by Messager), incl. Kyrie, c1881, Sanctus, Benedictus (on Qui tollis from abandoned Gl), Agnus Dei (1907)
J.Barrie Jones, ed.: G. Fauré: A Life in Letters (London, 1989)
J.Depaulis, ed.: ‘Dix-huit lettres inédits de Gabriel Fauré à Roger-Ducasse’, Revue de la Société liègeoise de musicologie, ii (1995), 53–72
Interviews with Fauré, Le petit méridional (21 March 1900); Le Gaulois (30 Oct 1904); Le Figaro (14 June 1905); Comoedia (31 Jan 1910; 20 April 1910; 10 Nov 1924); Monaco revue (5 Jan 1913); Revue de la Riviera (2 March 1913); Le Petit Parisien (28 April 1922); Candide (9 Dec 1937); Paris-Comoedia (3 March 1954)
K.Thompson: A Dictionary of 20th-Century Composers, 1911–71 (London, 1973) [incl. work-list and extensive bibliography]
J.-M.Nectoux: Phonographies, I: Gabriel Fauré, 1900–1977 (Paris, 1979) [discs, piano rolls, radio recordings]
E.R.Phillips: Gabriel Fauré, a Guide to Research (New York, forthcoming)
c: special issues
Musica, no.77 (1909)
ReM, iii/11 (1921–2) [incl. articles by G. Fauré, M. Ravel, J. Roger-Ducasse, A. Cortot, C. Koechlin, F. Schmitt, N. Boulanger]
Monde Musical, nos.21–2 (1924)
ReM (May 1945) [incl. articles by P. Fauré-Fremiet, R. Dumesnil, G. Jean-Aubry]
G.Fauré: Publications techniques et artistiques (Paris, 1946)
Feuilles musicals, vii/4–5 (1954)
Journal musical français (1 Oct 1964)
Association des amis de Gabriel Fauré, Bulletin (1972–9), the Etudes fauréennes (1980–84)
J.-M.Nectoux: ‘Ravel, Fauré et les débuts de la Société musicale indépendante’, RdM, lxi (1975), 295–318 [incl. letters]
J.-M.Nectoux, ed.: ‘Charles Koechlin et Henri Büsser témoins du Prométhée de Fauré aux arènes de Béziers’, Association des amis de Gabriel Fauré, no.16 (1979), 7–19 [incl. letters, and diary of Koechlin]
J.-M.Nectoux: ‘Debussy et Fauré’, Cahiers Debussy, no.3 (1979), 13–20
J.-M.Nectoux, ed.: ‘Deux interprètes de Fauré: Emilie et Edouard Risler’ Etudes fauréennes, xviii (1981), 3–25 [incl. letters and diary of Emilie Risler]
L.Aguettant: ‘Rencontres avec Gabriel Fauré’, Etudes fauréennes, xix (1982), 3–7
G.H.Woldu: Gabriel Fauré as Director of the Conservatoire National de Musique et de Déclamation, 1905–1920 (diss., Yale U., 1983)
G.H.Woldu: ‘Gabriel Fauré directeur du Conservatoire: les réformes de 1905’, RdM, lxx (1984), 199–228
M.Faure: Musique et société, du second empire aux années vingt: autour de Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Debussy et Ravel (Paris, 1985)
J.-M.Nectoux: ‘Gabriel Fauré au Conservatoire de Paris: une philosophie pour l’enseignement’, Le Conservatoire de Paris, 1795–1995, ed. Y. Gérard and A. Bongrain (Paris, 1996), 219–34
J.-M.Nectoux: ‘“Tous écoutent la parole du maître”: Gabriel Fauré et ses élèves’, Deux cents ans de pédagogie au Conservatoire de Paris [symposium, 1996], ed. A. Poirier and A. Bougrain (Paris, 1999)
e: life and works
L.Vuillemin: Gabriel Fauré et son oeuvre (Paris, 1914)
L.Aguettant: Le génie de Gabriel Fauré (Lyons, 1924)
A.Bruneau: La vie et les oeuvres de Gabriel Fauré (Paris, 1925)
C.Koechlin: Gabriel Fauré (Paris, 1927, 2/1949; Eng. trans., 1945)
P.Fauré-Fremiet: Gabriel Fauré (Paris, 1929, 2/1957) [incl. extensive bibliography and discography]
G.Servières: Gabriel Fauré (Paris, 1930)
G.A.Faure: Gabriel Fauré (Paris, 1945)
C.Rostand: L’oeuvre de Gabriel Fauré (Paris, 1945)