Friday 9 December 2016

Classical: The serene Fauré, father of French chamber music

George Hamilton

Published 16/08/2015 | 02:30

French composer Gabriel Fauré
French composer Gabriel Fauré

If you were asked to offer up a top 10 of classical composers, you'd have no difficulty rattling off the first half dozen names. Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Mozart, Schubert and Strauss - there you go. Add on Tchaikovsky and Chopin, and the pair who've found a place in rhyming slang - Brahms and Liszt - and you're up to Number 10. Gabriel Fauré hasn't got a look in.

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It's probably no surprise. He'll never be the headline name on a concert bill because he wasn't that kind of composer - there isn't a single symphony in his archive - but if you broaden the focus, you'll find him. He was reckoned to be the father of French chamber music.

Fauré lived from 1845 to 1924. First and foremost a church musician - the school he went to specialised in training them - he would end up presiding over the organ loft at one of the great churches of Paris, the Madeleine.

Something of his you may well be familiar with is the Cantique de Jean Racine. Racine was a leading literary figure in France 200 years before Fauré. One of the things he did was translate Latin hymns. Fauré put music to one of these and it won him first prize at his graduation. This was the Cantique.

Elegant and intimate, it points the way to much of the music that would make Fauré's name. His trademark was a melodic clarity that put the listener immediately at ease. Calm and serene would be two more words you could use. His Pavane is a wonderful example.

The title refers to a dance from long ago, slow and stately. Fauré uses the woodwind to introduce the melody. First the flute, then the oboe, then the clarinet. Immediately you're drawn in. Strings gently pluck their pizzicato support.

Wherever else the Pavane may go, even when those strings turn stark to intervene with a new more menacing theme, the reassuring woodwinds are never far away, and the conclusion is as near to a musically perfect expression that all is well with the world as can be.

There is a concert piece in the Fauré file. As a young man, he'd attempted a symphony but gave up. In his 70s, shortly after the end of World War I, he was commissioned by Prince Albert of Monaco to write the music for one of the items on a programme at the Monte Carlo Theatre. This was Masques et Bergamasques, by and large a reworking of earlier pieces, including three movements of his abandoned symphony. These days, it's presented as a suite for small orchestra, a set full of elegance and charm.

That's the way with Fauré's music. Romantic, positive, undemanding, but nonetheless pleasing. These qualities flow through a sizable catalogue of piano music as well, and reach into his one major opus - his Requiem.

His lack of a deep faith led to the creation of a much less sombre lament than might be expected. Significantly it lacks a Dies Irae, or Day of Wrath. The Pie Jesu is magnificent - a vivid and moving song for a soprano. The Agnus Dei and In Paradisum are suffused with sumptuous melodies that have promoted them to the status of much loved excerpts as well.

There's less of the doom and gloom about Fauré's Requiem, the emphasis being more on death as eternal rest. It was played in its full orchestral version at the state funeral for Gabriel Fauré at the church to which he had given such distinguished service during his years in Paris, L'Église de la Madeleine.

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