Sunday 22 September 2019

Bon anniversaire, Jules et Gabriel

Gabriel Fauré
Gabriel Fauré
Jules Massenet

George Hamilton

Birthdays, it seems, can be a bit like buses. You scan the horizon for a significant sighting without success, then along come a couple all at once. It was on this day, just three years apart, that two of the great French Romantics - Jules Massenet and Gabriel Fauré - were born.

Their signature pieces would both make it into any classical Top 100 - Massenet's Méditation from his opera Thaïs, Fauré's Pavane.

And yet it's amazing to think they're probably on the fringes when it comes to considering the great composers, for they both, without question, belong in that category.

The reason that they don't tend to get mentioned in the same breath as Beethoven or Brahms, Schubert, Mendelssohn, or Tchaikovsky, is that neither of them tackled that great orchestral challenge, the production of a symphony.

Born in 1842, Massenet was the elder of the two. Classically trained from an early age, he was good enough to win the Prix de Rome, the prestigious French government scholarship that funded three years of further education for top students in the Italian capital.

He became the top French opera composer of his time. Those operas - Manon, Le Cid, Werther, Cendrillon, and of course Thaïs to name but five from a catalogue that stretched to around 40 - were hugely successful, good enough to earn him the Legion of Honour at the age of only 34.

The Méditation that places him firmly among the composers of the world's favourite tunes is an interlude, played at the turning point of his opera about a good-time girl from Egypt, who's encouraged to see the error of her ways by a long-time friend who has seen the light.

It's a most moving melody, poignant and wistful, beautifully expressive. Originally written for the cello, which would bring an extra dimension to its haunting quality, it's now a staple of the violin repertoire. By no means the only piece of ravishing music he ever wrote, but by some distance the most popular.

As the organist at the Madeleine in Paris, Gabriel Fauré was much engaged with church music. His Requiem - a considerably less sombre setting than the traditional - contains some of the most beautiful choral music around.

He was a prolific songwriter, composed a whole variety of chamber music, and enough for the piano to fill a four-CD set. And though he doesn't have a symphony to his name, he did write a number of orchestral works.

The Pavane started off as a piano piece, the title and the fundamental rhythm taken from a courtly dance of the 16th century. It was expanded into a full score, with a choir added subsequently.

The choral part isn't always included in performance, but the addition of voices does add to its haunting quality.

Elegant, but not otherwise important, was how Fauré himself described his Pavane. Be that as it may, it hasn't stopped it becoming his most familiar composition.

With the World Cup in Russia now less than five weeks away, it's worth recalling that the appeal of Fauré's Pavane, and its easy identification as French romantic music, encouraged the BBC to commission a choral version which they used as the signature tune for their coverage of the World Cup in France 20 years ago.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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