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Two French giants who left everything but a symphony

Two of the giants of French musical history share a birthday today. Gabriel Fauré, born in 1845, came along exactly three years after Jules Massenet. They're both remembered for the particularly tuneful and evocative melodies they left behind.

Neither of them would be marquee names when classical's big billboard was being hung, for there wasn't a symphony between them. But even if you can't place them, you're sure to know their music.

Massenet mostly wrote operas -- he was the leader in the field in France in his day, nothing if not prolific, with 21 full-length scores to his credit. His most familiar piece comes from one of those.

It's the heroine 'Méditation from Thaïs' from the eponymous opera, moving and emotional, an interlude as opposed to an aria, a song without words, best known now as a string solo.

The opera itself was unconventional in that it was smaller scale than the traditional set-pieces -- no crowd, no chorus.

Fauré steered clear of the bigger stage, too. Songs, piano pieces, chamber music were his stock-in-trade. His Pavane is a gorgeously melodic example of what he did best. Then there's his highly regarded Requiem, which is lacking one traditional section -- the Day of Wrath. He wanted to get away from the conventional, do something different, emphasise the love, not the fear factor.

Both Fauré and Massenet first got noticed through sacred music. Massenet's breakthrough came with an oratorio. Fauré trained as a church musician and began his career as an organist, ending up at the Madeleine in Paris.

In their 20s, along with other luminaries like César Franck and Camille Saint-Saëns, they were founding members of the Societé National de Musique, a group dedicated to the promotion and renewal of French music, offering an outlet through its activities to young French composers.

It's ironic, then, that they both, on occasion, were to draw on a non-French influence, none other than the great German Romantic Richard Wagner, the big name at the time.

In two of those 21 operas by Massenet, Werther and Esclarmonde, Fauré -- in his other life as a critic -- detects more than a hint of Wagner. Massenet, he notes, had "paid his tribute to the divinity of the day".

Fauré himself went down the Wagner route, with a wonderfully jocular take on themes from the Ring. His piano duet 'Souvenirs de Bayreuth' ('Memories of Bayreuth') is almost a send-up, familiar music out of context, like something from the days of silent cinema -- which indeed is when it was written.

RTÉ lyric fm features The Hamilton Scores from 9.30 each Saturday morning, and George Hamilton's Full Score on Sundays at 3pm.


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