Gabriel Fauré’s personality contains a singular mix of contradictory elements. He learnt his craft at the École Niedermeyer in Paris, an institution devoted to raising the standards of church music by studying plainchant and Renaissance music. He then made his name with songs and piano music of sensuous melodic allure and an apparently easy fluency, which earned him a reputation as a society composer that he never emerged from in his lifetime as far as the wider world was concerned.
Thanks to the early advocacy of his teacher Saint-Saëns, he made his way in the musical world and rose through the hierarchies of Paris church posts – assistant to Widor at Saint-Sulpice, then organist at the fashionable Madeleine – and teaching positions, eventually becoming director of the Conservatoire. In the latter capacity, he was a reformist; socially, he was an established figure, taking advantage of his apparent popularity with women, though it should be remembered that salons were a prime venue for artistic networking and musical performance: Fauré would there meet Debussy and Ravel, Colette and Anatole France, while his improvised piano duets with Messager were legendary. Overseas he attempted to make himself known in London, with limited success.
For two decades at the end of his life he suffered a hearing affliction that distorted pitch, and progressive deafness. The concentration and introverted nature of his later music is sometimes attributed to this condition, but it is also the logical outcome of the way he had always composed. His Niedermeyer training had instilled the elements of counterpoint and especially the modes, which give his melodies and harmonies their personal flavour. Technically speaking, a fondness for sharpened fourths and flattened sevenths, and a reluctance to use perfect cadences, made for a marked lessening of the dramatic tensions that typified fully tonal music at the turn of the 19th century.
Instead, Fauré’s music expresses its energy in restless, intricate harmonic movement. The even way in which it flows can make it seem bland on the surface, and it demands focused listening (and performing), and an awareness of where the various lines are going, for its full intensity to register. This goes as much for his most familiar work, the Requiem, as for his highly distilled String Quartet.
Fauré continued to compose piano music and songs throughout his life. They are the mediums best matched to an idiom that depends more on the performer’s artistry than on instrumental colour; his equally impressive body of chamber music almost all uses a piano, apart from the String Quartet and two pieces for harp. Little interested in orchestration, he often assigned the task to others, although he was responsible for scoring four-fifths of his only opera Pénélope, a work of ravishing beauty and rather static dramaturgy.
Profile by Robert Maycock © BBC