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Inside Fauré's Requiem ...

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Edward Goater Edward Goater | 11:36 UK Time, Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Photo of the chorus at a BBC Singers 'Come & Sing' event

The chorus at a BBC Singers 'Come & Sing' event

BBC Singers' tenor Edward Goater reflects on Fauré’s Requiem, recorded for broadcast on Wednesday 19 April.


It is, for me, simply one of my most favourite pieces of music, and an opportunity for the BBC Singers to record a live concert performance of it was too good to miss. The Singers also like to share their enthusiasm whenever possible so it was especially nice to have the opportunity to workshop the piece in a Come & Sing event with members of the public. Enthusiasm reined unbound at the event confirming a curious phenomenon I like to call the 'Messiah Effect’. It is a collective amnesia that possesses amateur (and professional) singers alike; a collective enjoyment of the experience despite the demands and difficulty the music places on the singer. Messiah is a massively long, and technically daunting evening’s work but this is always somehow forgotten before and after the concert! The same is true of Fauré’s Requiem but to a lesser extent. Long sweeping melodies and beautiful harmony demand of the singer constant flawless tone and breath control. This is especially true of the tenors, to whom Fauré gives the lion’s share of expression. Add to that the eternally famous 'Pie Jesu' and 'Libera me' soli, and you’ve got yourself a packed 45 minutes of drama!

There can be no better example of the power of personality in someone’s music than that of Fauré’s, but not in the manner that you might initially think. His is a music of modest brilliance from an eternally honest man. He was, and still is, regarded as the father of modern French music. Darius Milhaud dedicated his 12th string quartet to him even though he’d never met him (and I can heartily recommend the muted slow movement to you!). The power of persuasion was Fauré’s great gift. He was never interested in grand dramatic gestures or sumptuous orchestrations unlike his contemporaries, and this is eloquently expressed in his best-loved major work – the Requiem.

Melody is at the heart of the Requiem. Fauré despised deliberate stirrings and drawings out of tension in large-scale works especially. He always felt it showed a lack of ideas in the composition, and would go to great lengths to find concise  expression (though never wanting for detail or beauty) in whatever he was describing. This is probably why he excelled so much at art-song writing, despite consistently setting what many regarded as inferior poetry. Fauré liked to find the extended expression of words through music, and regarded so-called superior poetry as already possessing such traits as to render any music superfluous. He set the text of the Mass for the dead for no particular reason other than ‘he wanted to’, and in the rich language of the Latin verse he finds as much poetry as in anything in his own tongue.

It was long unknown that the work took over 20 years to assume its present form, the composition extending from 1877 to about 1893, the full orchestration emerging in 1900, and the reduced ensemble version (without strings and woodwind) appearing around 1892. For our version, our conductor David Hill had written a new arrangement for single ‘cello, violin, harp and organ. This kept the intimacy of expression that Fauré always intended, but also allowed a beefier range of colour in the dramatic sections such as the 'Dies iræ'. We’re always blessed with an appreciative audience at our concerts, but the popularity of the Requiem attracted an especially large attendance, and the atmosphere was palpable. This always brings out the best in the Singers, and spine-tingling moments like the 'Sanctus' and the end of the 'In Paradisum' were electrifying for both artists and crowd alike.

Right from the start, the intensely slow and serene D minor motive evokes something of Gregorian chant. Unlike Duruflé’s Requiem, which is based around the plainsong mass setting, Fauré offers a more personal and some say more positive vision of the hereafter. Fauré once wrote in a letter to his wife, 'So often, some external thing plunges us into thoughts that are so imprecise, they’re not really thoughts at all – though the mind certainly finds them pleasurable. Perhaps it is a desire for something beyond what actually exists? And there, Music is very much at home.' I think this sentiment crystallises the very heart of the Requiem, and my personal attachment to the work.

I hope all those who listen to it on April 20th gain the same illumination.



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