Hyperion’s record of the month for January sees the launch of an exciting new series: the complete mélodies of Gabriel Fauré will be released over four discs during 2005.
This first disc takes its title, Au bord de l’eau, from the famous song which became Fauré’s calling-card, and presents a generous programme of mélodies of an aquatic nature. The songs are performed in the order of their composition (this rationale of chronology within a general theme will be applied across the other volumes of the series to make up four self-contained and individually satisfying recitals), and alongside several perfect miniatures we here encounter three of the major cycles: the five ‘Venetian’ songs (to the poetry of Paul Verlaine), L’horizon chimérique, and Mirages, written for Madeleine Grey in thanks for her advocacy of the cycle La chanson d’Ève.
Graham Johnson has employed a veritable panoply of artists—the very finest interpreters of French song that could be found. Generous commentaries are provided for each song along with the original poems and English translations.
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For his contemporary Duparc he was ‘mon délicieux’; his teacher Saint-Saëns called him ‘My Fat Cat’, a surrogate son who basked in the affection of this normally choleric maître. For Debussy Fauré was the ‘Master of Charms’, a back-handed compliment implying over-abundant facility. Florent Schmitt’s verdict is the most comprehensive: ‘Plus profond et plus musicien que Saint-Saëns, plus divers que Lalo, plus spontané que D’Indy, plus classique que Debussy, plus intérieur et plus ému que Chabrier.’ Yet there was much about Fauré that was backward in coming forward; he owed a lot of his relatively limited success in French musical politics to the machinations of his mentor Saint-Saëns (a fact he acknowledged) and he probably allowed chance and luck to dictate too many aspects of his life. In this respect he was a phlegmatic man of the south (a different ‘south’ to that excitable Auvergnat Chabrier). He hailed from Ariège in the shadow of the Pyrenees, and never cared to master the Parisian networks as well as other aspiring composers; he was seldom given to self-promotion. Nevertheless, in retrospect, his progress from the beginning of his career to its end seems to us as sure-footed and steady as a mountain goat. Although he had to make his day-to-day living outside composition he was astonishingly consistent in his hard-working persistence. He never bragged, but he believed in his own talent in that laconic and self-contained way that can be unnerving in certain quiet people. The pace of his development and self-renewal was never forced; on the contrary, as we listen to the music, it now seems a continually evolving process of self-renewal from 1861 to 1924.
He left behind an impression of a continuing tradition of song-writing. This is due to the measured pace of an exceptionally long life, and our tendency to take a bird’s-eye view of many years’ work. Closer examination reveals many unproductive patches; as late as 1877 Fauré is accusing himself (in a letter to Marianne Viardot) of ‘proverbial laziness’. In comparison with Schubert’s lieder output (some 700 songs and fragments in fourteen working years) Fauré’s devotion to the medium seems rather less ardent. His first song was written in 1861; but he composed no songs at all in 1863–64, 1866–69, 1876, 1883 and 1895. The period between 1899 and 1903 yielded four songs, all written in 1902; there were none written in 1905, 1907, 1911–13, 1915–18, 1920 and 1922–24. There are also, of course, relatively prolific mélodie years: 1873 (six songs), 1878 (eight songs) and 1891 and 1914 (five songs each). Four songs per annum (as in 1884 and 1888) constitute a decently fruitful crop. It was not uncommon for Fauré to contribute a single mélodie to the canon in the same span of time. Time and again one has to remind oneself that he had to work as a teacher and critic (among other musical jobs) to support his family, and that he was never able to give himself, as a daily matter of course, to his compositions – something that Schubert almost always managed, financial pressures notwithstanding. And of course we song enthusiasts have to remember that Fauré’s piano pieces and chamber music were just as important to him as his reputation as a composer of mélodies.
As a teenager he studied music at the École Niedermeyer; the school’s aim was to equip students for a life in church music. It was there that he met Saint-Saëns, appointed his teacher, though only ten years his senior. This great virtuoso and prolific composer shared his knowledge of Schumann, Liszt and Wagner (otherwise forbidden to the students) but it was the daily study of the church modes which enriched Fauré’s harmonic vocabulary in a way denied to other great French composers. This unparalleled diversity of harmonic resource was capable of alarming even his fans: Saint-Saëns was appalled by the complexity of La bonne chanson. But it was surely this modal education that inoculated Fauré against the fevers of Bayreuth. We can hear the influence of Wagner in the music of Duparc, Chausson and Chabrier, but it failed to infiltrate Fauré’s style. Like Chabrier, he was able to make fun of Wagner, despite a lifelong fascination with the works themselves (there are some amusing piano duets he wrote in collaboration with his fellow Niedermeyer student, Messager). This insouciance and self-sufficiency were the things that made Fauré’s music special almost from the very beginning; he was never what people expected him to be. He remains one of those composers whose works defy sight-reading, and we can detect his delight in wrong-footing anyone (including Liszt, who stumbled over Fauré’s Ballade) who attempts to second-guess the workings of his ceaselessly inventive tonal imagination. His music has some eerie affinity with the elevated logic of Bach’s harmonic world; as a poet of the keyboard Fauré had much in common with Schumann, as a sheer master of harmony, with Chopin. As he grew older his harmonic means became less restless, but ever more profound. Contained passion was replaced by intense serenity.
The ups and downs of Fauré’s life are seldom spectacular. He got himself into scrapes as a young provincial organist, and for a time was drawn into the circle of the magnetic Pauline Viardot and her two singing daughters (he became engaged to one of them, Marianne, but this was broken off as his musical directions changed). If he had been a cunning operator he might have found easier ways of making money, avoiding years of arduous travel in his fifties as a provincial inspector of conservatoires. One suspects that a side of him relished the freedom that this ungrateful work accorded him, a peripatetic anonymity, the chance to have time off from a marriage that was officially happy (and blessed with children) but which failed to settle him in the same way as his more religious, and uxorious, contemporaries Chausson and Duparc. His wife was rather a difficult and withdrawn character, but one doubts if this alone was the reason for the composer’s extra-marital adventures. Both women and men were drawn to Fauré with his dark good looks and poetic temperament but, apart from his roving heterosexual eye, we know little about his deepest feelings. He was essentially solitary and secretive and managed his romantic life with discretion. Some of his liaisons (secret at the time) are now public knowledge – with Emma Bardac for example, dedicatee of La bonne chanson (and later Debussy’s second wife) and with the pianist Marguerite Hasselmans who became his long-term mistress. Both of these women were muses in the life of a composer who never seems to have considered the possibility of a divorce from his wife. Propriety was important to him, and that pudeur is also to be heard in his artistic self discipline. This self-control was taken for reticence and led people into thinking, wrongly, that he was a pushover. His ruthless streak appeared when he took over the Paris Conservatoire in 1905; he acquired the nickname ‘Robespierre’ for the number of sackings that he initiated in order to modernize the institution.
The holiday that the Princesse de Polignac arranged for him in Venice (which resulted in the Cinq mélodies «de Venise» on this disc) was one of the instances where the composer was saved and refreshed by the confidence that other people had in his genius. He needed the moral support of his friends. As he got older, financial problems were replaced by ones related to health. He suffered from a hearing affliction that left him deaf and aurally confused. Like Beethoven, however, his inner ear was as clear as crystal. He pursued his own path and arrived in regions that transfigured his music and bewildered his public. In his late songs he asks no favours of us, and will not be deflected from what he has to do. Almost every piece of Fauré derives from its own implacable sense of direction, a power in which we sense the grandeur of the oak in the acorn.
Because the music is entwined with the personality behind it, lovers of Fauré’s patrician art find his self-sufficiency almost unbearably poignant. The whole of his career may well seem to be a failure to those who do not value chamber music and song. Where are the successful operas, the symphonies, and the vast choral works which are the mark of an important figure? A glance through a catalogue of his compositions shows that Fauré wrote a good deal more, and bigger works, than most people realize; but the heart of the music is in those pieces where the humble piano plays some part: piano solos (what riches are to be found under the innocent titles of ‘nocturne’, ‘impromptu’, and ‘barcarolle’!), sonatas for violin and cello, two each of piano quartets and piano quintets, the Piano Trio, the String Quartet, and of course the mélodies.
Was Fauré’s early success in England something to do with the fact that the British were seldom inclined to measure a composer’s stature (cf. Mendelssohn, Schubert and Brahms) by his success in the theatre, or lack of it? Many of his French colleagues found Fauré’s music severe and uncompromising, but the English (whose relationship to France is based on the tantalizing exoticism of being at one remove from the culture and the language) quickly embraced his refinement as an improving discipline in an uncouth world. And as times become even more abrasive, Fauré’s music remains one of the great correctives to the self-seeking vulgarity that seeps ever deeper into the fabric of our artistic life. If we are tempted to challenge him with posthumous accusations (‘If you wanted fame why didn’t you push yourself more? What you needed was a publicist!’), the slightly mournful expression in his photographs seems to mock our venal ambitions on his behalf. ‘Robespierre’ in this case is truly incorruptible; he reminds us that music is not, as we are often told in modern times, a business, but an art. Fauré’s music seems to encourage each one of us to carry on ‘doing one’s thing’, trusting somehow that the small voice and great heart will hold their own. After all, for the sake of our sanity alone, we have to continue to believe that there are still people in the world who would prefer to hear one tenor gently intoning Fauré’s Clair de lune than three singing O sole mio at full throttle.
The Hyperion French Song Edition of Fauré’s songs:
The complete Fauré songs require four CDs, and the question arises as how best to programme them. Neither the Hyperion Schubert Edition nor the Schumann (nearly 50 CDs between them) has attempted a chronological approach. Each of those lieder programmes has been issued one at a time. The Ameling–Souzay–Baldwin complete Fauré songs on French EMI – a set now thirty years old – was issued in a new chronological order established by the great Fauré scholar Jean-Michel Nectoux. This box contained ten sumptuous LP sides; there were thus nine opportunities for musical and mental punctuation in listening to the composer’s complete mélodie output at home. It does not help that Fauré’s creative life subdivides into three, rather than four, periods. In a recording presented in chronological terms the first one and a quarter CDs would have to be given over to the composer’s early works. These songs are charming, always interesting, indeed they are often much more than that; but the Fauré connoisseur might consider them too lightweight to be heard all at once as they do not represent this composer at his apogee. On the other hand the masterly cycles of the composer’s later years (another one and a quarter CDs perhaps) can intimidate the music-lover who prefers Fauré at his more conventionally lyrical and accessible. For the works that most frequently appear in song recitals one must explore the mélodies of the middle period. It would not even be possible to extrapolate the ‘popular’ Fauré on to a single chronological disc: the towering presence of La bonne chanson would confound any such asset stripping.
One has to weigh the undeniable intellectual satisfaction of chronology, hearing each song as it passes by in its correct sequence, with the more relaxed pleasure of listening to a well-chosen group of songs – with texts that are juxtaposed for a deeper reason than chronological happenstance. Our aim here is to provide repertoire diversity while retaining chronology within each individual disc issue. In the first volume the theme is Au bord de l’eau, both the title of a famous mélodie, and a reminder how fascinated Fauré was with aquatic and nautical subjects. Indeed, this song was so celebrated that it became a nickname – one of Duparc’s letters to its composer began with the words ‘Mon cher bord de l’eau’. Like Schubert, Fauré was drawn to the musical possibilities of water and its movement (no one else could approach the diversity of his thirteen barcarolles). Like Schubert there is cosmic aspect to Fauré’s depiction of various aspects of sea, river and lake. The three subsequent recitals will be arranged under similarly broad themes that will take the listener chronologically through the composer’s songs, each programme containing examples of the three styles that, very broadly speaking, characterize this songwriter: the young salon charmer, the mature master with a tendency to ever-deepening musical experiments, and the inscrutable sage whose music remains as challenging as any written in the twentieth century. Each of the four instalments of the series will chart Fauré’s progress from youth to old age from a different angle, and with different repertoire. Taken together these discs will comprise an intégrale of the composer’s mélodies. It is the breadth of these journeys, and the variegated terrain through which they pass, that underlines the greatness of this particular composer and his genius for continual metamorphosis.
Graham Johnson © 2005
Other albums in this series