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Fauré’s preference for suggestion and nuance may seem to sit uneasily with his choice of Victor Hugo as the poet for his six earliest songs (one thinks of André Gide’s famous reply to the question of who was France’s greatest poet: ‘Victor Hugo, hélas!’), but the composer, even at the age of sixteen, was careful over what he set. By 1861 he had been a pupil for seven years at the École Niedermeyer in Paris which set out primarily to train church musicians. However, in that year Saint-Saëns joined the staff, bringing with him a breath of modernist air nourished on such dangerous influences as Liszt and Wagner, and he and Fauré became lifelong friends.
Not that the Hungarian or the German show up in these early Fauré songs—Ravel, who identified Gounod as the true founder of French art song, felt that ‘Fauré, who had studied with Saint-Saëns, appears to have been more attracted towards the undeniably Gounodesque colour of certain works by his young professor than to the researches into form that were one of the latter’s constant preoccupations’. So it is that, both in ’Rêve d’amour’ of around 1862 (so named by Fauré’s market-driven publisher in favour of the composer’s and poet’s ‘S’il est un charmant gazon’) and in ‘L’aurore’ of around 1870, we can easily discern Gounod’s gently undulating vocal lines and clearly organized harmonies. The first poem’s ‘charmant’ aspect is perfectly captured in the regular four-bar phrases; only with the slight deepening of emotion at the mention of ‘Dieu’ and ‘l’âme à l’âme s’unit’ does the harmony also deepen chromatically. Fauré set only the first three of the six verses of ‘L’aurore’. Devoid of any religious or personal references, they unfold in standard ABA form, where the B section is built on Gounod’s familiar pattern of sequences. In the tiny piano coda, Fauré exhibits his extraordinary ability to make an effective close using notes that seem to have nothing whatever to do with what precedes them…
In 1872 Saint-Saëns introduced his pupil into the household of the famous contralto Pauline Viardot, and Fauré’s talent, amiability and good looks made him quite a pet, although it soon turned out that, in the words of one of Viardot’s biographers, ‘she appreciated Fauré’s gifts but did not understand his limitations’, notably his lack of operatic ambition. In 1877 Fauré was briefly engaged to her daughter Marianne, and seems to have suffered greatly when she broke it off. But before then, around 1873, he had composed two duets for her and her elder sister Claudie, both of which attest to their considerable vocal skills. No profound meaning is to be discovered in these songs, which nod to the 19th century’s taste for consecutive 3rds between the two voices and would undoubtedly have prompted the gentlemen present to volleys (almost audible still to the imaginative ear) of ‘Brava, toutes les deux!’
The song ‘Aubade’, to a poem by a friend of the Viardots, Louis Pomey, again does homage to Gounod, not least in the sudden shift from F major to E flat major on the words ‘Voici le frais matin!’ in the first verse, and in the second on ‘D’amour signal charmant’. The pattern in the vocal line of an initial leap followed by a downward scale, as in ‘Puisqu’ici-bas’, recurs in ‘Barcarolle’, one of the century’s many musical visions of Venetian life, in which the muscular rhythmic motifs may depict the gondolier’s swinging arms, the long bass notes the unchanging waters of the canal, and the move to the major mode at the end of each of the two verses the gondolier’s sexual bravado.
Whether or not composers should set the best French poets was a question much discussed in the literature of the time. If Hugo and Verlaine were the most famous ones patronised by Fauré, he nonetheless responded with superb music to some of the lesser poetic lights. Armand Silvestre (1837-1901) was a civil servant who rose to the post of Inspector of Fine Arts in 1892. He was a man greatly interested in things feminine (his Le Nu au Salon appeared in five volumes, lavishly illustrated), so it’s no surprise to find love and its many facets at the heart of his poems. In ‘Notre amour’, set by Fauré around 1879, the decisive words for the structure are the changing adjectives in each of the five verses: the love of poet for beloved deepens from being ‘légère’ to ‘charmante’, to ‘sacrée’, to ‘infinie’, and finally to ‘éternelle’ (which may not, on the page, seem ‘deeper’ than ‘infinie’, but whose darker colouring gives that impression in performance). ‘Le secret’ (1880-81), hailed by Ravel as one of Fauré’s most beautiful songs, was the first to be written in what would become one of Fauré’s favourite keys, D flat major. ‘This is recherché music,’ as Graham Johnson said of another Fauré song, ‘of the greatest subtlety that is only pretending to be simple.’ If the overall impression is ‘romantic’, some at least of the song’s emotive powerlies in an almost Baroque bass line, at once elegant and determined. In ‘Le pays des rêves’ (1884) Fauré paints a dreamworld with harmonies that seem to float unchained to any ulterior purpose and a piano texture that spends much of its time in the treble clef; and how wonderfully he colours the two brief passages lamenting how distant the dreamworld is, as the rocking in the accompaniment gives way to chordal harmonies of heartrending beauty.
Even if Fauré’s one contribution to opera, Pénélope, came too late for Mme Viardot, being premiered in 1913, three years after her death, he did at least compose some pages—and some of his best—as incidental music for plays. In 1889 the Odéon theatre in Paris put on a version by Edmond Haraucourt of The Merchant of Venice, entitled Shylock. Six pieces with orchestral accompaniment were published and, of these, also the two songs, with piano accompaniment. The first of them, ‘Chanson’, which has nothing to do with Shakespeare, is a serenade to Jessica from an unseen singer. The piano part takes its cue from the harp notation of the original and the vocal line is smooth, with few harmonic surprises. The ‘Madrigal’, another insertion by Haraucourt and supposedly sung by the Prince of Arragon under Portia’s window on the day when the choice of caskets will decide her future, declares the Prince’s love; though this too goes rather beyond Shakespeare’s text, in which the Prince has very little to say in the way of passion, being more concerned that people should not ‘rank me with the barbarous multitudes’.
Among the less illustrious poets Fauré chose to set, Catulle Mendès (1841-1909) allied himself with the Parnassians such as Leconte de Lisle and Banville and also wrote opera librettos, most notably those for Chabrier’s Gwendoline and the unfinished Briseïs. His poetry is full of striking images such as those in ‘Dans la forêt de septembre’, read by Fauré in Le Figaro in September 1902, where the poet draws a parallel between the declining forest of autumn and his own mortality and, in his case (as soon in Fauré’s own) of increasing deafness. By now Fauré’s harmony was becoming even more sophisticated, fed by unsettling inner voices and unusual modulations, the whole song giving off an air of strange, deeply moving fragility. Mendès’s ‘La fleur qui va sur l’eau’, whose setting Fauré finished the day after ‘Dans la forêt’, is a far more dramatic song, almost qualifying as a scena on the lines of Duparc’s ‘La vague et la cloche’. Such a structure is certainly aided by Fauré’s settling of the accompaniment from semiquavers to quavers in order to introduce the dénouement of ‘Depuis cette nuit...’ Where the modulations in ‘Dans la forêt’ suggest fragility, here they depict the natural world in all its wildness and power.
Fauré completed the triptych of songs designated as his Op 85 with a setting made the previous March of ‘Accompagnement’ by Albert Samain (1858-1900). A decade earlier Samain had written an enormous, symbol-strewn text on the subject of the Buddha for Fauré to consider as an opera libretto, with no apparent concern for what might or might not be stageworthy. Whether or not Fauré planned this song as a posthumous apology, in its style it partakes of both its predecessors in the group: in the floating quality and G flat major tonality of ‘Dans la forêt’, and in the impassioned chromaticism of ‘La fleur qui va’. The ‘accompagnement’ is at times extremely complex, but this only renders all the more touching its sudden simplicity in introducing the phrase ‘Comme la lune sur les eaux’.
For his next pair of songs in 1904 Fauré returned to the poetry of Silvestre, and now the sudden simplicity mentioned above becomes the norm. One may think of his pupil Nadia Boulanger’s injunction that ‘from time to time you have to clean up the house’, but whereas she recommended a course of astringent counterpoint, here Fauré merely takes out anything that is not necessary, while returning to the modal usage of his earlier years. The result is not only two absolute gems, but ones that prefigure the route his song settings would take from now on. Both ‘Le plus doux chemin’ and ‘Le ramier’ confine the voice to the range of just an octave, and the final octave descent in ‘Le ramier’ looks forward to the one that would end Fauré’s last song, ‘Vaisseaux, nous vous aurons aimés’.
In 1905 Fauré was appointed Director of the Paris Conservatoire. He took his duties very seriously and expressed an especial interest in the teaching of singing. Between 1906 and 1916 he wrote at least 29 vocalises for the sight-singing examinations. These exercises, recently unearthed by Roy Howat and Emily Kilpatrick and edited by them for publication by Peters in 2014, range from the relatively simple to the decidedly taxing. The vocalise in C major, set on 22 October 1908 for the admission of men to singing classes, while it looks quite simple on the page, tests movement between registers, smooth negotiation of scalic patterns and, for those not well acquainted with Fauré’s music, some pleasant but unusual turns of harmony. Another vocalise in C major, set for the women’s admission the following day, is considerably more demanding over both agility and rhythm, as well as leaving a, possibly unwelcome, surprise for the penultimate bar.
Fauré had been, with Chabrier and Duparc, one of the first composers to set Baudelaire, but it can’t be said that in his case poet and composer were well matched: as Jean-Michel Nectoux has pointed out, ‘in general, Fauré avoided figures of speech: “Epithets grow to enormous proportions when underlined by music,” he declared …’. His 1870 setting of ‘Hymne’, while unexceptional as music, not only emphasizes for us the progress Fauré would make in the ensuing decades, but explains that when, in June 1906, he turned to the group of poems La Chanson d’Ève published in 1904 by Charles van Lerberghe, a friend of Maeterlinck and a Symbolist poet whose work ultimately derives from Baudelaire, he knew both what he wanted and what he did not want.
One thing he did not want was sentimentality. Of van Lerberghe’s verse he wrote to his wife, ‘The writing is difficult. It’s descriptive and unsentimental. And then one has to set words for God the Father and for his daughter Eve. It isn’t easy dealing with such important persons...When you see what [God’s] eloquence consists of, you’ll all be amazed it took me so long to find it. But I’m afraid absolute simplicity, in the current musical climate, is the hardest thing of all to discover.’ Much of the cycle is indeed simple, even if Fauré’s characteristic modulations are allowed full licence. The first eight songs are blissful, and only with ‘Crépuscule’ does suffering enter the garden, initially to the strains of Mélisande’s song, as set by Fauré in his 1898 incidental music to Maeterlinck’s play, although the composer soon chooses to diverge from his original. As Nectoux says, ‘Eve, dreaming and singing in the garden of Eden of the beauties of the world, shares not only its heartbeat but its suffering as well.’ What a concert that must have been on 20 April 1910 when the audience was treated to first performances not only of Fauré’s Garden of Eden, but also of Ravel’s ‘Le jardin féerique’, concluding the piano duet version of Ma mère l’Oye. Both composers had found in music a way through their agnosticism to supreme visions of perfection and love.
Roger Nichols © 2016