Movement 1: Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Andante
Movement 3: Allegro
On 9 September 1923 Fauré wrote to his wife: ‘I’ve started a Quartet for strings, without piano. It’s a medium in which Beethoven was particularly active, which is enough to give all those people who are not Beethoven the jitters!’ To start himself off he went back to a couple of themes from an abandoned violin concerto of 1878. The changes he made were mostly to the rhythms, but the first theme, heard here on the first violin as an answer to the viola’s opening question, now boasts a Phrygian F natural in its E minor contour instead of the original F sharp. It is a sign of his self-confidence that, at a time when Les Six were indeed painting Paris red and Schoenberg was inventing a system that would ensure German musical supremacy for a hundred years, Fauré should continue to engage with the modal writing that had served him well for so long. The movement is in sonata form, with the viola’s questioning phrase removed for the reprise and, as usual, the whole process now made more compact.
The Andante was the first movement Fauré composed, finishing it on 12 September 1923, and to that extent it lends its sober, meditative tone to the whole quartet. As in the first movement, scales and scalic fragments play a large part, set off against the occasional octave leap. There is a straightforward reprise of the opening just before halfway, but few other formal landmarks that can be heard easily. Possibly a more rewarding activity for the listener is simply to go with the dynamic highs and lows: bars of crescendo and diminuendo vastly outnumber those that are static and these changes often operate over a small period of time. In all likelihood Fauré would have echoed the remark of his pupil Ravel, that performers tended to make his crescendos too limited in range. The other feature that repays attention is the interplay of thematic fragments, nearly always generating different harmonies each time, and whose resolution is rarely what we expect.
On the day he completed the quartet, 12 September 1924, exactly a year after finishing the slow movement, Fauré mentioned to his wife the possibility of a short movement to come between the first and second, ‘but as there’s no real necessity for it, I won’t exhaust myself searching for one’. Presumably this would have been in the nature of a scherzo, as in the Franck quartet. If this was not in fact necessary, it was because the last movement, ‘light and cheerful’ in the composer’s own words, does duty for a scherzo. Again formal landmarks are probably of less value to the listener than motivic and rhythmic patterns, in particular the one introduced by the cello in the third bar, an up/down figure characterized by its distinctive rhythm, achieved by tying a quaver triplet to a duplet. This becomes especially insistent in the lead-up to the final bars, at which point, for the first and only time in the quartet, we hear unhampered triplets—clearly a deliberate self-denying ordinance. The explosion of joy they signal emphasizes a triumphant arrival in E major.
No startling interruptions, then, no sudden silences or wild diversions, no magical harmonics or moments of lush self-indulgence. Instead, Fauré perfectly realizes the prescription d’Indy offered with regard to Franck’s quartet: ‘to obtain that variety in unity which is the medium’s essential condition, a thorough maturity of spirit and talent, combined with an experienced technical grasp, is absolutely indispensable.’
from notes by Roger Nichols © 2008