Movement 1: Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Allegro vivo
Movement 3: Andante moderato
Movement 4: Allegro molto
Published by Durand and dedicated to Paul Dukas, the Quintet dates from 1921. Fauré had been tactfully eased out of his professorship on account of his deafness which, though not total, had come to entail a grievous disposition to hear low pitches distorted upwards and vice versa. But from his earliest days as a student at the École Niedermeyer, where cramped conditions meant that there were several pianos to a room (!), he had enjoyed a capacity to work away from the keyboard and undistracted by seemingly impossible surroundings. And now he was at last free to devote himself exclusively to composition.
The Quintet’s first movement was written after the middle two, as was Fauré’s habit in all the late chamber compositions. Its opening theme, a viola solo, shows that the innate subtlety of its composer’s thought processes extended to things rhythmic: its unobtrusive ambiguity in this respect, presented before any unequivocal disclosure of triple time, seems almost designed to lead the listener to assume quadruple rhythm instead. This is a further instance of the composer’s music not looking the way it sounds. (A comparable example may be found in the song Clair de lune (Op 46), with its insinuations of both duple and triple time before a studiedly tangential vocal entry.)
Koechlin was surely right: the Allegro moderato’s opening theme must rank as one of Fauré’s finest melodic inspirations, and this movement as a whole succeeds radiantly in suggesting a single unbroken curve of lyricism, although its form is actually complex and unexpected—in effect a system of continuous development spread over four sections. Characteristically, the climactic restatement of the opening theme emerges—despite a break in the string line—as the spontaneous progeny of the foregoing development’s intensive polyphony.
Orledge interestingly notes the relative absence of extremities of bass pitch from the piano part, arguably related to the composer’s hearing affliction as described above?
The second movement is a quicksilver Scherzo of unexpected astringency, a reminder that this composer’s exceptionally attractive personality embraced a dry and mischievous sense of humour. Again the impression is of one sustained (but hectic) exhalation; not of contiguous sections.
The long slow movement (in G major) admits something of the melancholy of the First Quintet, but there is an air also of gentle resignation, perhaps reminiscent for us on its own terms of the prayerful humility of Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto’s slow movement, or the ‘Thanksgiving’ movement from Beethoven’s Opus 132 String Quartet.
The Finale provides balance with the first movement (despite the absence of any pretence towards cyclic planning) by setting out with both another viola theme and a corresponding instance of rhythmic dissemblance. The composer’s letters show that he enjoyed working at this, and there are certainly high-spirited moments; but a further theme, stated also by the viola initially, carries with it a faint but nagging reminiscence of the ‘Dona nobis pacem’ from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. (‘In heaven, I shall hear again’, Beethoven is reported to have said.) Conscious or not, this seems an apt verbal allusion at the end of a work whose liveliness cannot wholly disguise a certain autumnal quality. The spare writing of this Finale might suggest not so much youthful ardour regained as youthfulness in others, observed with gently wistful amusement from the vantage point of sprightly old age. Here, as in all this composer’s music, one encounters an enduring quality of unsensational, restrained honesty: complex and elusive as its creator, certainly, but worthy of our close attention even in its least known recesses.
from notes by Francis Pott © 1995