Movement 1: Allegro, ma non troppo
Movement 2: Andantino
Movement 3: Allegro vivo
Then, in 1905, he was actually made Director of the Conservatoire and his subversive nature came out into the open. Suddenly, gone were the comfortable perks and practices hallowed by tradition and in came a rational programme of reform which instituted, among other things, the rendering of operatic items in the form in which composers had written them, and not ‘as always sung at the Opéra’. Fauré, now nicknamed ‘Robespierre’, made powerful and articulate enemies. How else can we explain the fact that when he died in 1924, the right to a state funeral of this ex-Director of the Conservatoire, Member of the Institut, President of the Société Nationale de Musique, Grand-Croix de la Légion d’honneur, should have been questioned by the Arts Minister with the words: ‘Fauré? Qui ça?’.
To adapt a modern phrase from another context, Fauré was in the Establishment but never of it. His immunity to fashion can be seen in the titles of his piano pieces. While the neo-Debussystes were penning (as it were) ‘Bells and Birds through a Light Mist on a Spring Day in the Cévennes’, Fauré was content with ‘Nocturne No 8’ or ‘Barcarolle No 13’. Worse still for his future reputation, his music failed to take account of the twentieth century’s efflorescence as the age of publicity. His piano music, for example, makes few bright splashes, but is ferociously difficult to play well. His songs likewise eschew facile narrative in favour of the deeper meaning of the text, which means that singer, pianist and audience all have to understand the nuances of the words (and Vlado Perlemuter remembers, from experience, how Fauré refused to allow singers to ‘take their ease’ in order to make some expressive point more emphatically).
When Fauré retired from the Conservatoire on 1 October 1920 he naturally looked forward to having more time for composition. But he was now seventy-five and beset by deafness and by the deformation of high and low sounds—a condition that suggests a sexual origin, though it has never been thought polite to mention this in French literature about him. It has been suggested that this is a possible reason why his later works tend to occupy the middle range of the sound spectrum, further alienating them from a world that has come to regard Le sacre du printemps as representing a textural norm. Tension in late Fauré comes from within the material. And the listener has to do just that—listen … and not merely hear.
He began his Piano Trio in his favourite resort of Annecy-le-Vieux in August 1922. Initially the top line was to be taken by a clarinet (or violin), but the clarinet option was soon abandoned (though it has been revived in recent years with the clarinet taking the top note wherever there is double-stopping). As Fauré confessed to his wife: ‘The trouble is that I can’t work for long at a time. My worst tribulation is a perpetual fatigue.’ This fatigue is in no way to be heard in the work itself, except insomuch as there are no more notes than necessary, according to the well-known Mozartian formula.
The distance between Fauré’s Trio and Ravel’s, in time a mere eight years or so, can be measured more meaningfully through their amenability or otherwise to verbal explanation. With Ravel there are easily audible and describable structures like pantoums and passacaglias. With Fauré the meaning is almost entirely in the movement between one note and another, between one chord and another. True, the first and last movements embrace sonata and rondo form respectively, while the slow central movement is mostly a meditation on two themes. But form-following is not the best way to enjoy this music. Instead, it is a continual joy and excitement to follow Fauré’s games, which are linguistic rather than formal. In the École Niedermeyer in the 1850s and 1860s he had absorbed a modal way of thinking, the result of which was that a dominant seventh, for example, did not carry the same expectation for him as for a Conservatoire-trained student. In fact it contained expectations, in the plural: from any given harmonic situation, Fauré could, by 1922, take one of at least half-a-dozen exits, any of which might in turn lead to another situation, from which etc. Following Fauré’s thought therefore demands the patience and attentiveness of Theseus following the thread in his search for Ariadne. And at the end of the thought there are often miraculous moments of revelation when everything suddenly comes out into the sunlight, like Pelléas from the grotto beneath the castle, and we find ourselves saying: ‘Ah! Je respire enfin!’
As for Fauré’s ‘perpetual fatigue’, in the finale of the Trio he shakes it off with amazing vigour. By the closing bars, as the French Fauré scholar Jean-Michel Nectoux writes, ‘all the thematic and rhythmic elements are now in place and proceed to indulge in a joyful celebration, a perfect balance between that ‘fantasy and reason’ of which Verlaine, and Fauré, speak so persuasively at the end of La bonne chanson.’ To generalise grossly, one might hazard that if in Debussy’s Trio the ‘fantaisie’ is stronger than the ‘raison’ and in Ravel’s the ‘raison’ than the ‘fantaisie’, in Fauré’s Trio the balance of which Nectoux writes is the achievement of an old man who has seen much and suffered much; a balance, moreover, that will subtly shift at every hearing.
from notes by Roger Nichols © 1999