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Not least among David Hill’s current roles is that of principal conductor of Yale Schola Cantorum, one of America’s foremost chamber choirs. Here, they together contribute a recording of the Fauré Requiem close in spirit to the composer’s intimate, liturgical original.
Requiem Op 48 (1893)
Fauré’s father died in the summer of 1885 and his mother on the last day of 1887. It was between these two bereavements that Fauré wrote his Requiem. Much has been made of the supposed connection between the death of Fauré’s father, his mother’s subsequent emotional decline, and the work’s composition, but Fauré himself was clear: ‘My Requiem was not written for anything—for pleasure, if I can call it that!’ After the premiere, the priest-in-charge memorably told Fauré that ‘we do not need these novelties—the Madeleine’s repertory is already diverse enough’. Such criticism, while blinkered, at least recognized that Fauré was trying to break the mould: ‘My instinct led me to stray from the established path after all those years accompanying funerals! I’d had them up to here. I wanted to do something different.’ And Fauré’s Requiem continued to grow in popularity, in spite of its novel sound world and the music’s unique response to the text. Having doggedly earned its place in the French canon, the Requiem was sung in the Madeleine at Fauré’s own funeral service in 1924, reaching London only in 1936 (nearly half a century after it was composed) despite the earnest efforts of Fauré’s friend Elgar to arrange a performance in London or at the Three Choirs Festival in his and Fauré’s own lifetimes. The United States did only slightly better, the American premiere taking place in 1931. According to Fauré’s pupil Nadia Boulanger (who conducted the first English performances in 1936 and 1938): ‘No external effect detracts from its sober and somewhat severe expression of grief; no disquiet or agitation disturbs its profound meditation; no doubt tarnishes its unassailable faith, its quiet confidence, its tender and peaceful expectation.’
Before the editions of the early 1980s made by John Rutter and Denis Arnold, Fauré’s Requiem was generally known as a concert piece for large choir and full orchestra. The original instrumentation was, however, quite different: smaller and more intimate; liturgical-chamber rather than concert-orchestral. The crucial element is the organ, and the sparser the instrumentation, the more comfortably this masterwork fits into an appropriate ecclesiastical space. The arrangement on this recording adds two string instruments and a harp to the organ and choral palette. The sounds of the harp have been fully appreciated by many French composers over the last two centuries, and the instrument’s iconography also links it angelically to heaven; highly appropriate in a Requiem. The violin and the cello act as vibrant extensions of the organ; not quite another manual, but a living, breathing rank with its own subtle tremulant. The first performance of Fauré’s Requiem took place liturgically at the funeral of Joseph Lesoufaché, an architect, at the Madeleine in 1888. At that stage there were only five movements: the ‘Offertoire’ and ‘Libera me’ (the two movements involving the baritone soloist) were added later. In fact the ‘Libera me’ had been completed as an independent work for voice and organ ten years previously; the ‘Offertoire’ was the only movement to postdate the first performance of the Requiem. As Fauré himself said: ‘Everything that I managed to entertain by way of religious illusion, I put into my Requiem, which, moreover, is dominated from start to finish by an entirely human feeling of belief in eternal rest.’
Messe basse (1881/1906)
‘Messe basse’ means ‘Low Mass’, an indication that Fauré’s setting includes only the shorter movements of the Mass Ordinary. While the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei are Fauré’s original work, the opening movement was originally written by André Messager (1853–1929). Messager was a pupil of Fauré, and he later became a famous opera conductor. Messager conducted a number of significant opera performances in London and Paris (including the world premiere of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande), although Messager’s own compositions were mostly light in nature. Little could have prepared the church choir of the rural Normandy village of Villerville for what happened in the summer of 1881. Fauré and Messager discovered the church while on holiday in the region and decided to write a Mass for its choir, accompanied by the church’s harmonium and a single violin—this was the ‘Messe des pêcheurs de Villerville’ (‘Mass of the fishermen of Villerville’), later renamed ‘Messe basse’. When Fauré revised the work in 1906 and 1907, he not only renamed the piece, but also rearranged the harmonium and violin accompaniment for organ and excised Messager’s Kyrie, replacing it with an arrangement of his own. In its final form the Messe basse betrays some of its rural beginnings, but Fauré had refashioned and polished the piece to such an extent that it sits comfortably next to the most sophisticated Missa brevis settings, and it thereby provides an unusually well-crafted example of a Mass setting for upper voices.
Maria, mater gratiae Op 47 No 2 (1888)
Originally composed for lower voices and organ, Fauré quickly sanctioned this motet’s use for upper voices. The text comprises the second and third verses of the hymn ‘Memento rerum conditor’, a hymn of the Little Office of Our Lady. This short piece inhabits some of the sound world of the Messe basse, inevitably straying into tonally romantic byroads, but always making its liturgical case by sounding blamelessly antique.
Ave Maria Op 67 No 2 (1894)
Published in 1895 and composed a year earlier, this setting of the Ave Maria for mezzo soprano and organ comprises forty-three bars of lilting andante and dates from a time when Fauré was at a crossroads in his career. By rights, Fauré should have been appointed professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire in 1892, but a reactionary faction declared Fauré ‘dangerously modern’. So Fauré was promoted sideways into ‘quality assurance’ and became inspector of conservatoires in the French provinces. This entailed much travelling and took Fauré’s attention and energy away from composition, while at least providing him with a regular income. This Ave Maria shows that Fauré could compose anytime, anywhere; but it also shows that the composer’s rare gifts were only truly in evidence when he was intellectually engaged as a performer and shaper of young minds. Needless to say, such times were not those when Fauré was employed as an educational functionary.
Ave verum Op 65 No 1 (1894)
Fauré’s setting of this well-known text has saccharine in its tail. It begins as a gentle setting for upper voices and organ, thoroughly appropriate to the solemnity of the giving and receiving of Communion. But at the words ‘O Jesu dulcis’, Fauré takes the sweetness in the Latin text, underlines the shift of musical focus with the Italian direction ‘dolce’, moves from respectful minor to quietly ecstatic major, and matches the change of mode with harmonies whose perfume has as much in common with the boudoir as the church.
Fugue in A minor Op 84 No 3 (1869)
Written in 1869, this keyboard fugue wasn’t published until over thirty years later, as the third of Eight Short Pieces. When he wrote this short exercise in June 1869, Fauré was the young organist of St Sauveur in Rennes, the capital of the region of Brittany in north-western France. This fugue bears testament to the composer’s contrapuntal grounding at the École Niedermeyer, with its subject that begins with six repetitions of the same pitch.
Ave Maria Op posth. (1871)
After his four-year sojourn in Brittany, Fauré moved back to Paris, where he quickly picked up a job as assistant organist at the church of Notre-Dame de Clignancourt in the 18th arrondissement. But after only a few months Fauré enlisted to fight in the Franco-Prussian War. After his discharge in March 1871 he became organist at the church of St Honoré d’Eylau in Paris’s 16th arrondissement. There he wrote this Marian setting for three lower voices and organ, which shows the demobbed composer to have rediscovered peace and tranquillity. In spite of its simple effectiveness and its welcome brevity, this short piece wasn’t published until 1957, over three decades after the composer’s death.
Tantum ergo Op 65 No 2 (1894)
This motet forms a pair with Ave verum. Fluidly crafted for three upper voices and organ, this E major setting of Thomas Aquinas’s famous hymn was written at a time when Fauré had to some extent conquered his depression and had resolved his dissatisfaction with the way in which his music was received. Fauré wrote slowly, and he resented those who could write quickly and on a grand scale. Yet Fauré was compositionally succinct and a master of brevity and economy of expression: it was in the 1890s that he began to feel comfortable with that, as witness the quiet confidence of this motet.
Fugue in E minor Op 84 No 6 (1869)
Fauré lived in Paris from the age of eight. As a man in his early twenties, Fauré’s first job had been in rural Brittany, and the austerity of country life seems to have been stultifying. This fugue was originally written to follow a prelude, yet only the fugue was eventually published. It betrays the mindset of a man who was hankering after the musical life and influences that he no longer enjoyed.
Tantum ergo Op 55 (1890)
This is the earliest of three settings by Fauré of the Tantum ergo hymn. Set for tenor soloist and five-part choir (the basses are divided), the accompaniment is that most beguiling of French creations—harp and organ. This is church music that borders on the gestures of opera. Fauré often hankered after writing an opera, and there is no doubt that he could have overcome all of the specifically musical problems associated with the genre. But Fauré’s vocal drama was at its best when understated and delivered to well-known religious texts, as here.
Cantique de Jean Racine Op 11 (1865)
The Cantique de Jean Racine was Fauré’s graduation exercise at the École Niedermeyer. It is remarkable that it was written by a student who was only twenty years old, and it is just as well for the École Niedermeyer’s reputation that the Cantique earned Fauré a ‘premier prix’ (a first-class mark). The listener is immediately greeted by a melody that encapsulates everything that is great about Fauré’s best music. First, the tune is fundamentally vocal and its contours generate a line that continues for longer than seems possible, yet still remaining coherent and with direction. And secondly, the intimate romanticism of the melody creates its own resonant textures. Ultimately this student piece (although it stands well enough on its own) marks the starting point for those choral melodies in the Requiem which last that bit longer than the ear expects them to, yet which never outstay their welcome; particularly those of the Kyrie, Agnus Dei, and In paradisum.
Jeremy Summerly © 2017