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Malcolm Martineau brings together some of the UK’s finest singers for the first release in a new series charting the complete songs of French composer Gabriel Fauré.
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 Ecole 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—the three unchanging verses of ‘Le papillon et la fleur’ mirror the light, even vapid fantasy of Hugo’s poem, and if there is any influence at work it’s that of Gounod. In ‘Mai’, written in 1862, once again the easy grace and balancing four-bar phrases speak of Nature at its most peaceful. ‘Dans les ruines d’une abbaye’, composed in 1865, underlines Hugo’s tight rhythmic and rhyming structure by building the whole song out of 20 consecutive four-bar phrases.
A similarly firm hand is at work in ‘Les matelots’, probably written around 1870 on a poem by Théophile Gautier, in which Fauré achieves urgent forward movement by a semi-chromatic descent in the bass. But Gautier was, in Fauré’s mature opinion, an easier poet to set than Hugo (or indeed than Leconte de Lisle whose ‘Lydia’ he treated with a sublime simplicity concealing considerable craft—why is the piano epilogue so perfect?) because his poetry was not so self-sufficient. Nonetheless, the Gautier poems he chose were far from light. ‘Chanson du pêcheur’, on a poem previously set by Berlioz in Nuits d’été as ‘Sur les lagunes’, is subtitled ‘Lamento’ and is a portrait of utter desolation and despair. Fauré gives it a cumulative structure by starting with vocal phrases that are initially abandoned by the piano, then accompanied, then abandoned again before a final determining confluence that lasts through the second half of the song. Also dating from the early 1870s, ‘Tristesse’ is a deliberately monotonous song, with only the slightest variations throughout its four verses. Although the shape of these is to contrast the happiness everywhere else with the poet’s misery, Fauré envelops the whole song in gloom, encompassing the return of April, a group of jolly drinkers and young girls in a modicum of déshabillé.
In 1872 he was introduced into the circle of the distinguished mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, to whom ‘Chanson du pêcheur’ is dedicated, and in due course he became engaged to her daughter Marianne. But in 1877 she broke off the engagement, on the grounds that the young Gabriel was ‘too ardent’. The triptych ‘Poème d’un jour’ from the following year may be read as Fauré’s response. In ‘Rencontre’ he responds to the poet’s uncertainty with unsettling modulations. Now the two matching verses show meaningful variations in rhythm: note the new dotted rhythm in the second verse on ‘immensité’, a disruption that looks forward to the next song, ‘Toujours’, in which the poet refuses to abandon his love in the face of his mistress’s rebuffs. Here, perhaps, Duparc supplied a model. Gone anyway are the balancing verses: the music sweeps ever onward, climaxing paradoxically in an unusual bar of rests before the clinching cadence. Finally ‘Adieu’ is a song of resignation—or in Graham Johnson’s apt description, ‘an elegantly veiled retreat’. We may note how Fauré suggests the poet’s loss of confidence by varying the rhythm in the four-bar introduction, and how in the middle section the arrival of triplets and the minor mode is enough to invoke intensity of feeling without grand gestures.
Whether owing to the break with Marianne or not, the late 1870s saw a distinct maturing of Fauré’s art, as the other seven songs on this disc dating from that period all testify. ‘Après un rêve’ is too well known to need comment, other than to remember that Fauré was against sentimentalising it. ‘Sérénade toscane’ is another song with Italian roots, in which the piano, while imitating a guitar or mandolin, also comments in the right hand on the singer’s tune—a loose-limbed melody of 19 bars that is an early example of Fauré’s penchant for harmonic teasing. By now Fauré was also learning to value monotony (as Satie and Ravel would later), not least because then surprise could burst upon the listener with increased éclat—as in the fifth of the six verses of ‘Sylvie’, where the poet admits to loving ‘à la folie Tes yeux brillants’, and the sudden mediant modulation does sound, in the context, close to mental disorder…
‘Nell’, composed in 1878, is a song of calm and refinement and, as the Fauré scholar Jean-Michel Nectoux says, ‘There is in “Nell” a masterly rightness of phrasing, a flow and a melodic suppleness through which the constraints of the barline are barely felt…[It] is the archetype of Fauré’s songs during the 1880s, celebrating the pleasures of love in a voluptuous style that sometimes verges on the sentimental.’ Before that, though, in 1879 he wrote ‘Les berceaux’, in which his own experiences of death as a soldier and heartache as a lover coalesce, with further assistance from monotony, to produce one of his most powerful utterances. In the same vein is ‘Le voyageur’ of 1878, in which Fauré emphasises the traveller’s disturbed state of mind by starting with two five-bar phrases and ending with a seven-bar one. He concludes the song on a high note for the ‘elle’, who (Marianne?) is finally identified as the cause of all the trouble.
Perhaps ‘La Fée aux chansons’ of 1882 does verge on the sentimental. If so, it is surely redeemed by Fauré’s mastery of elusive harmonies that briefly colour the music and then are gone; and by the tiny, slower interlude that marks the arrival of autumn. In ‘Aurore’ of 1884 we learn only in the last of the three verses that this is a love song, with the words ‘tes pieds’, ‘ta beauté’ and, most emphatically, ‘jusqu’à toi’, but the ‘voluptuous style’ has already prepared for this. Similarly, we may wonder why the second verse should be in the minor key…until we reach the word ‘plaintif ’. Such longer-term thinking was a key aspect of Fauré’s growing maturity. Sentimentality gets short shrift in ‘Fleur jetée’ of the same year. The pounding octaves and chords, the unusual Fauréan marking ‘Allegro energico’ and the ‘serious’ key of F minor together give the lie to the description of the composer (which he hated) as ‘the composer of the shadows’.
The stylistic gap between ‘Arpège’ of 1897 and, say, ‘La Fée aux chansons’ gives an indication of where Fauré was heading: towards further obliquity of utterance, characterised by yet more complex harmonies and in general a determined avoidance of anything approaching the obvious. In ‘Arpège’, the tonic minor key reappears from time to time, but always as a surprise, as if Fauré is checking up, ‘Are you still with me?’ In fact, the ‘gap’ was filled by an unceasing song output, including the Cinq mélodies de Venise written in 1891. Fauré had been treated to a holiday in Venice in the palazzo of his supporter who was later to become the Princesse de Polignac, and while there had sketched out a ‘tiny scrap on a poem Verlaine [that] could perhaps turn into something’. He had already set that poet’s ‘Clair de lune’ four years earlier, and now began to realize more fully the joy of turning Verlaine’s musical verse into real music.
‘Mandoline’ (which the ‘tiny scrap’ became) evokes, as Nectoux puts it, ‘the dreamlike, shadowy, rather vague scenery against which the four love poems are to be played out.’ ‘En sourdine’, if any of Fauré’s songs does, ‘celebrates the pleasures of love in a voluptuous style’. He is now thinking in longer paragraphs (the first two verses are run together), firmly anchored by his mastery of modulation. The playfulness of ‘Green’ is clearly set out for us in the naughty harmonies of the first two lines, initially suggesting that ‘my heart which beats only for you’ is perhaps not to be taken entirely seriously; but what follows makes clear that playfulness does not exclude passion. ‘A Clymène’, which Fauré claimed lay, like ‘Mandoline’, outside the true cycle formed by the other three songs, nonetheless contains the cycle’s motto theme of descending quavers finally curling round in two semiquavers on to a longer note, even though here the semiquavers become smoother triplets. Fauré was concerned that he had maybe adopted too classical an approach for this poem, and certainly the temperature cools slightly at this point, though one can see how tempting it must have been to let the opening words ‘Mystiques barcarolles’ colour all that follows.
Passion returns in ‘C’est l’extase’, but is this fulfilment? Once again, Fauré looks at the song as a whole and, reading the lines ‘Cette âme qui se lamente/Et cette plainte dormante/C’est la nôtre, n’est-ce pas’, infuses the whole song with a barely expressed anxiety, adumbrated from the start in the off-beat repeated chords. He himself mentioned the word ‘frustration’ in talking about this cycle. Once again, perhaps this was life impinging on art, and the frustration that of a composer still, at 46, condemned to spend his life in suburban trains travelling from one piano pupil to another. Returning from those magical weeks in Venice cannot have made this any easier to bear.
His life took an easier turn in 1896 when he succeeded Massenet as a professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire and even easier, from some points of view when he was appointed Director in 1905. But he took his duties in both posts very seriously and as Director took 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 and, as the editors point out ‘With no phrasing marked in most of the manuscripts, sight-singing students had to use their wits and read ahead to judge and shape phrase lengths, particularly when Fauré prolongs a melody or suddenly transfers it up an octave just as it seems about to relax into a cadence.’ No 20, written for the women’s final examination on 12 June 1912, is an example of the simpler style, reminiscent of ‘Lydia’; No 29, for the mid-term examination for instrumentalists (who had to sing, even if not to the highest standard of production) in May 1907, is considerably more complex, and even at times outrageous…
After completing the cycle La chanson d’Eve in 1910, Fauré returned to the poetry of the Belgian Charles van Lerberghe in 1913, choosing eight poems from his collection Entrevisions (Le jardin clos). This volume had appeared in 1898 and when Fauré finally got down to composing the music in July 1914 he wrote to his wife ‘I can’t find anything, I’m afraid, in the contemporary French poets, at least nothing that calls for music.’ Commentators have often remarked on the pre-Raphaelite tone of the words, and no less of the music—no sign here of Le sacre du printemps, nor indeed of Ravel’s Piano Trio, premiered together with these songs in 1915. The keyboard writing is pared down to the bone, while the singer is given a continual arioso that emphasises the natural rhythms of the words. As so often in late Fauré, much of the interest lies in the interplay of harmony and bass, with dissonances resolving in all kinds of unexpected ways, and within the steadily pulsing rhythms we hear these surprises with unusual clarity: in the first song, the sudden B flat on ‘lèvre’ is replete with veiled eroticism.
Some of the original poems bore epigraphs from The Song of Songs, and the ‘walled garden’, the title of the central group of poems, clearly refers to this Old Testament text. But it could, possibly, also refer to the predicament of France, now ‘walled in’ by the German army, or to Fauré’s own deafness that was increasingly shutting him off from the outside world. Certainly there is an inwardness in these songs that speaks of things spiritual, even though Fauré was not any kind of believer, as well as a harmonic boldness (for example in the chromaticisms of the fifth song) that prompted Saint-Saëns to tell his one-time pupil that he couldn’t find pleasure in ‘this garden pitilessly blocked off by thorns’. The final song, the only one in the minor mode, closes the work in a spirit of acceptance that recalls Fauré’s earlier patient, resigned response to death in his Requiem.
Roger Nichols © 2016