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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 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 École 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. His second Hugo setting, Puisque j’ai mis ma lèvre, dates from 1862 and may well have been composed, like its predecessor Le papillon et la fleur, in the dining room of the École Niedermeyer ‘amid the aromas of cooking’. Although it was one of his six Hugo settings mentioned to the poet in a letter from his secretary in 1864, for some reason it never made its way into the early editions of Fauré’s songs, and so has tended to be neglected. The tonality, wavering between minor and major, reflects the mixture of sadness and contentment in the poem: the poet’s beloved is dead, but memories abide.
Fauré’s eighth and last Hugo setting, L’absent, was written, or at least completed on 3 April 1871 and forms, together with Seule! and La rançon, an undoubted response to the Franco-Prussian War in which Fauré himself served with distinction. As Jean-Michel Nectoux has written, these songs are all ‘sombre in tone, and written in a medium or low tessitura and, of course, in minor keys. They are also contrapuntal in texture and the piano parts have none of the seductive brilliance found in earlier mélodies. This is Fauré in severe mood.’ Not the least impressive feature of L’absent is the way the interpolated bars for piano solo continue and develop the sense of loss. In Seule! the simplicity of the piano part and the regularity of the four-bar phrasing imbue the song with a hymn-like seriousness; nor is Fauré afraid to resort to a strophic setting of the three verses, albeit with tiny rhythmic adjustments dictated by the text. Only in La rançon is the opening severity finally dispelled by joy, art and love being prescribed as the two ideal fields of endeavour—not, as Nectoux well says, by any ‘seductive brilliance’ in the piano part, but with a feeling of great serenity that looks forward to the songs of Fauré’s old age.
By the very early 1880s, with the war and an abandoned marital engagement behind him, Fauré was slowly beginning to make a name for himself, if within a fairly restricted circle, and Chanson d’amour of 1882 may be taken as a symbol both of his warm heart (never in doubt) and a growing technical control. The song is a beautiful example of the interest Fauré can generate within an absolutely regular rhythm in the piano part, here continuing for over 50 bars. Harmony from now on was to be one of his deepest resources and we are already in the ‘wrong’ key by the third line of verse one. Will he make it back again? Of course he does, with the help of the marking ‘senza rigore’, found nowhere else in his songs. In the words of Graham Johnson, ‘this is recherché music of the greatest subtlety that is only pretending to be simple.’
Although Fauré spent much of his early life as an organist and choirmaster in various churches, his religious sentiment, according to him, amounted merely to feeling that there was something beyond our earthly life. But as his Requiem plainly demonstrates, this did not hamper him in portraying in music what we may reasonably respond to as a kind of religious belief—an attempt, if you like, to know the unknowable. His song Noël of 1885, with its tenor bells and twinkling stars, might in lesser hands have ended up as kitsch; but here there is a tenderness and (again) a serenity which suggest that his ‘something beyond’ was nothing to be feared, even if the setting of the final, challenging verse to different music acquires a curious gravitas. Like Noël, En prière of 1890 is strictly speaking a religious ‘cantique’ rather than a ‘mélodie’, but such a distinction should not deter singers from performing this delicately suave song.
Paired rather curiously with this Noël in Fauré’s Op 43 is Nocturne, an entirely secular love song on a poem by Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. One explanation of the pairing might be that this song too explores serenity. Where Chanson d’amour explored this feeling through the medium of rhythm, Nocturne not only does the same, the left hand playing more or less the same pattern throughout, but adds to this an adherence to a single bass note (the tonic) for 35 of the song’s 47 bars. Such monotony can be rendered palatable only by an inventive harmonic palette, such as Fauré can always be relied on to provide, but when he does make his initial departure from the tonic bass note, it is, tellingly, on the word ‘nuit’.
Nectoux points out that the year of the composition of Nocturne, 1886, was also that of Jean Moréas’s Manifesto of Symbolism and finds a similarity in its ‘incantatory aesthetic’ with Satie’s early piano pieces, as well as with Fauré’s own Requiem. The following year Fauré made his only other setting of verse by Villiers in Les présents, described by Graham Johnson as having ‘something of the occult about it plus the languor of décadence’. It was dedicated to Comte Robert de Montesquiou who was a leader of the decadent movement, so sharply characterised by Gilbert and Sullivan in Patience, and certainly the song’s circuitous harmonies are not the sort to be appreciated by the ‘profane crowd’.
Easy charm is also foresworn in the terrifying song Larmes, written in 1888 to a poem from the collection La mer by Jean Richepin, whose verse was noted for its exuberance and deliberately challenging nature. Whether or not the song mirrors unhappiness in the composer’s private life, which is possible, the chromatic harmony is the most extreme so far used by Fauré, emphasised by the traditionally tragic key of C minor. The melodic line too is highly chromatic, and on the line ‘Elle répondra par la tourmente de flots hurleurs’ covers a range of over one and a half octaves—if not a record for Fauré, then very close to one … The companion song to words by Richepin, Au cimetière begins with the steady, simple crotchet chords that Fauré would continue to turn to over the years, here reminding us of the contemporaneous Requiem and its frequent basis in plainsong. These chords symbolize the solid earth of the cemetery, as opposed to the measureless, uncontrollable expanse of the sea, portrayed in the central verses where the vocal line is marked declamato. At the end, Fauré, in one of his ‘improvements’ to the poetry he sets, goes beyond the poet’s repetition of the first verse by adding the second, so that the song culminates on the wonderfully final, and singable phrase ‘de longs adieux’.
After he had written the Cinq mélodies (the so-called 'Venetian Songs') in 1891, Fauré declared that he had 'exhausted the musical possibilities of Verlaine'. Which only shows how little composers can sometimes see into the future, because in September of the following year he embarked on this cycle of songs based on Verlaine’s collection La bonne chanson. In the event he chose nine of the 21 poems Verlaine wrote for his fiancée, Mathilde Mauté, and organised them to make what he called 'a suite, a story'. This story is told in three pairs of songs (Nos 1-2, 4-5 and 7-8) between and after which Nos 3, 6 and 9 are landscape interludes, reflecting Verlaine’s preoccupation with the correspondances between Nature and the emotions.
The work is truly a cycle in that three themes recur throughout. Two of these at least are easily recognizable: the downward arching phrase in the opening bars of the piano part, and the stepwise rising phrase (the so-called 'Lydia' theme, from the song of that name) first heard in the second song on the words 'puisque voici l’aurore'. Around these themes, Fauré conjures up an astonishing variety of textures, giving the lie to any view of him as a rather subfusc, monochrome composer, and in the seventh and last songs his delight in the arrival of summer and spring is utterly infectious. As to the harmonies, if not as extreme as in Larmes, they nonetheless caused considerable upset among his contemporaries. We’re told that Debussy found the songs needlessly complicated, while Fauré’s one-time teacher Saint-Saëns thought his pupil had gone 'completely mad'. On the other side, Marcel Proust adored the cycle, much preferring it to Fauré’s early songs; which, given Proust’s own taste for dense, symphonically constructed prose, is perhaps hardly surprising.
Even these nine wonderful songs did not quite exhaust Verlaine’s musical possibilities, and in December 1894 Fauré set an untitled poem as Prison which, as the singer Betty Bannerman suggested, might even be read as a discreet pendant to La bonne chanson, referring to Verlaine’s shooting of his lover Rimbaud and subsequent detainment in the Prison de Carmes, from the courtyard of which he could see the scene described in this poem. It may contain resonances also from the composer’s own life, Graham Johnson reminding us that ‘this is the music that Fauré composed as he contemplated his fiftieth birthday, his 'jeunesse' a thing of the past’. The only song he wrote in the key of E flat minor, its regular, doom-laden chords and anguished harmonies make it one of Fauré’s very finest.
After a songless 1895, the following year Fauré composed a setting of Jean Richepin’s poem Larmes which, since that was a title he had already used, he renamed Pleurs d’or. It was the last of his few vocal duets, an unpretentious little song with harmonies more seductive than taxing, most notably in the sequence on the words ‘Larmes d’extase, éplorement délicieux’, where five successive chords pronounce or suggest five different keys. Pretentiousness is also lacking throughout Fauré’s church music, the generally smooth lines of the Requiem being part and parcel of this approach.
When Fauré became director of the Paris Conservatoire in 1905, he took a particular interest in the teaching of singing. The two Vocalises on this disc, for the ladies’ examinations on 7 January 1908 and 5 May 1914, show what he was looking for in the accomplished singer: clear articulation, agility and a smooth delivery. The deliberately awkward ending of the first and the tone and tuning of the unprepared high G at the end of the second were among the points an examiner would be monitoring.
In a Paris that remained, to some observers, curiously untouched by the war, Fauré remained anxious throughout about the safety of his younger son, Philippe who, as a liaison officer, often found himself in the front line, not least during the terrible Allied expedition to the Dardanelles in 1915. He might then have been expected to greet victory and peace with music worthy of the occasion. Sadly, this was not to be. As music critic of Le Figaro he found himself forced in 1919 to set that journal’s prize-winning lines, C’est la paix, described by him as a ‘horrible little poem’. He called the result ‘a small tour de force’, which we may charitably interpret as meaning that the song was a good deal less horrible than it might have been in less capable hands.
It is not given to every composer to end their songwriting career on an undisputed high. But the four songs that make up L’horizon chimérique demonstrate unequivocally that the claims of the young French composers of Les Six to ‘strip down’ their writing to essentials were shared, and many would say the results surpassed, by the 76-year-old maître. The poet, Jean de La Ville de Mirmont, died in action in 1914, leaving just 41 poems under the title adopted by Fauré, which were published in 1920. The songs were dedicated to the baritone Charles Panzera who gave their first performance in 1922 and later made a fine recording of them. The harmonic twists and turns of Fauré’s middle period are now ironed out: all is clear and logical, and yet deeply moving and individual, so that while the narrow intervals and frequent repeated notes in the vocal line might look like those of Debussy’s Pelléas, the sound could not be more different. Many thousands of words would not be enough to express wonder at the cycle’s felicities. Let the magnificent final peroration suffice: ‘Car j’ai de grands départs inassouvis en moi’—‘For within me lie great unappeased departures’. A confession of regrets? Yes, but the music tells us more than that. In 1921 Fauré had three more years to live and the wonderful 13th Nocturne, the String Quartet and the Piano Trio still to write. Let us hope this confirmed agnostic will allow us to say ‘Requiescat in pace’.
Roger Nichols © 2021