Fauré: Requiem, Opus 48

Requiem, Opus 48

Gabriel Urbain Fauré was born in Pamiers in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France on May 12, 1845, and died in Paris on November 4, 1924. Fauré likely began work on the Requiem in 1886 or early 1887. The initial version—consisting of the movements Introit and Kyrie, Sanctus, Pie Jesu, Agnus Dei, and In Paradisum—was premiered on January 16, 1888, at the Church of La Madeleine in Paris for the funeral of Joseph Lesoufaché, a wealthy parishioner.  The initial version of the Requiem was scored for low strings (violas, cellos, and basses), organ, harp, and timpani, with a short solo for violin. For a concert performance at La Madeleine on May 4, 1888, Fauré augmented the performing forces with a pair of horns and a pair of trumpets.  Another version, performed in concert at La Madeleine on January 21, 1893, included two new movements, the Offertorium and Libera me, the latter composed much earlier, in 1877, as an independent work for baritone solo and organ. The final version of the Requiem, which includes the Offertorium and Libera me and which we hear at these performances, was rescored for full orchestra and premiered at the Trocadéro in Paris on July 12, 1900, as part of the Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair). Paul Taffanel conducted the Lamoureux Orchestra and the chorus of the Société des concerts du Conservatoire, Eugène Gigout was organist, and the soprano and baritone soloists were Mlle. Torrès and M. Vallier. The San Francisco Symphony first performed the Requiem in January 1956, under the direction of Enrique Jordá, with Saramae Endich and Heinz Blankenburg as soloists and the San Francisco State A Cappella Choir. The most recent Symphony performances were in January 2004, led by Vladimir Ashkenazy, with soprano Nicolle Foland, baritone Gabriel Suovanen, and the SFS Chorus. The work is scored for two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, two harps, organ (played by Jonathan Dimmock in these performances), violins (as a single body, not divided into firsts and seconds), first and second violas, first and second cellos, basses, soprano and baritone soloists, and four-part chorus. Performance time: about thirty-eight minutes.

The Church of La Madeleine—Église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, to give its full title—is an imposing edifice in the shape of a colonnaded Greek temple, prominently situated in the eighth arrondissement of Paris. As with many Parisian churches, it boasts a magnificent organ and an impressive history of organist-composers who have directed the musical devotions within its gilded interior. In the latter third of the nineteenth century, when the eighth arrondissement became newly fashionable, La Madeleine assumed importance as the parish church for the well-to-do of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré.  Gabriel Fauré served as choirmaster at La Madeleine beginning in 1877 and in 1896 was appointed organiste titulaire, a post he held for another nine years, succeeding Camille Saint-Saëns and Théodore Dubois.  It was at the funeral of a parishioner, the architect Joseph Lesoufaché, that Fauré’s enduring Requiem was first heard.

 “My Requiem was composed for nothing . . . for fun, if I may be permitted to say so,” Fauré wrote. He did, however, have a reason for writing this work. He disliked the sacred music sanctioned for church use, which he considered banal and (in the case of operatic tunes fitted with religious texts) inappropriate.  Fauré’s father had died on July 25, 1885, and the earliest sketches for movements of the Requiem appeared within the next two years, though Fauré never spoke of having written the work in memory of his father. By a quirk of fate, the composer’s mother died two weeks before the Requiem’s first performance, but there is no evidence that the Requiem was sung in memoriam. We do, however, know that Fauré was affected deeply by the deaths of his parents.

Fauré’s father, director of a training school for teachers, provided his six children with a comfortable upbringing. Gabriel, the youngest, was the first in the family to demonstrate an inclination toward music. A family friend suggested that the boy be enrolled at a newly founded school to train organists and choirmasters. At age nine, Fauré and his father made the three-day journey to Paris. For the next eleven years, Fauré studied at the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse, known as the École Niedermeyer after the founder and principal instructor, Louis Niedermeyer. The school’s training emphasized the singing and accompaniment of Gregorian chant and Renaissance music. These studies would exert a lasting influence on the young musician, and the modal harmonies and stylistic purity of chant and Renaissance polyphony would surface as expressive tendencies in Fauré’s later compositions. Another lasting influence was the tutelage and friendship of Saint-Saëns, who taught piano at the school. Fauré became his protégé and most celebrated pupil, and the two developed a lifelong friendship.

Fauré’s first professional appointment as organist was in Rennes, at the church of Saint-Sauveur, in 1865, a job he lost five years later. The clergy was growing increasingly impatient with his habit of excusing himself during sermons for a quick cigarette beneath the vestibule. They realized they had had enough of his attitude when he came to church one Sunday directly from a ball, still attired in evening wear. Despite his casual approach to ecclesiastical proprieties, Fauré spent more than forty years as a church musician—more than half his life. He remained a man of broad interests and was remarkably social, a discreet womanizer, politically minded within the realm of French musical nationalism, and in matters of religion a libre penseur—a free thinker.

Saint-Saëns introduced Fauré into the social whirl of Parisian salons, beginning with the weekly gatherings at the home of the celebrated opera singer Pauline Viardot. The young composer soon became a sought-after guest and pianist at the salons of the Countess Greffulhe (Proust’s model for the Duchess de Guermantes in À la recherche du temps perdu), the Princess Edmond de Polignac (née Winnaretta Singer, heiress to the sewing machine fortune), and other hostesses who vied for his attentions. Count Robert de Montesquiou (Proust’s model for Baron de Charlus in À la recherche) pronounced himself Fauré’s literary adviser and introduced the composer to the poetry of Verlaine, eighteen of whose poems Fauré would set, many of these mélodies receiving their premiers at the salons. Fauré was engaged to Viardot’s daughter, who broke off the liaison after three months. He had an affair with Emma Bardac, the future second wife of Claude Debussy. He sat for John Singer Sargent and was an acquaintance of Proust, who championed his music as among the highest and most probing art of the day, and who organized private performances of his work.  It is generally agreed that Proust’s disquisitions on the aesthetics of music and his descriptions of the composer Vinteuil were in fact an homage to Fauré.

In 1871, in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, a group of French composers founded the Société Nationale de Musique, whose purpose was to promote and disseminate French music by providing a forum for the performance of new works. Fauré was among the founding members, along with his friends Vincent d’Indy, Eduard Lalo, Henri Duparc, and Emmanuel Chabrier. This was neither the first nor last time Fauré would take a political and philosophical stance on music.  When he succeeded Jules Massenet as a composition professor at the Conservatory, he inculcated his ideals in a cadre of famous pupils, Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger among them, exposing them to a breadth of compositional techniques and to his uncompromising high standards. In 1905, Fauré was appointed Director of the Conservatory, where he instituted far-reaching curricular reforms (considered too revolutionary by many). Toward the end of his directorship, as an éminence grise and the most famous and respected composer of his generation, he accepted the presidency of the Société Musicale Indépendante, an organization founded to counter the increasingly nationalist principles of the Société Nationale de Musique.

Fauré’s discernment in musical matters extended to his work at La Madeleine. He was indifferent to the dogmatic tenets of orthodox Catholicism, and his religious music—especially the Requiem—reflects his convictions. He told a friend in 1902, “Perhaps instinctively I sought to break loose from convention. I’ve been accompanying burial services at the organ for so long now! I’ve had it up to here with all that. I wanted to do something else.”  Fauré’s departure from convention in the Requiem is evident in the overall mood of the work. Most nineteenth-century settings of the Mass for the Dead are large-scale dramatic works that, by focusing on inherently theatrical aspects of the liturgical text, highlight the concept of divine judgment, the day of wrath when sinners will be separated from the holy and cast into eternal damnation. Fauré’s Requiem emphasizes human feeling, compassion, and tenderness: “People have said my Requiem did not express the terror of death; someone called it a ‘lullaby of death.’ But that’s the way I perceive death: as a happy release, an aspiration to the happiness of beyond rather than a grievous passage.” 

One of the primary means by which Fauré accentuates human emotion in the Requiem is through his choice of texts—what he included and what he excluded, while still rendering the work liturgically functional for use at Catholic funeral services. Fauré chose to omit the Dies Irae, the terrifying description of the Last Judgment that would traditionally follow the opening Introit and Kyrie, preferring instead to treat these apocalyptic sentiments with brevity and deftness in the relevant passages of the Offertorium and Libera me, where the judgmental tone and imagery are much less protracted. At the center of the Requiem, following the Sanctus, Fauré places the tranquil Pie Jesu, the text of which is the final couplet of supplication from the Dies Irae. Fauré scholar Carlo Caballero points out that, at La Madeleine and other Parisian churches, it was acceptable to substitute the Pie Jesu for the Benedictus, the movement that customarily follows the Sanctus.  At the end of the traditional Requiem Mass text, Fauré appends two movements, the Libera me and the In Paradisum, both from the liturgy for burial. The Libera me is intended to be sung after the Mass has concluded, during the act of absolution; In Paradisum is sung outside the church, en route to the cemetery. By including both movements, Fauré has connected the funeral service and the burial into a single composition.

The dark-hued sonority of Fauré’s orchestration is evident in the first pages of the Introit and Kyrie, set in the somber key of D minor, as the chorus intones the initial words. The sound blooms on the phrase “et lux perpetua” (and perpetual light), highlighting the importance of this textual symbol in the Christian funerary tradition. The tenors unfurl a long melody, chant-like in its purity and simplicity, which will be reprised and sung by the full chorus for the concluding Kyrie statements. The Offertorium movement opens with imitative entries in the lower strings and later in the voices. It presents a richly woven texture, not unlike a high-Renaissance motet. The movement’s central section is a baritone solo intoned over a gently rocking accompaniment, and the movement’s close is an especially radiant “Amen.”

We hear the sound of violins for the first time in the Requiem in the Sanctus, when the men of the chorus repeat the sopranos’ phrases. The “Hosanna” section is a brief fortissimo passage allowing us a glimpse of the mounting excitement of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The music recedes quickly into the distance, as though Fauré did not wish to make too much of this vivid scene, and the movement ends with ethereal trills in the violins.  The Pie Jesu, for solo soprano, is serene and contemplative as the supplicant prays that the departed may be granted rest, “sempiternam” (everlasting)—a word Fauré has borrowed from the end of the Agnus Dei text. Liturgically, the Pie Jesu would have been sung in Parisian churches during the Elevation of the Host.

The Agnus Dei presents a gorgeous melody in the violins, first violas, and organ, in the pastoral key of F major. When the tenors enter, we discover that the opening music is in fact a countermelody to the tenors’ arching phrases. The full chorus sings a more chromatic—and hence more anguished—setting of the Agnus Dei text before the tenors restore tranquility in C major. A magical modulation now occurs at the juncture where Fauré has elided the Agnus Dei and the Lux aeterna text: Sopranos sing “lux” (light) on the note C for two measures, unaccompanied and marked dolce (sweetly), a distant beacon; in their third measure on the word “aeterna” (eternal), the remainder of the chorus and orchestra enter with the warm sonority of A-flat major. The movement ends with a reprise of the somber Introit music in D minor (the text is the same as the start of the work), brightening in the final seven measures as the pastoral countermelody from the opening of the Agnus Dei comes back in D major, a balm of hope and reassurance.

The final two movements present a contrasting pair. The Libera me is dark and supplicating. The baritone solo seems urgent—and especially so when the full chorus takes up this music at the end of the movement. Horns and trumpets are added to underscore the abbreviated “Dies irae” portion of the Libera me. Altogether, the character of the Libera me is unique in this work, which otherwise is so consoling throughout. In Paradisum is a vision of Paradise.  Sopranos sustain a long-breathed melody over twenty-seven bars, while the tenors and basses enter with gentle commentary on the last phrase of the melody. The accompaniment is celestial, and the overall character is one of blissful calm. The work ends quietly as the chorus sings “requiem,” the word with which the piece began.

Ronald Gallman
Ronald Gallman is the San Francisco Symphony’s Director of Education/Youth Orchestra.

More About the Music
Recordings: Michel Legrand conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Ambrosian Singers, with soloists Barbara Bonney and Thomas Hampson (Teldec)  |  André Cluytens conducting the Orchestre de la Société du Conservatoire de Paris and the Elisabeth Brasseur Chorus, with soloists Victoria de los Angeles and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (EMI Classics, Great Recordings of the Century)

Reading: Regarding Fauré, edited and translated by Tom Gordon (Gordon and Breach)  |  Gabriel Fauré:  A Musical Life, by Jean-Michel Nextoux, translated by Roger Nichols (Cambridge)  |  Gabriel Fauré,by Jessica Duchen (Phaidon)  |  Fauré and French Musical Aesthetics, by Carlo Caballero (Cambridge)  |  Paris: A Musical Gazetteer, by Nigel Simeone (Yale)

(May 2014)