FAURÉ: Pavane, Opus 50

Pavane, Opus 50

Gabriel Urbain Fauré was born in Pamiers in the Départment of Ariège on May 12, 1845, and died in Paris on November 4, 1924. He wrote the Pavane in 1886, and it was first performed in Paris on April 28, 1888, under the baton of Jules Danbé. The San Francisco Symphony first performed the piece in February 1965, with Paul Paray conducting, and most recently, in June 2012, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. The score calls for an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, and strings. Performance time: about six minutes.

The pavan was a sixteenth- and seventeenth-century court dance of Italian origin, in duple meter, and stately in tempo and spirit. Thoinot Arbeau, whose Orchésographie (1588-89) is the Renaissance textbook on dance, mentions that it was often used for formal processions at weddings, assemblies of guilds, and the like, as well as for dancing. The most famous modern pavan is Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte (his Mother Goose includes a Pavane de la belle au bois dormant, a Pavan for Sleeping Beauty), and those gravely tender measures undoubtedly owe something to the Pavane of his master, Fauré.

When he wrote the Pavane,Fauré was at the halfway mark of his long and quiet life. On the assumption that he would become a church organist, he had been sent to the École Niedermeyer, a school founded by an Alsatian musician and with a curriculum centered on the study of sacred music of the age of Palestrina. (While Fauré was a student there, the twenty-five-year-old Saint-Saëns succeeded Niedermeyer as director and promptly brought the school into the nineteenth century, introducing his students to the heady new sounds of Schumann, Liszt, and Wagner.) Late in life, Fauré would become the distinguished head of the Paris Conservatory, but for many years he earned his bread as a church musician and as a private teacher of theory and composition. The pressure to earn a predictable living was much increased by his marriage in 1883 and the birth of his first son at the end of that year. Like Mahler, he was obliged to be a summer composer most of his life.

Fauré wrote the Pavane with pleasure (“This is the amusing aspect of my art”), particularly when he compared the experience with his unsuccessful struggle to write a symphony. He first imagined the Pavane asa piece for orchestra alone, intended for the Conservatory concerts of the violinist and conductor Jules Danbé, but then elaborated the scoring to include voices. I quote from Robert Orledge's biography: “Fauré added the chorus parts on the suggestion of the Vicomtesse Greffulhe [a patroness of the arts whose salon Fauré attended for many years], and Robert de Montesquiou was prevailed upon to produce some trivial verses in the manner of Verlaine as a text. Fauré told the Vicomtesse in late September 1887 that he found de Montesquiou’s additions ‘delightful: the artfulness and coquetries of the female dancers and the great sighs of the male dancers will singularly enliven the music. If all this wonderful combination of attractive dance with handsome costumes, an orchestra and an invisible choir comes off, what a treat it should be!’ This letter may be more indicative of Fauré’s desire to please than of his considered artistic opinion.”

The Pavane found its way to the stage in 1919, when Fauré incorporated it into a one-act divertissement for the Monte Carlo Opera called Masques et bergamasques and consisting largely of self-borrowings. In any event, it is as a concert piece that the Pavane has made its gentle mark, and probably most often in its wordless version. That, by the way, is simply the choral version with the voices left out: No other adjustment is needed.

Fauré was, above all, a great songwriter and he was so, in part at least, by virtue of his melodic gift. The Pavane,as an instrumental song with or without voices superimposed, is a bit to one side of the central tradition of the French mélodie,though, with its quietly inflected line, its harmony delicately aslant, it is a most beguiling, even haunting, example of the genre.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (Decca)

Reading: Gabriel Fauré, by Jessica Duchen (Phaidon)  |  Gabriel Fauré, by Robert Orledge (Eulenburg)  |  Romanticism and the Twentieth Century, by Wilfrid Mellers  (Schocken)

(May 2014)