FAURÉ: Quartet No. 1 in C minor for Piano and Strings, Opus 15

Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quartet in C minor falls early in his catalogue of chamber music, and he followed up on its success by composing his G minor Piano Quartet several years later. He would not return to that instrumental combination again, though in his later chamber production he produced two piano quintets and, at the very end of his life, a piano trio and a string quartet. This earliest of his piano quartets underwent a lengthy gestation, perhaps slowed down by a degree of turmoil in the composer’s personal life. During the 1870s, Fauré (1845-1924) was a regular attendee at the salon of the famous mezzo-soprano and composer Pauline Viardot, and in the course of his visits there he fell in love with her daughter, Marianne. After five years of semi-formal flirtation the two became engaged in July 1877, when Fauré was well along in his work on this piece. This advance in their relationship forced a realistic reckoning, and four months later Marianne broke off the engagement, leaving the thirty-two-year-old composer temporarily heartsick.

Marguerite Long, who championed the composer’s piano works, described the piece’s slow movement as “the sorrowful echo of the break of Fauré’s engagement with Marianne Viardot,” and reported that she could not hold back her tears when she performed the piece with the Capet Quartet at the Société Nationale de Musique, with Fauré turning pages in what was her first public appearance playing the master’s music. On the other hand, the composer’s friend and biographer Émile Vuillermoz protested against such an interpretation. “Nothing, in my opinion, warrants docile acceptance of such a sentimental and imprudent thesis,” he wrote. “Fauré’s reserve always prevented him from following the example of Romantic artists who allowed the whole world to witness their personal frustrations. . . Capable of enlarging his style to treat a pathetic theme possessing something universal, Fauré would never have consented to express himself in such a spectacular manner.”

Indeed, “spectacular” is never a word appropriate to Fauré’s music, although the opening of the First Piano Quartet at least qualifies as forcefully dramatic, with the three string instruments announcing the surging theme against the piano’s syncopated underpinnings. A sense of nervous edginess pervades much of this sonata-form movement, although the second theme—offered sequentially by viola, violin, cello, and piano—injects a more graceful ethos that some might hear as Debussyian.

The Scherzo is lighter than air, and subtle musical conflicts, including rhythmic competition between the meters of 2/4 and 6/8, keep us from feeling very grounded for much of it. The very sound of the wispy Trio section, with the strings muted, points toward the music of Fauré’s pupil Maurice Ravel, who was born just a year before this piece was begun.

The Adagio comes next, and even if we do not hear it as a confession of romantic disillusionment we may still allow that it qualifies as mournful. But mournfulness in Fauré is not depressive; instead, it is an emotion supported by nobility and ultimately achieving serenity. In this, the Adagio stands not far from sections of Fauré’s famous Requiem, which first began to occupy him just as he was composing this piano quartet. The Scherzo and Adagio are reversed from the order listeners normally expect, although by this moment in music history the ordering of middle movements had become quite fluid. 

The energetic finale is not the music that concluded this work when it was premiered in 1880. Fauré replaced the movement in 1883, prior to the piano quartet’s publication in 1884. Whether the eventual finale represents a revision or a total re-composition remains uncertain, as the original version does not survive, but in his correspondence Fauré suggested it was the latter.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is the longtime Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats.

(April 2019)