BORN: May 12, 1845. Pamiers (Ariège), France
DIED: November 4, 1924. Paris, France
COMPOSED:1876 to 1879. Revised (with an entirely new finale) in 1883
WORLD PREMIERE: February 14, 1880. At a concert of the Société Nationale de Musique at the Salle Pleyel in Paris; in its final form, it was re-introduced on April 5, 1884, at the Société Nationale
INSTRUMENTATION: Violin, viola, cello, and piano
DURATION: About 8 mins (for this movement)
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 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 parts of the First Piano Quartet at least qualify as forcefully dramatic.
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 Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback.
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