March 14, 2015
For those wanderers who have traveled far from loved ones, the deep longing of those familiar faces will be all too well known. The promise of reunion and growing anticipation as you step through the arrivals gates, out of the taxicab or onto the platform grows like a wildfire in the pit of your stomach. The complex mix of raw excitement and fear rushes through you, building to the climax you have been waiting for: when all of the expectation forms suddenly into reality.
When listening to Gabriel Fauré’s creations we can relive these moments. With the smallest of pushes, this master has us expecting something we don’t normally allow ourselves to expect: something truly wonderful may happen. Each great composer has a specific personality to his or her music and often Fauré has been deemed ‘gentle’. To label these stirring tones in such a simple way is to miss the underlying feel of the music. That rising sense of expectation and excitement is key to the success of Fauré’s music and how it changed everything for the French music that followed him. That is why in this article Gabriel Fauré has been dubbed: the Gentle Revolutionary. True to the nature of the man, his music softly pushed the first domino of French music, opening the door for 20th century composers to burst through and influence many more to come. Fauré’s quiet yet crucial role in this transformation is reflected perfectly in his compositions and it is almost as if he expected those great things to emerge from his work.
As the gentle revolutionary of 19th century pioneers, Gabriel Fauré sadly fades somewhat into the background of history. When recounting the catalyst for the abrupt change of music both in France and abroad, the influence is drawn back to the likes of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. These musical giants certainly did mold the future of classical music but what is usually forgotten is how part of their inspiration was drawn by Fauré.
Before exploring how Fauré had an impact, it would be best to examine the man himself. His talent was discovered at a young age by his continuous and dedicated playing in his local chapel. In his own words we can see his commitment, love of music and gentleness having already formed in his youth:
“I grew up, a rather quiet well-behaved child, in an area of great beauty. But the only thing I remember really clearly is the harmonium in that little chapel. Every time I could get away I ran there…I played atrociously…but I do remember that I was happy; and if that is what it means to have a vocation, then it is a very pleasant thing.”
Although showing early promise in writing, Fauré eventually had to enter into a noble secondary profession as a church organist, which was not unusual at the time for French composers. Throughout his life, all of his pieces were crafted in moments between his time spent in various religious establishments. As his career developed so did his compositions, from heavily influenced early works to his true genius in the 1890s. It was in these years that he became the first organist of La Madeleine in Paris and professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire de Musique. Eventually In 1905, he took the role of director of the Conservatoire. This is a key moment in the history of French music, because this was when Fauré became master to Maurice Ravel. Fauré remained the director of the school for fifteen years and with a progressive and rather shocking stance on school procedures he influenced a great number of young French composers.
The aspect of Faure’s music that is rare and quite remarkable is the lack of fundamental change from the beginning of his life right until the end. Fauré’s work can be identified as his, no matter the time of writing. This is not to say it did not develop, but rather than the works changing style, they were pressed by his wonderful personality more and more. From the early Cantique de Jean Racine, oozing with romanticism and influences from Chopin, to foreshadowing Impressionism with a range of coloristic effects and discords drawn, if somewhat subtly, from the world of jazz, Fauré remained true to his own, placing the stamp of his personality on a changing style. With the creation of Claire de Lune, Op. 46 No. 2 we see Fauré’s true personal touch start to emerge.
Ever true to his gentle revolutionary role, his music continually reflected what he believed and what he would eventually achieve. The gentle comes with the ever present, subtle, repeating rhythmic motive that make his work truly unique. The revolutionary drawn from his melodic and harmonic styles pushing the boundaries of French music. As his music did, Fauré straddled the threshold of the 19th century romantics, whilst easing into a whole new idiom that would see the world of music change.
Gabriel Fauré may not be as renowned as Ravel or Debussy who followed him, but he was not, and is not forgotten. He was given a state funeral upon his death and still has a dedicated following. Although he has this recognition, he truly changed everything and he does not have the place in history that he deserves. His music can have profound effects on all those who discover his pieces. It seems that he is sitting in the shadow of the 20th century genius that followed him but as has been shown here, he was happy to be in the shadow and could only reflect his anticipation for improvement, change and excellence in his uplifting, yet soft melodies. It must be said, however, that all of these honors and accolades do not suit our gentle revolutionary and his ever-humble manner. It is fitting to end with a description of Gabriel Fauré that is simple yet powerful, just as he was:
“More profound than Saint-Saëns, more varied than Lalo, more spontaneous than d’Indy, more classic than Debussy, Gabriel Fauré is the master par excellence of French music, the perfect mirror of our musical genius.” – Leslie Orrey -1945