Concert Preview: In Paradisum

Fauré’s Piano Quartets and Piano Quintets

“In Paradisum” is the seventh and last movement of Gabriel Fauré’s (1845–1924) celebrated Requiem, probably his most well-known composition, composed 1887–1890 and revised sporadically during the next decade. It embodies some of the musical and spiritual ecstasy through which Fauré lived his life and which imbued his compositions. So musically perfect is it that my first composition teacher, Timothy Baxter at the Royal Academy of Music, confessed to having made a handwritten copy of much of it in homage. For most of his life, like J. S. Bach, Fauré would have regarded himself principally as a church musician and organist, rather than an instrumental composer. This concert series aims to redress the balance and explore his chamber music for piano and strings.

A glance down Fauré’s curriculum vitae reveals that he lived a life at the heart of the French musical establishment. Educated at the music school the École Niedermeyer in Paris from the age of nine, he was trained as an organist and choirmaster, and one of his teachers was Camille Saint-Saëns. He then held a succession of posts in church music, most notably from 1874 onwards that of organist at the Église de la Madeleine in Paris. In the 1870s, he made pilgrimages to visit Franz Liszt and to hear Wagner’s newly completed Ring cycle and other music dramas. He was appointed professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire in 1896, and from 1905 to 1920 was its head. This career progression was accompanied by many honours, and in 1909 he was elected to the Institut de France, in 1920 awarded the Grand-croix of the Légion d’honneur and, on his death in 1924, given a state funeral.

The Paris Conservatoire, the first institution of its kind, was founded in 1795, and the Royal Academy of Music in London largely in its image in 1822. Both institutions were established in the wake of political watersheds, the former shortly after the French Revolution in 1789 and the latter following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The foundation of educational institutions strong in musical studies in tandem with the consolidation of political power seems to be a pattern, and King’s College, Cambridge, was similarly established in 1441 by Henry VI and awarded significant additional funding by Henry VII from 1508 onwards. The stimulus can indeed be swift and immediate: the Xi’an Music Conservatoire was founded on 10 October 1949, just days after Mao Zedong’s proclamation of the founding of the People’s Republic of China from Tiananmen Gate.

Music conservatoires offer regular income to hard-pressed but grateful musicians, a ready supply of students, and communal shared infrastructure, but there can be tension between those inside these institutions and those outside, who may need to fight harder to sell their wares and survive in a more directly commercial environment. Wherever sited, conservatoires are usually related to governments to some extent, and state grants normally combine with student fees in some form as their source of income. He who pays the piper does call the tune, and the music that conservatoires train their students to perform will to some extent reflect accepted tastes and may veer towards the conservative.

Ethnomusicologists sometimes refer disparagingly to music-making inside institutions as “the conservatoire tradition” as if superior vernacular performance can only occur outside them with its roots firmly in authentic culture. This can be unfair, as the conservatoires themselves are also no more than products of the society that produced them. In Europe, as patronage of court and church waned, it was conservatoires that took over as an important channel for the musical training of professionals that could service the demands of a burgeoning middle class.

Even though he was a long-term inhabitant of the musical establishment, Fauré’s tenure as head of the Paris Conservatoire is said to have been marked by a break from conservative eras both before and after his occupation of the post. Prior to his appointment, the now largely forgotten and unperformed 19th-century French old guard of Auber, Halévy and Meyerbeer reigned supreme, but Fauré introduced into the curriculum a wider array of French talent from Rameau to Debussy, the latter then in the first flush of success. Renaissance polyphony was studied as a route to secure compositional technique, and exploration of the work of the enfant terrible Wagner allowed at last.

How, then, do the piano quartets and quintets measure up to Fauré’s “centralising” role in the French musical ecosphere? What qualities led him to be chosen to fill such an influential position in music education for so long and to be so lauded for his success? And is his work truly French?

Concert I:

The Piano Quartets: “Libera Me”

“Libera me”, which translates as “deliver me”, is the sixth and penultimate movement of Fauré’s Requiem.

No. 1, op. 15 (1876–1879) in C minor

Allegro molto moderato | Scherzo: Allegro vivo | Adagio | Allegro molto

Fauré’s piano quartets and quintets are entirely abstract works: they do not refer to an outside narrative, for example a work of literature, a story, painting or song-text, or even a title. The ear strains to hear reference to, or quotation of, previously heard and familiar musical material, particularly melody, and finds none. Attempts to unearth relevance to episodes in the composer’s life, particularly his numerous amorous conquests, seem entirely contrived. These are wholly abstract musical creations, complete and entire unto themselves.

All movements are substantial and roughly equal in length, with the conventional 19th-century format observed of fast outer movements and a slow middle movement. The quartets and second quintet also contain a scherzo, which is placed second – a practice Beethoven initiated – but the first quintet does not and is a three-movement structure. Inside these frameworks, vestiges of the sonata and scherzo and trio forms so beloved of the German Romantics can still be found, but the ear is easily lost in the rich welter of sound, and an exposition of these architectures is not the primary purpose of Fauré’s aesthetic. It is perhaps better not to seek them out but instead to listen to each movement as an independently conceived edifice.

The musical language is richly chromatic and richly textured. Its starting point is the voice-leading of Richard Wagner, but in complexity far exceeds his, and the listener is taken on an immense and restless journey through a bewilderingly juxtaposed series of harmonic progressions. Mostly, all the instruments play together as an ensemble, though the string parts do have solo lines. The poor pianist usually plays complex arpeggiations throughout, and the string players are rarely left unsupported. Often, they unify behind one kind of musical material, while the pianist has another, sometimes evinced as a melody in octaves across the string parts against the piano figuration. At times, the string parts even double in unison. When the strings do play different intertwining parts, the contrapuntal complexity of the voice-leading is astounding. This type of multilayered texture is hard work to compose, and it is not surprising that these works each took years to complete.

Curiously enough, stripped of their harmonic accompaniment, melodies themselves are often simple and modal, though they do not appear to be when reclothed; the opening theme to the first piano quartet is, for example, quasi-pentatonic. Their contour frequently outlines scales rising and falling without the admixture of chromatic notes, and leaps are rarely to notes outside the mode. This gives the impression that the compositional process began with melody and was then reinvigorated with a haze of harmonic background. Most musicians and listeners tend to assume that this is normally the case, but it is not so, as Germanic music of the 18th and 19th centuries was fashioned principally from melody generated by harmony and according to the rules of counterpoint and not vice versa.

As is typical of Fauré’s instrumentation, for the first page or so of the first piano quartet, the melody is in octaves across the strings over the piano as it plays chords, first homophonically on the off-beat and then in arpeggiated patterns. The mood is sombre. Only after this does the texture break into independent parts. The piano plays in octaves for much of this opening passage, which is a common Fauré trait and can be exhausting to execute. Trained as an organist who worked in church music for most of his life, he is here simply pulling out organ stops to double at the octave. In fact, much of his harmonic writing is derived from organists’ customary practice of learning to connect chords one to another in orderly progressions, a procedure an organist friend of mine once disparagingly described as “doodling”.

Modern commentators have suggested that Fauré preferred the piano to the organ as it was more suited to his highly nuanced style. In the piano quartets and quintets, however, unlike Debussy, rarely does he explore the piano timbre per se. His creative muse is instead the expressive power on the piano of combinations and successions of notes. This is in fact the heart of organ writing, not composition for piano, though it transfers effectively and idiomatically to the piano. Organists rarely falter when faced with the arpeggiated complexities and sheer continuity of figuration of the chamber music of the French organists Frank and Fauré because they instinctively understand that realising the progression as a whole is what counts, so they often master these scores with very little effort, though accuracy and nuance may be sacrificed along the way. Pianists, on the other hand, are often rightly concerned with the shaping of every note, which makes for a more subtle performance but greatly increases the work involved in getting to that stage.

In the first movement of the piano quartet, as is common elsewhere in Fauré, short-lived imitative canons between the voices abound, and prolonged passages of pizzicato are a common texture. Roughly two-thirds of the way through, a genuine recapitulation in the home key occurs just as it would in a sonata form movement, but the route to this point has principally been through reworking the main theme rather than interplay between two subjects in related keys and the more precise organisation embodied in the sonata principle. Even so, a recognisable second subject can still be discerned, and it does occur first in the “exposition” in the “correct” key of E flat major (the relative major), and in the “correct” key of C (though C major, not minor) in the “recapitulation”.

The second movement, in a dainty E flat major, is a lively scherzo and one of the most delightful that Fauré penned. Its hallmark is an almost constant superimposed interplay between duplets and triplets. The main melody recurs several times in a manner that resembles a rondo, though intervening episodes might be more strictly interpreted as “trio” sections. It is studded with short rests that break it up into brief hocket-like fragments as if transformed into a crazy medieval troubadour dance. Pizzicato chords abound and there is even an entire episode played muted and legato by homophonic strings.

The slow movement returns to a sombre C minor. Its opening melody rises as a scale by step – three phrases in all, each in turn reaching a higher note – two are short but the third is longer and expanded in ambit to span a major ninth. Then from the highest note and apex of the phrase comes a mighty fall by a leap of a seventh. The effect is supremely expressive. All notes are taken from one scale or mode, as is so often the case with Fauré when melodies are examined in isolation from the surrounding harmony. The contrasting melody to the opening has the reverse contour; in other words, it starts with a downward leap, which is most often an octave, and then proceeds with a rising stepwise scale. It first occurs in a related key (A flat major) and then, after a recapitulation of the opening theme in C minor, in the home key. As such, the overall architecture resembles that of a sonata form comprising an exposition and a recapitulation with the central development section omitted, a structure common in slow movements of the late 18th and 19th centuries. The crucial difference is, however, that audience and players alike no longer perceive this layout as a framework for organising musical material. Its presence is now incidental to weightier expressive matters, which are no longer a working out of its ideals.

The lively last movement is in C major, and its main theme also a rising scale, though this time in dotted rhythms. This similarity could be interpreted as an example of thematic transformation and cyclic unity between movements but is unlikely to be perceived as such by players or audience, who will probably be most attracted by its jaunty accent and imitative dialogue. Its first contrasting theme leaps across almost two octaves as its head motif while the pianist pleasingly ceases the incessant figuration. The second is flowing and legato and played by the strings in octaves, the third staccato and arranged in block-like “call-and-response” dialogues between the strings and piano. Endlessly inventive, in Beethovenian fashion, the pervasive dotted patterns become triplets as the pace accelerates towards a tumultuous close.

No. 2, op. 45 (1887) in G minor | Dedicated to Hans von Bülow

Allegro molto moderato | Allegro molto | Adagio non troppo | Allegro molto

The first movement of the second piano quartet is dominated by a theme played in octaves by the strings over a tremolando piano accompaniment. As a foil, when the driving figuration halts, it is alternated with solo string melodies, and the piano supports with simple chords, sometimes played in a harp-like manner. From a structural perspective, importantly, when the subsidiary themes recur in the home key towards the end of the movement, they are in G major, not G minor, and this is the key in which the movement ends, which makes for an overall effect that is less darkly sombre than the first piano quartet.

Again, the scherzo is placed second and, although no longer explicitly labelled as such, it has the same function. It is in C minor, so a related key (that on the fourth degree of the home key G). Once more, its principal melody is all-pervasive and formed of a simple scale that falls and rises, its compass here spanning close to two octaves. Much of the string writing is pizzicato accompaniment and furnishes a welcome lightness of texture. The relatively regular accent does render the effect less immediately complex than the cross-rhythms of the equivalent movement of the first piano quartet, and more accessible, but conversely reduces the sophistication of its impact.

The tonality of the third slow movement is E flat major, so another related key, the “relative major” of that of the previous movement, C minor. (The “relative major” or “minor” of a key has the same number of sharps or flats, but its tonal centre shifts according to fixed sets of relationships.) E flat major was Mozart and Beethoven’s “majestic” key, used in the former’s masonic door-knocking chords that open the overture to The Magic Flute and in the latter’s “Emperor” piano concerto. Fauré’s E flat major is much warmer and more convivial. The most interesting bar of the movement is the first, which is constructed of two chords of bare parallel fifths that alternate. This feature recurs at important punctuating moments throughout and from a harmonic perspective is entirely non-functional; in other words, it does not involve progression between chords generated by interwoven contrapuntal voices that form chromatic voice-leading. Such moments are rare in Fauré and set the intervening denser sections into sharp focus.

Like the first movement, the last begins in G minor and radiates into G major at the end. Similarly, too, the texture of octave melodies in the strings against piano arpeggiated harmonies returns as the prevailing instrumental deployment, though even more so, to the extent that towards the close there is even a passage when all three strings play the same melody in unison. The principal melody of the movement has a passing resemblance in structure at least, if not in mood, to that of the slow third movement of the first piano quartet: both have at their heart an upward rising scale spanning a ninth approached by shorter upward scale fragments; the ninth interval is here a minor ninth as opposed to the major ninth found in the first piano quartet. On one level, it is not too extreme to regard this as cyclic unity across different compositions of the same genre, while, on another, here are two manifestations of Fauré’s fondness for constructing themes from notes of the same mode, often arranged as scales.