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ClassicsOnline Home » FAURE, G.: Songs (Complete), Vol. 1 - Op. 1-8, 10 and 18 (Doria, Monmart, Dutey, Mollet) (1955)
New transfers from Westminster LP set XWN 5502 by Ward Marston
Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924): The Complete Songs
These notes cover the four releases: 8.112059, 8.112060, 8.112061 and 8.112062.
The musical abilities of Gabriel Fauré became apparent at an early age. When the Swiss composer and teacher Louis Niedermeyer heard the boy, he immediately accepted him as a pupil at his music school in Paris, which specialised in the training of church musicians, and where Fauré studied from 1854 to 1866. He was a piano pupil of Camille Saint-Saëns, who introduced him to the music of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. While still a student, Fauré published his first composition, a work for piano, Trois romances sans paroles (1863). After graduating he became a church organist at Rennes in 1866. He returned to Paris in 1870, becoming organist first at the church of Saint-Sulpice and then of Saint-Honoré, and choirmaster at the church of La Madeleine in 1877. He was appointed church organist at La Madeleine in Paris and professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire in 1896. In 1905, the year in which he relinquished his position at La Madeleine, he succeeded Théodore Dubois as Director of the Conservatory, and he remained in this post until ill health and deafness forced him to resign in 1920. In 1909 he accepted the presidency of the Société Musicale Indépendante, a group of dissident young composers. His numerous composition students included Maurice Ravel, Georges Enesco, and Nadia Boulanger.
Fauré excelled not only as a songwriter of great refinement and sensitivity but also as a composer in every branch of chamber music. He wrote more than a hundred songs, from Après un rêve of 1865 to the cycle L’Horizon chimérique of 1922. He enriched the literature of the piano with a number of highly original and exquisitely wrought works, of which his thirteen nocturnes, thirteen barcaroles, and five impromptus are perhaps the most representative and best known. His Ballade for piano and orchestra (1881), the two sonatas for violin and piano, and the Berceuse for violin and piano (1880) are among other popular works. Fauré was not especially attracted to the theatre, but he wrote incidental music for several plays, including Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1898), as well as two lyric dramas, Prométhée (1900) and Pénélope (1913). Among his few works written for the orchestra alone is Masques et bergamasques (1919). The Requiem for solo voices, chorus, orchestra, and organ (1887) did not gain immediate popularity, but it has since become one of Fauré’s most frequently performed works. Although he had deep respect for the traditional forms of music, Fauré delighted in infusing those forms with a combination of harmonic daring and a freshness of invention. One of the most striking features of his style was his fondness for bold harmonic progressions and sudden modulations, invariably carried out with supreme elegance and a deceptive air of simplicity.
In 1857 two literary events occurred in Paris: the publication of Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary and of Charles Baudelaire’s collection of poems Les Fleurs du Mal. These two works ushered in an unparalleled era of artistic activity in France, the period of the Symbolist poets, Impressionist painters, and composers such as Fauré, Debussy, Duparc and Chausson. For a composer of songs, the literary climate is a major factor in the style of the song. Both Flaubert and Baudelaire rejected the Romantic ideal, and in its place substituted Art for its own sake. They aimed for great precision in the expression of the poetic experience, and strove for an objective, detached portrayal of the most intimate personal feelings and thoughts. The poets whose works provided the texts for many of Fauré’s songs shared this aesthetic to a great degree, although in his early years, Fauré occasionally chose older texts for his songs, by romantic poets such as Victor Hugo. In the field of the visual arts, the Salon des Refusés (which exhibited paintings turned away by the Academy) in 1857 exhibited three paintings by Manet, including his controversial Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, which depicted two clothed men at ease with two scantily clad women. This painting provoked a scandal because of its lack of moral detachment and its freedom from judgmental platitudes. Like the literary works of Flaubert and Baudelaire, it anticipated the work of the Impressionist painters, who painted what they saw, rather than what they were expected to see. Socially and politically the period during which Fauré composed songs, from 1861 to 1922, encompassed several radically different eras: the Second Empire of Napoleon III, to be rudely terminated by the Franco-Prussian War, which also witnessed the siege of Paris during 1870 and 1871, the establishment of a Constitution in 1875 to be followed by a Republic, the famous Dreyfus affair which polarised intellectual opinion at the end of the nineteenth century in France, the belle époque, brought to a sudden end by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, and the return to peace after 1918.
Fauré is generally considered to be ‘the greatest master of French song’, a verdict delivered by Jean-Michel Nectoux, writing in Groves’ Dictionary of Music and Musicans, and whose great insight into the composer’s works informs the notes below. Apart from the song cycles and certain individual songs, his works in this form are grouped into three collections, of 1879, 1897 and 1908. Each group contains twenty songs, although the second volume originally had 25 songs in it, but a few items were re-ordered with the publication of the third collection. The first collection consists of romances and songs from the composer’s youth. The influence of Niedermeyer and of Saint-Saëns is clear. In addition Fauré’s association with the opera singer Pauline Viardot and her daughter Marianne, to whom he was engaged for a short while, resulted in some songs possessing a decidedly Italianate character, such as Après un rêve (8.112059, track 15), Sérénade toscane (8.112059, track 6), Barcarolle (8.112059, track 17), Tarentelle for two sopranos (8.112059, track 22). His most successful works are those in which the music is inspired directly by the form of the poem, as in L’absent (8.112059, track 11), where the dialogue is as restrained as it is dramatic, or La chanson du pêcheur (8.112059, track 7), in which a second theme is introduced, thus foreshadowing later songs.
Many of the songs of the second collection (8.112060) use the ABA scheme for their structure, such as Automne (8.112059, track 25), Les berceaux (8.112060, track 4), while the boldest pieces, such as the familiar Clair de lune (8.112059, track 16), anticipate the formal invention of the third collection. In Spleen (8.112060, track 18) and Le parfum impérissable (8.112060, track 12) from the final, third, set, the melodic curve coincides with the unfolding of the poem, while in Prison (8.112060, track 13) the movement of the music matches that of the poetic syntax and the melody develops continuously, with a consistent forward movement. The third collection, in which prosody (the metrical structure of verse), melody, harmony and polyphony achieve a fine balance, is less well known than the second, with the result that a masterpiece such as Le don silencieux (8.112060, track 20) is rarely performed, simply because it was not published in a collection. The criticism that Fauré composed almost half his songs to rather mediocre poems ignores the fact that he sometimes chose his texts for their flexibility, lack of reference to sounds and, in particular, lack of visual descriptions that might restrict him. He commented that he aimed to convey the prevailing atmosphere rather than detailed images in poems of this kind. The most ‘pliable’ poems were most easily adapted to his melodic inspiration, and in setting them, he often took great liberties with the verse structure. In Les berceaux (8.112060, track 4), for example, he superimposed a strong and varied musical rhythm on the flat rhythm of the verses, thus creating a delightful contradiction. Such settings contrast strikingly with his more respectful treatment of poems by esteemed poets such as Verlaine.
From 1891 Fauré broadened the scope of his melodic invention by giving a novel structure to a song cycle. The Cinq mélodies, Op. 58 (8.112060, tracks 24–28), and still more La bonne chanson, Op. 61 (8.112061, tracks 1–10), all of which are settings of poems by Verlaine, have a dual organization: a literary organization, through the selection and arrangement of Verlaine’s poems to form a story; and a musical organization, based on the use of recurrent themes throughout the cycle. The harmonic and formal novelty of La bonne chanson shocked Saint-Saëns, and even daunted the young Debussy. The expressive power, the free and varied vocal style, and the importance of the piano part seemed to exceed the proper limits of the song. It was difficult to go beyond the form of La bonne chanson,so Fauré looked for other means of unifying the song cycle. In La chanson d’Eve (8.112061, tracks 22–31), a sequel to La bonne chanson, he reduced the number of recurrent themes from six to two, concentrated the vocal style and gave a new polyphonic richness to the piano accompaniment. The last three cycles, Le jardin clos, Op.106 (8.112062, tracks 2–10), Mirages, Op. 113 (8.112062, tracks 11–15) and L’horizon chimérique, Op. 118 (8.112062, tracks 16–19), no longer have common themes; the unity is in the subject, the atmosphere, and especially in the musical writing, which renounces luxuriance and moves in the direction of total simplicity.
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