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ClassicsOnline Home » FAURE: Preludes, Op. 103 / Impromptus
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) Préludes, Op. 103
25,31,34,91,102 & 86bis
Born in Pamier on
12th May 1845, Gabriel Fauré had his principal musical training at the Ecole
Niedermeyer in Paris, where he was a student from 1854 until 1865. His
discovery there of plainchant made a great impression on him, leaving an
indelible mark on his aesthetic outlook.
Fauré began to
become known in the 1870s, thanks to the Société Nationale de Musique, in the
establishment of which he had taken part. In Germany he heard the music of
Wagner. Impressed by its power, he nevertheless remained apart from it,
preferring to develop works marked by a very personal style. His reputation was
growing and in 1892 he became organist at the Madeleine, then, four years
later, succeeded Massenet at the Paris Conservatoire, counting among his pupils
Ravel, Koechlin, Aubert and Schmitt, among others.
Director of the
Conservatoire from 1905, Fauré showed remarkable authority in the innovations
he made. It was only in 1920 that, deaf already for some years, he retired from
public life. He died in Paris in 1924.
The writer Paul
Landormy has noted that to speak of Fauré is to touch on what is most intimate
and most secret in the genius of France1. The words epitomize the
uniqueness of Fauré's art. A fervent admirer of Mendelssohn and of Chopin, he
rejected excess, to convey the poetry of his inspiration through a musical
language of great refinement. Unfortunately some only heard or wanted to hear
in his music an easy elegance and the atmosphere of the salon. Yet there is
nothing easy about this music the riches of which the listener must learn to
understand without being troubled by what there often is in it of the ambiguous
sometimes privileged moments when poetry and music are seen to join as brothers
one with the other, as if through some sudden conspiracy" wrote Vladimir
Jankélévitch2 Rien de plus cher que la chanson grise / Où
l'Indécis au Précis se joint (Nothing is dearer than the grey song /
Where Indefinite and Definite meet). This "grey song" that Paul
Verlaine celebrates in his Art Poétique belongs also to Fauré and it
would be hard to understand his genius outside the context of symbolist poetry.
His music has made his own the poet's Prends l'éloquence et tords-lui le cou"
(Take eloquence and wring its neck). Nocturnes, Barcarolles, Préludes, we
continually experience in Fauré minute nuances and subtle gradations, assisted
by writing that is comparable to none.
A late example of
Fauré's piano music, the nine Préludes, Opus 103, form one of the most
underrated examples of his work. It was in 1909 and 1910, at the heart of the
period that saw the composition of Pénélope, written between 1907 and
1913, a period, moreover, rich in music for the piano, such as the Barcarolles
Nos. 8-11 and the Nocturnes Nos. 9-11, that the group of Préludes
was written. The work of a composer of sixty-six, already going deaf, these
last must be considered in the light of the biographical context in which they
were conceived, the often nostalgic and bitter dimension that marks them then
taking on its full meaning. There is nothing uniform in a collection that bears
witness, on the contrary, to a great diversity of moods, and, moreover, to great
terseness of expression.
In D flat major Prélude
No.1 is marked Andante molto moderato and is in the manner of a
nocturne. Prélude No.2, in C sharp minor and marked Allegro, forms
a complete contrast, a kind of moto perpetuo that taxes the legato technique
of a performer. The spirit of the nocturne re-appears in Prélude No. 3,
in G minor and marked Andante, about which Vladimir Jankélévitch wrote
"it might be a barcarolle strangely interrupting a theme of very modern
stylistic contour"3. Among the most attractive, Prélude
No.4, in F major and marked Allegretto moderato, casts a spell on the
ear through the subtlety of a harmony tinged with the modal and its
melodic freshness. Ce bel accès de colère (‘This fine outburst of
anger’) wrote Louis Aguettant4 of the Prélude No.5, an Allegro
in D minor that is striking in its dark and anxious mood, followed by an
ending full of resignation. This leads to Prélude No.6, an Andante in
E flat minor, in the form of a canon. In A major, Prélude No.7, marked Andante
moderato, grows gradually livelier, sensual in its expression, leading in
the end to the mood of calm with which it began. Like the second of the series,
Prélude No.8, in C minor and marked Allegro, offers a
particularly technical aspect, with its repeated notes suggesting the character
of a toccata. Prélude No.9, an Adagio in E minor, brings to
an end the set with a lyrical quality marked by seriousness and detachment.
"This last prelude", wrote Jankélévitch, "belongs from beginning
to end to another world."
opera Pénélope occupied the composer from 1907 to 1912 and was first
performed at the Monte Carlo Opera on 4th March 1913 under the direction of
Léon Jehin, with the soprano Lucienne Bréval in the title rôle. It was she,
indeed, who had urged Fauré to undertake the composition of the work and had
introduced him to René Fauchois, the author of the libretto. In spite of the
fine elements it contains, this work has never become part of operatic
repertoire and today generally nothing of it is known except the prelude, in
its orchestral version or in the piano arrangement made by Fauré. In G minor,
it starts with the Andante moderato Penelope theme, serious and noble in
character, followed a little later by a very manly motif symbolizing Ulysses.
This material provides writing of great polyphonic wealth that is particularly
well suited to the piano.
The collection of
five Impromptus appeared two years after the death of Fauré. This
brought together work from the first and the last periods of the composer's
creative life, works that had before appeared as separate publications.
Contemporary with the Romances sans Paroles, Opus 17, of the Barcarolle
No.1 and the first three Nocturnes, the first three Impromptus were
written in 1883. Alfred Cortot compared Impromptu No.1, Opus 25, in E
flat major to a rapid barcarolle, in which carefree grace characterizes the
lighter mood of the whole series. In F minor, Impromptu No.2, Opus 31,
delights us with its airy and impalpable writing, but the most attractive and
most famous of these first three remains the A flat major Impromptu No.3,
Opus 34, a work remarkable for its dash and the delicacy of its colouring.
With this last, Fauré abandoned the impromptu for more than twenty years. He
only returned to it, in fact, in 1905 with the D flat major Impromptu No.4,
Opus 91, that, without giving way to a dark mood, shows always a profound
maturity of style, as evinced in the meditative Andante central section.
In F sharp minor, Impromptu No.5, Opus 102, written in 1910, delights us
through the fluidity of its writing and by the harmonic flavour suggested by
the use of the whole-tone scale. Impromptu, Opus 86, in D flat major,
originally written for harp for a Conservatoire competition, was composed in
1904. Some years later Alfred Cortot made a transcription of it for piano and
this was published by Durand in 1913 as Opus 86bis. It provides a fine
conclusion to the collection of Impromptus.
by Keith Anderson
1 Paul Landormy, La musique française de Franck à
2 Vladimir Jankélévitch, Fauré et l'inexprimable, Plon
3 Vladimir Jankélévitch, Fauré, Seuil-Solfèges
4 Louis Aguettant, La musique de piano, Albin
Volondat was born in 1962 at Vouzon, Loire-et-Cher, he studied at the Orléans
Conservatoire and then at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in
Paris, where he won first prizes in harmony, chamber music and piano in 1982
and 1983 respectively. The following year, at the age of twenty, he won the
First Grand Prix, the Queen Fabiola prize and the Audience Prize at the Queen
Elisabeth of the Belgians Competition and since then has enjoyed a career that
has taken him to success in most countries of Europe as well as in the Far
East. In technique and musical understanding Pierre-Alain Volondat acknowledges
a debt to Vera Moore, continuing the tradition of Clara Schumann. His wide
repertoire extends from Bach to Xenakis and he is also a composer.
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FAURE: Preludes, Op. 103 / Impromptus