Exploring the Musical Legacy of Gabriel Fauré, Renowned French Composer and Keyboard Virtuoso

ByQuyen Anne

Aug 18, 2023

Gabriel Fauré was a music teacher, pianist, organist, and composer from Pamiers in Southern France. A composer known for a melodically and harmonically complex style, he was regarded as one of the outstanding French melodists of his generation. He was best known for the songs “Clair de lune,” and “Après un rêve.”

Early Life

Gabriel Urbain Fauré was the youngest and fifth son born of Marie Laprade and Toussaint-Honoré Fauré. He was born on the 12th of May, 1845, in Pamiers, Ariège. The Faurés were substantial landowners of the area but had lost their wealth with time. Gabriel’s grandfather was a local butcher, while his father was a teacher. His mother also had a noble lineage. The young Gabriel lived with a foster mother till the age of four. He returned to his family when Toussaint-Honoré Fauré became the director at “École Normale d’Instituteurs,” in Montgauzy. He was the only child among the six Fauré children to display any sort of musical acumen.

Musical Journey

“École Normale d’Instituteurs” had an adjoining chapel where  Fauré used to play the harmonium. One of his regular audience, an old and blind woman, recognized his talent and disclosed that with Toussaint. In 1853, Simon Dufaur de Saubiac, an important member of the National Assembly, heard his performance and further advised Toussaint to admit his son to the “École Niedermeyer de Paris,” or the School of Classical and Religious Music. In 1854, Toussaint finally decided to act after reflecting on the idea, and Gabriel joined the institution.

He studied there for 11 years on a scholarship from the local Bishop. Louis Niedermeyer, the head of the institution, was thoroughly focused on his goal to produce qualified choirmasters and organists. The musical faculty offer was excellent – Niedermeyer himself taught composition, plainsong, and piano, while Xavier Wackenthaler took care of fugue and counterpoint. Other eminent tutors included Louis Dietsch and Clément Loret for harmony and organ, respectively.

In 1861, Niedermeyer passed away and was succeeded by Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns, who undertook piano studies. His first action was introducing contemporary music into the curriculum, including works of Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, and Robert Schumann. Soon, Fauré became fascinated by his musical prowess, who himself was a remarkable child prodigy. Curiously, a reserved Saint-Saëns took a shine to his new pupil, and that friendship remained astute throughout their life. Fauré crafted multiple choral works during his time there, including the “Cantique de Jean Racine,” and won multiple awards for the same. In 1865, he left “École Niedermeyer de Paris” with a “Maître de chapelle” and as a Laureat in music composition, harmony, piano and organ.

In 1866, Fauré became the organist at the “Church of Saint-Sauveur” in Rennes. During this period, he took on private tuitions to supplement his income and was eventually sacked for the very reason. He then became the assistant organist at “Notre-Dame de Clignancourt” with the help of Saint-Saëns. After Prussia invaded France, Fauré was appointed as a teacher at the École Niedermeyer branch in Switzerland. In 1871, he founded the “Société Nationale de Musique,’ along with Saint-Saëns and Romain Bussine. The group’s aim was to promote modern French music. In 1877, he crafted his first violin sonata, which subsequently premiered at the “Société Nationale” with great success. This was a turning point in his career. In 1883, Fauré got engaged to Marie Fremiet, the daughter of Emmanuel, a leading sculptor. However, the marriage was tumultuous, mostly because of Fauré’s extra-marital affairs and his resent towards domestic life.

Gabriel Faure and Marie

This period also stood witness to one of his most famous works – “Requiem” which was further expanded and revised later. In 1890, he became the head of the Paris Conservatoire after Ernest Guiraud stepped down. Works from his later years included mostly incidental music, like “Prométhée,” a lyrical tragedy, and “Mélisande.” Fauré retired from Paris Conservatoire after a long stint of 30 years owing to frailty and lack of hearing acumen. He passed away on the 4th of November, 1924, after suffering from pneumonia. He was buried at the Passy Cemetery in the French capital.

Gabriel Faure's Requiem manuscript

Musical Acumen

Fauré’s musical form, harmonies, and themes have somewhat remained constant through his lifetime, albeit becoming more intense, intimate, and raw. Gabriel also developed his compositional techniques during his later years, incorporating elongated melodic lines, distinct tonal freedom, musical restraint, which elevated and magically illuminated his music. His rhythmic motives, though, were mostly repetitive and subtle with the utilization of discreet syncopations. His later works also lack the luscious charm of his earlier years, the romantic harmony ably complemented by single tonality was replaced by a more monochromatic style with multiple tonal centers and harmonic shifts employed simultaneously.

Gabriel Fauré is also heralded as a master of “mélodie,” – the French art song. His commitment towards mélodie is evident throughout his career, with over a hundred songs crafted, including the most famous song cycle, “L’horizon chimérique,” and “Le papillon et la fleur.” This list goes on – “Clair de lune,” “Les roses d’Ispahan,” and “Les berceaux” are other notable mentions. They also drew attention from his lesser-known but equally engrossing numbers, namely “Les présents,” “Nocturne,” and “Le secret.” His major piano works include 4 valses-caprices, 6 impromptus, 13 barcarolles, and 13 nocturnes. These works mostly imbue his change of style – from a youthful allure to blazing introspect. His chamber music comprises the famous piano quartets in “G minor,” and “C minor.” Other chamber music composed includes a string quartet, piano trio, violin, and cello sonatas, and piano quintets.

The Fauré in Music

Gabriel Fauré is perhaps one of the most underrated musicians of his generation. He mostly worked with small forms, without offering any monumental symphonies, piano concertos, or symphonies at a time when contemporaries were constantly flexing their musical brawn. He offered a deceptively bittersweet charm, almost evoking a mildly overcast day in Paris.

His relationship with Saint-Saëns was equally fascinating because Charles-Camille always eclipsed his protégé when it came down to talent. Saint-Saëns was also the more famous of the two back in the day. However, in the modern era, the tables have somewhat turned as Fauré has trumped his mentor’s reputation. He has successfully countered natural talent with ingenuity.

Unlike the more gifted composers, Fauré didn’t offer excessive sentimentality, neither can his music be deemed as an acquired taste. He crafted music that felt lovely without the “schmaltz,” music that evoked melancholy without being mawkish, complex compositions that were not unnecessarily intellectual. His quartets, the violin sonatas, and his works for piano and cello offer that elusive Gallic charm.

Fauré was unique. He isn’t considered as one of the true music immortals, but the sound of his music was clearly distinct, and the characteristics cannot be compared directly with any of the greats, except probably Chopin. He was more of a Frederick Delius than a Giuseppe Verdi or Johann Sebastian Bach – not a colossus but a miniaturist who offered that same dwindling thrill. His critics can point out the lack of bite, maybe the pinch of whimsical here and there. But one thing they cannot deny – if you have heard Gabriel Fauré, you will fall in love with his music. It is impossible to ignore the Fauré in Music.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *