Gabriel Urbain Faure - the Composer Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Gabriel Urbain Faure - the Composer

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Born 12 May, 1845, in Pamiers, l'île d'Ariège, France, Gabriel Urbain Fauré was the youngest of six children born to Toussaint-Honoré Fauré and Marie-Antoinette Hélène Lalène. He is considered to have been one of the greatest French composers of the 19th Century.

Gabriel was the only musician in the Fauré family, descending from a line of butchers, smiths and military officers. With such a heritage of manual labourers, Toussaint-Honoré, Gabriel's father, had to work hard to surmount the obstacles presented to him in order to become a professor. Consequently, his youngest son was born into a very tolerant environment, where the development of an intelligent mind and a creative spirit was encouraged.

Fauré was not a virtuoso like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Camille Saint-Saëns1, nor did he have the musical background or the 'stage-parents' which both Mozart and Saint-Saëns had. Even so, he did have an innate talent. For the first four years of his life Fauré lived in Verniolle, not far from Pamiers, with his nursemaid. After a brief stay at Pamiers, the family moved to l'école Montgauzy near Foix, where Toussaint-Honoré was a professor. Consequently, Gabriel was often alone as a child and was allowed the freedom to play and fantasize as he wished at Verniolle and in the gardens and chapel of Montgauzy. By the age of eight Fauré could improvise on the chapel harmonium2 with ease.

A solitary and tranquil child, Fauré was attentive and observant of his surroundings. He sensed the rhythm, melody and poetry of the natural world, which can be heard today in his works.


Fauré's parents were aware of their son's love for music and they wished Gabriel to have the best musical education possible so that he could develop his natural abilities. However, the family was not rich, and could not afford the expenses required to sustain a proper education in music. Louis de Niedermeyer of l'école de Musique Classique et Religieuse at Paris heard Fauré playing and saw the young man's talent. When Gabriel was nine years old Niedermeyer granted him a full bursary for an education at the institute, under his own direction.

The school offered a full education while also preparing students to take positions as organists and choirmasters in the Church. Mr Niedermeyer was a strict teacher, but kind. He recognized young Fauré's talents, and wanted to give him a technical foundation for his creativity, and a vocabulary with which to express himself in his own unique style, while keeping within the accepted principles of music. Fauré's music, as a result, is unique, but at the same time agreeable to the ear and never discordantly modern and revolutionary like much of the challenging music written by his contemporaries.

Gabriel was a solitary and quiet child who silently accepted the pranks that came with initiation to a new school. Even so, he had several good friends, one of whom was a famous French composer himself. Camille Saint-Saëns became the youngest professor at the Niedermeyer School in 1863. He was ten years Fauré's senior, and in his youth he was enthusiastic and friendly. Young Fauré was his favourite pupil, and they remained friends after Fauré completed his formal education. Saint-Saëns brought to the school, and to Gabriel, a taste for modern music that branched away from the traditional classicism of the cosmopolitan French school, as defined by Cesar Franck.

Through Saint-Saëns, Fauré became familiar with the music and culture of 19th century Paris. Fauré's music reflects the patriotic influence of the music of the capital. While many of his contemporaries and predecessors focused on war, heroism, and their own patronage as subjects for their work, Fauré's major influence was French nationalism. In 1871, with Saint-Saëns and several others, Fauré founded the Société Nationale de Musique in France. The Société served to support young French composers and get them the exposure they needed to make a career out of music.

Career and Works

In 1863, Fauré's first piano work, Trois Romances sans Paroles, Op. 17, was published. Rather than calling it Op. 1 Fauré gave the work opus number 17, so that buyers would be unaware that it was one of his first compositions. Through the next two years he wrote many works, including Le Papillon et la fleur, Op. 1, No. 1, and Après un rêve, Op. 7, No. 1.

In 1865, Fauré graduated and left the Niedermeyer School. The next year he became the organist at Saint-Saveur de Rennes. For thirty years he went from church to church, in the regular manner of his profession, acquiring knowledge of the ancient modes, enriching his technical musical vocabulary, and learning to apply these to his composition as well as his organ playing with good taste and subtlety. The one part of the religious service that Fauré loved was that part where he could improvise on the organ. Friends and admirers would come to the churches just to hear him play.

Though Fauré was educated in and worked in a religious environment, he was not at all a religious man. However, having an agreeable manner and a general politeness, he got along well with the French clergy. He was friendly and soft-spoken, but inflexible in his convictions. He supported himself by playing the organ in church during Mass, giving piano lessons, writing critiques and articles, teaching classes, inspecting musical institutions and giving examinations. He taught at his alma mater, the Niedermeyer School, and as a professor of composition and director at the Paris Conservatory. One of Fauré's more notorious students was the French composer Maurice Ravel. Fauré was also a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. However, Fauré did not consider any of these jobs as his career. They were only ways to sustain himself, and annoying diversions of his precious time from his true calling, while he worked on his compositions.

Fauré wrote both sacred music, such as his Messe de Requiem, and secular music like the well known Pavane. One of the main identifying characteristics of Fauré's music, and indeed of his personality, is the lack of violent expression. His pieces, however, do not lack excitement or vibrancy. They are full of grandeur and nobility. Fauré constantly played with rhythm, and concerned himself mostly with rhythm and melody.

In fact, Fauré was not a very skilled orchestrator himself, and often allowed his students and composer friends to orchestrate the pieces instead, leaving himself free to work on his next composition. As a result, according to some listeners, many of Fauré's large-scale works lack the impact of his usual smaller works, and do not compare to the operatic or symphonic compositions of composers such as Wagner.

All of Fauré's themes are simple and enchanting in themselves. They can easily be reduced to their original melodic forms without losing any of the wonder. Most of Fauré's work can be taken down to a piano score, without the need for orchestration. Nonetheless, his musical repertoire covers quite a broad range, and he did enjoy modest success in the world of large-scale works. His sole opera, Pénélope, premiered in 1913, ran for 17 performances that year, and was revived after the war. He wrote scores for several plays including Shylock and Pelléas et Mélisande, and several other orchestral works, including a single symphony, written in d minor. However, the composer destroyed many of his orchestral compositions at the end of his life, feeling that they did not live up to his own high standards for himself. Fauré truly covered many styles and forms, and you could say that he loved music simply for its own sake.

Many of Fauré's pieces are transformations of poems by writers such as Hugo and Baudelaire. Being involved in the 19th century artistic circles, Fauré was acquainted with not only musicians but also artists and writers of the time. Many of his friends recommended poems for the composer to put to music. Fauré was able to capture the true meaning of the poet's words in music. Fauré's objective, similar to that of the modern poet, was, as Nectoux said about his later music, 'to express the most elevated sentiments by the simplest means, so as to reach, in some form, the naked flesh of emotion.'

However, much as Fauré loved music, and disdained anything that distracted him from his compositions, he did have a profound sense of duty, which led him, in 1870, to join the First Regiment of the Imperial Light Infantry, when the Franco-Prussian war broke out. For his service in the French army, Fauré received the 'croix de guerre'. But as soon as the war was over, Fauré rushed back to Paris, and his work.

The Ladies in Fauré's Life

For a man who has been described as quiet, taciturn, introverted and solitary, Fauré had an intriguing love life.

Being a member of the Parisienne artistic circles, Fauré was a familiar figure in various salons. One home that he visited frequently was that of Pauline Viardot, a good friend and advisor to Fauré. Viardot had a daughter, Marianne, whom Fauré truly adored, and in 1877 Fauré asked her to marry him. Although Marianne was uncertain of her feelings, she did find Fauré attractive and intelligent. After much deliberation and some encouragement from mutual friends of the couple, Marianne agreed to the proposal.

During the interval between Gabriel's proposal and Marianne's acceptance, the two both fell ill, and were sent away to separate parts of France to recuperate. Although Marianne agreed to marry Gabriel, and the date was set for September, the separation during their illness put a strain on the relationship. Upon her return to Paris Marianne postponed the wedding date. The continued uncertainty was too much for Fauré, but when he voiced his opposition, the vehement display was just the excuse Marianne needed to break off the engagement.

This deeply affected Gabriel. Although he was usually too reserved to demonstrate his pain in his music, he was a very emotional man. A letter written by Romain Bussine, a good friend Fauré's, indicated that Gabriel had gone from taciturn, quiet and solitary to extroverted, gossipy, and energetic, remarking also that 'gentleness and affection simply shine out of his face'. Thus, the newly open-hearted Fauré, who was convinced that the break-up was his own fault, could not keep his sadness from showing in his works of the time. The minor keys of songs such as Après un rêve, Automne, Les Berceaux, and Le Voyageur demonstrate sombre emotion. Also written at the time, Fauré's Elégie for cello and piano begins as a funeral march.

However, Fauré had no intention of staying melancholy and unmarried indefinitely. One of the hobbies of Fauré's friend Marguerite Baugnies was matchmaking and arranging marriages. Mme Baugnies suggested three possible candidates for her friend to consider and, unable to decide between them, Gabriel drew names from a hat. The woman whose name he drew, Marie, was the daughter of sculptor Emmanuel Fremiet. After a brief engagement, Gabriel and Marie were married in 1883.

Marie was not very brilliant, ambitious, or particularly social, and she lacked any appeal for Fauré, who soon grew dissatisfied with the marriage. The Faurés had two sons, Emmanuel, born 1883, and Philippe, 1889. After the turn of the century, however, the couple saw very little of each other, corresponding exclusively by letter.

Fauré's unsuccessful romance with Marie Fremiet did not stop him from enjoying a full love life after their marriage. Of note, three women in particular captured the composer's attention over the years: Adela Maddison, Marguerite Long, and Marguerite Hasselmans.

Adela, a beautiful Irish woman and the wife of an English lawyer, enjoyed playing and composing music and ran a small publishing company. Her firm helped bring Fauré's music to England and Adela translated some of his songs into English. Eventually, Adela became both a personal admirer of Fauré's music, and the composer's mistress. Fauré dedicated the Seventh Nocturne to Mme Maddison.

Fauré and Marguerite Long were introduced by Mme Long's piano teacher in 1903. Fauré was impressed by her interpretation of his music, and she came to study with him. Marguerite's performances were helpful in promoting the composer's music, but her self-centred attitude and the way she latched onto Fauré's reputation, claiming that the Fauré tradition was hers alone, was disconcerting for the composer. He broke off their association in 1913, but Marguerite was an advocate of Fauré's music for the rest of her life.

Fauré's third lady love, Marguerite Hasselmans - whom he called 'Mme H' - was a fairly well rounded young woman of 24 when they met. The daughter of a harpist, she was a musician herself, and she also engaged in philosophy, smoked, wore makeup in public, and read Russian. Living with Fauré, performing with him and teaching piano in his home in Paris, Mme. H gained a lot of insight into the idiosyncrasies of Fauré's music. Although the composer was the same age as Marguerite's father, Fauré was quite attached to her, and he spent the last 24 years of his life with her.

The Master's Legacy

Besides leaving the world with a series of musical masterpieces that have been described as 'Sublime, ecstatic, introspective, elegant, intimate', Fauré has also made his mark on his younger contemporaries as a teacher and mentor. Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger were just two of Fauré's pupils at the Conservatoire that would go on to become famous in their own right. Fauré was a man who, despite the trends of his time toward anti-conformism and anti-traditionalism, stuck steadfastly to his musical principles, while still allowing his music to keep up with the time. He encouraged a similar attitude in his students, who were expected to pay attention to the rules and traditions that they were taught, but to stick up for themselves and be innovative as well.

Although Ravel was to test this open-mindedness considerably3, the younger composer gained much from his association with Fauré, a fact of which Ravel was aware. He and three of his classmates composed a string quartet in honour of their teacher, and the work was given to him with the words 'To my dear teacher Gabriel Fauré, in heartfelt homage.'

In 1903, Fauré began to notice a gradual loss of hearing and distortion of sounds. The hearing-loss progressed until 1920, when he had to resign from the Conservatory because he could no longer hear the compositions.

Fauré died with his wife and sons at his bedside, in Paris, at the age of 79, on 4 November, 1924. Thousands of friends, colleagues, students, admirers and loved ones gathered four days later at the Madeleine to pay their last respects. The grandeur of Fauré's funeral was of the sort usually reserved to heads of state, with many speeches, plumed horses, a ceremonial guard, and grand performances of Fauré's Elégie and the famous Requiem.

Fauré's student, Nadia Boulanger, had this to say at the funeral:

Of our admiration for you, Maitre, I need not speak here - we must prove it. But I want to thank you one last time... It is sweet for us to know that when all else is over... your noble soul will still be here, and the memory of your boundless goodness intact. Do not your immortal works preserve their imperishably sweet flavour?

Fauré's many beautiful and unique works, as well as the many students he taught, are the lasting evidence of the influence this great composer has had on the world of music.

Some Significant Works

  • 1865 Dans les ruines d'une abbaye - op. 2, no. 1 (Victor Hugo)
  • 1871 L'Absent - op. 5, no. 3 (Victor Hugo)
  • 1871 Chant d'automne - op. 5, no. 1 (Charles Baudelaire)
  • 1875 - 1876 Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1, in A major - op. 13
  • 1881 Messe de pêcheurs de Villerville - without opus number, for three-part women's choir and soloists. It was composed with André Messager, and contains five parts:
    1. Kyrie (Messager)
    2. Gloria (Fauré)
    3. Sanctus (Fauré)
    4. O Salutaris (Messager)
    5. Agnus Dei (Fauré)
  • 1887 - 1899 Requiem, for soprano and baritone solo, chorus, organ, and orchestra, in D minor - op. 48
  • 1988 Il est né le divin enfant - without opus no. carol for children's choir with organ, oboe, harp, cellos and double-basses
  • 1893- 1896 Dolly - op. 56, for piano duet, contains six pieces:
    1. Berceuse
    2. Mi-a-ou
    3. Le Jardin de Dolly
    4. Kitty valse
    5. Tendresse
    6. Le Pas espagnol
  • 1906 Ave Maria - op. 93, for two sopranos and organ
  • 1907 - 1912 Pénélope - without opus no. (text by René Fauchois), opera in three acts
  • 1917 Sonata no. 1 for Cello and Piano, in D minor - op. 109
  • 1919 Masques et bergamasques, orchestral suite - op. 112, four movements:
    1. Ouverture
    2. Menuet
    3. Gavotte
    4. Pastorale
  • 1923 - 1924 String Quartet, in E minor - op. 121
1Who was his teacher and good friend.2An organ-like keyboard wind instrument.3Many of Ravel's compositions were humorous whereas Fauré saw music as a strictly serious form of expression.

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