The noon posting – Gabriel Fauré, Requiem

Rack up the quality setting, crank the volume and lie on the sofa.
 

 
“It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience. The music of Gounod has been criticized for its overinclination towards human tenderness. But his nature predisposed him to feel this way: religious emotion took this form inside him. Is it not necessary to accept the artist’s nature? As to my Requiem, perhaps I have also instinctively sought to escape from what is thought right and proper, after all the years of accompanying burial services on the organ! I know it all by heart. I wanted to write something different.”

 
Notes edited from here: Fauré began sketches for the Requiem in 1887. Unlike many composers, he was not drawn to compose a Requiem because of the death of a loved one. Rather than offer visions of the terrors to come, Fauré said that he saw death “as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards the happiness of the hereafter, rather than as a painful passing away.” For this reason, Fauré’s setting is remarkably subdued, omits entirely the Sequenz segment, with its visions of wrath and hellfire, and adds the Pie Jesu and In Paradisum texts, which are not part of the Requiem proper but emphasise the granting of eternal rest.

By the time of the first performance, on January 16 1888, there were five movements: an Introit and Kyrie, the Sanctus, Pie Jesu, Agnus Dei, and In Paradisum. To perform the work, Fauré called for a mixed choir with divided tenors and basses, a soprano soloist, an orchestra of low strings (violas, cellos, and double basses), harp, timpani, and organ, with a violin solo in the Sanctus. He added an Offertoire in 1889, and added a setting of the Libera Me that he had written for baritone and organ some twelve years earlier. He added horns, trumpets, and trombones to the orchestra, and a baritone soloist, and this version was first performed at the Madeleine in January of 1893.

Fauré’s publisher wanted a larger-scale work, though, leading to a final revision premiered in July 1900 at the Trocadéro in Paris.

As a choirmaster and organist, Fauré constantly sought to create a new kind of church music. He wanted something different than the operatic bel canto style which was popular in Paris at the time, and different than the outsized, large-scale Germanic Romantic style which dominated the rest of Europe. Along the way, he helped to establish a distinctive French style which set the stage for the development of the Impressionist style of Debussy and Ravel.

For example, the composers of the day tended to write for progressively bigger and bigger orchestras, with thicker, more complicated textures, and phrases which stuck slavishly to the divisions of the bar line. Fauré, on the other hand, opted for smaller ensembles and spare orchestrations, omitting violins and winds in the Requiem, for instance, when he felt they were unnecessary.

Fauré also thought on a smaller, more intimate scale than many of his contemporaries. There are none of the larger-than-life, outsized statements of a Wagner or a Berlioz here; the entire Requiem has some 30 bars of fortissimo singing, and most of it doesn’t rise above mezzoforte. Instead, Fauré uses subtle gradations in dynamic, color, and harmony to achieve the effects that he wants. And in the Requiem, these gradations often follow the central points of emphasis in the text.

In some ways, though, Fauré’s style involves some paradox. One example is the curious relationship between freedom and control. In his piano music, his chamber compositions, his songs, and his vocal works, phrases emerge that are freed from the tyranny of the strong-weak-strong-weak four-beat bar line. For the Requiem, he draws melodic inspiration from the tunes and rhythms of Gregorian chant, which thought in similarly long phrases. But Fauré was quite explicit about how to go about achieving this freedom. He knew exactly what he wanted, and is scrupulously precise in his directions on rhythm, dynamics, and phrase length. As a result, even more than in other composers, it is essential in singing Fauré to pay strict attention to every marking in the text. Often, Fauré’s effects depend on very subtle shifts in dynamics or harmony, shifts that require meticulous attention to bring off successfully.

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