Fauré builts a bridge into musical modernity

Post-romantic harmony. © Charles Thibo

Can you imagine two rivers flowing one inside  the other? For clarity’s sake let’s say one is a dark blue, slow and heavy, thick stream while the other is a light blue, fluid and blubbering spring flowing in and above the other one. Can you picture these two flows in your head? Good. This is what Gabriel Fauré’s Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 117 would look like if I were to paint it. I guess I am a better writer than painter, but this picture immediately formed in my head when I listened to this sonata for the first time.

Gabriel Fauré was a French Romantic composer and lived from 1845 to 1924. He learned to play the piano and the organ; one of his teachers was Camille de Saint-Saëns, who became a lifelong friend and who would launch together with Fauré the Sociéte Nationale de Musique, whose mission it was to promote French music and French musicians. Fauré is considered the missing link between Romanticism and modern classic music in France; Oxford Music Online calls him “the most advanced figure in French music until the appearance of Debussy”.

After Saint-Saëns, before Debussy

Fauré composed the second cello sonata between March and November 1921, at the end of his career. A year earlier, in 1920, he had retired from his teaching position at the Conservatoire de Paris and he could devote himself entirely to composition.  1920 – this was an important year. Fauré was awarded an official distinction usually reserved for heads of state and very high civil and military officials for their achievements in the political field. The only musician to share this honour was Camille de Saint-Saëns.

I looked up the original documents at France’s National Archives  and I quote here from the official proceedings: “Since the death of Camille de Saint-Saëns, Fauré is unanimously recognized by French and foreign composers as the head of our music school and as its most glorious representative. He is venerated by all artists. Those who have already attained their mastership passionately and deeply admire him, younger [artists] considered as innovators claim the Fauré is at the source of their creativity.”

Warmth and humbleness

The pianist-composer Thomas Adès and the cellist Steven Isserlis have recorded this sonata for the Hyperion label, and I hope these two exceptional musicians are not too offended by my clumsy associations in my introduction. Cello Sonata No. 2 is a wonderful autumn piece, exuding a warm, comfortable and peaceful mood, with just a touch of nostalgia every now and then. What struck me: A composer receives one of France’s highest awards and a year later he writes a piece that symbolizes the humbleness of an artist entirely devoted to his art. Outstanding.

Roger Nichols, an expert on French music and author of many liner notes, explains that Fauré used in the sonata “two contrasting themes: the first a scalic idea that turns back on itself, the second based on a descending third. But instead of presenting these some way apart, as first and second subjects, they are contrasted from the beginning and, again, Fauré uses canon (albeit freely) as a means of increasing the tension.”

Two streams of music, distinct but complementary, two instruments equally valued by the composer, a well-balanced structure, in its emotional expressivity true to the Romantic heritage of the composer and at the same time transcending the Romantic world of harmony, a self-conscious pledge to modernity. Evolution, not revolution.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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