Gabriel Fauré’s String Quartet in E Minor (op. 121) will forever be associated in my mind with the morning after I had heard Debussy’s quartet. Debussy’s piece had had a deep and lasting impact upon me the day before. I rose in the morning to drive to work, and while I drove by that field in the picture I immersed myself in the first movement of Fauré’s piece. The field, the sun, the sky, the music…
The warm glow was instantly back, at the same time I realized the freshness, both outside – it was around 7 o’clock – and in the music performed by the Quatuor Ebène. Tranquility, not the longing for peace, but the experience of peace, a deeply felt serenity – very different from the serenity Johann Sebastian Bach’s music makes me experience – and a contemplation of the modern world with all its contradictions, void of judgments and fears, a contemplation of the world as it is.
Asking why, why, why
An unbiased contemplation of the world – the view of a newly born child. A few days before I started to write this post, a woman unknown to me gave birth to a daughter in the city of London. Her auntie, a fellow blogger, wrote a moving post about it, encapsulating all the blessings an auntie could give her niece. Being a child again, looking at the world without prejudices, without being manipulated by politicians, journalists or other intermediaries. Seeing for oneself, trying stuff. Asking why, why, why. Why isn’t the earth flat and if it isn’t why don’t why fall off? Never trust the appearances – this is the message I would like to pass to that little one. Ask questions! Always. And don’t be satisfied with easy answers. And do the unheard of. Let yourself be amazed by the world and amaze the world by your ideas, your creativity, your joy, your energy.
A talented man, a difficult man
So where does it leave us with Fauré and the quartet? Fauré amazed his contemporaries. Such a genius! Such an audacity! Such a harsh critic of himself! Withdrawn at times, ebullient and jocular at others. The biographer Jean-Michel Nectoux wonders whether Fauré was not afraid of his own talent, trying to hide his love for sublime beauty and deep feelings. His music is marked by the delicate expression of emotions, a very special tenderness. The three movements of the quartet are a long, reflective vision, maximal expression with minimal means, a morning meditation over the beauty of the world, of life, of human possibilities. Perhaps they express all that Fauré could never say with words.
Fauré got his musical training at the Ecole de Musique Classique et Religieuse, also known as the Ecole Niedermeyer. It had been established by Louis Niedermeyer in 1818 with the help of Napoleon III to promote religious music in France. Fauré stayed for 11 years at the Ecole Niedermeyer; he studied plainsong, the organ and Renaissance polyphonic works. This education marked his later style as his concept of tonality went beyond anything that was taught by music scholars at the time. When Niedermeyer died in 1861, Fauré met Camille de Saint-Saëns who took over the piano class. By then he had already won a first prize in the piano class, a first prize in the composition class and a second prize in the harmony class. A hidden talent!
Piano and chamber music
Fauré was appointed as an organist to different churches in Paris and returned to the Ecole Niedermeyer as a teacher. In the 1870s he joined the circle around Saint-Saëns, where he socialized with all the members of Parisian musical society, among them Pauline Viardot, whom we have already met in an earlier post. He became engaged to Viardot’s daughter Marianne, “but the engagement was broken off […] by the girl, who felt only affection mixed with fear for her fiancé”, says Oxford Music Online. Mutual misunderstandings, Viardot’s fragility and Fauré’s timidity, easily mistaken for indifference, seemed to have triggered the rupture.
In 1896 Fauré became composition teacher at the Paris Conservatory, the secular rival of the Ecole Niedermeyer. Unheard of! He had socialized with the right people in Paris and nobody could deny his genius. A few years later hecwould be appointed director and a wave of modernity would shake the conservatory. Fauré composed a huge number of avant-garde instrumental music during this time, mainly piano music, chamber music, a symphony, that he rejected later, an unfinished violin concerto and two sets of incidental music, a form that he describes in a letter to Saint-Saëns as “the only [one] which is suited to my meagre talents”.
The quartet was the last piece that Fauré wrote before his death. He composed it between September 1923 and summer 1924. It was premiered after Fauré’s death. The composer had declined an offer to have it performed privately before his death. It wouldn’t have done much good. From 1903 on Fauré was deaf. The quartet has been described as a meditation over the last things. For me it is a meditation about the first things.
© Charles Thibo