Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fauré: The Requiem and much more

  I expect to attend two performances of this work over this concert season, both here in Hamilton.  Fauré is my special favourite composer whose music I first encountered in the Requiem when I sang it in a performance by my high school choir. I subsequently learned and performed some of the songs. I've since become familiar with many more of the songs and cycles, much of his piano and chamber music, and the opera Penélope, on CDs.
Many musically knowledgeable people, aside from pianists and singers, believe that the Requiem is all of Fauré's music with which they are familiar. This is usually not the case. For example, the song Après un rêve has been arranged for instrumentalists numerous times. Incidental music like the Pavane from Masques et Bergamasques and the Sicilienne from Pelléas et Mélisande have turned up as radio program themes and continue to do so accompanying other media.
There's a quality of restraint and sophistication that permeates the music. Nothing is jarring or incongruous. He has complete control of his materials. He seems not to "push the envelope" as did many of his contemporaries but some time spent listening to the late cycle, L'horizon chimérique, will demonstrate that he continued experimenting within his musical universe until the very end.
He was trained at the École Niedermeyer as a church musician (he studied composition with Saint-Saens) from the age of 9 but eventually became a composition teacher and the the head of the prestigious Conservatoire. This early training offered him familiarity with church modes and chant and led him to a wonderful sense of melody, and the peculiar and individual harmonic vocabulary which is very evident in the Requiem.
Having said that, the piano music is very much in the tradition of mainstream 19th C. salon and concert works by composers like Field and Chopin. I'm not much of a pianist and can't begin to play any of it. He is partial to "three handed" textures in which the thumb and first fingers of both hands play a melody in the middle register while the other fingers play independent lines above and below it. I suspect pianists don't learn and program Fauré's piano music because it is so difficult but must not seem so. It's uniformly beautiful, but not very flashy. A pianist can make more of an impression playing Lizst or Rachmaninoff.
Some of the songs sound vaguely "churchy" (Au Cimetière), some are almost classical (Clair de Lune) and others unabashedly romantic (Automne). The difficulty of their piano accompaniments is often scaled back, making them accessible to less virtuosic players.
He claimed to have written the Requiem for no particular reason and, being himself an agnostic at best, it can't have had the kind of religious significance for him that one might expect. He was, however, for years the organist at l'église de la Madeleine and professionally familiar with a great deal of Catholic liturgical music. He altered some of the Latin texts that he chose and omitted others that are typically included. The entire work takes just over half an hour. There are two soloists, a treble (Pie Jesus) and a baritone (Hostias, Libera me), although the treble solo is now usually performed by a woman. The Offertoire and Libera me (with baritone solo) were composed after the other movements had been premièred.
The original is for chamber orchestra with organ but no violins (except a solo violin in the last movement). There are two later versions, the final one, with a much larger orchestra, probably not the work of the composer at all. His publisher was anxious to have the piece performed as a concert, rather than liturgical work. Today, it is often done with only organ accompaniment playing an orchestral reduction.
As it is currently performed, the Requiem has seven movements:

       Introit and Kyrie
       Pie Jesus
       Agnus Dei et Lux Aeterna
       Libera me
       In Paradisum

  It is calm and peaceful throughout, only rising to a forte in the Hosanna. Let's leave it to the composer to explain his intention: "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... 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.

Thurs. Nov. 10, 2011, Central Presbyterian Church, Hamilton
Sun. April 29, 2012, St. Paul's United Church, Dundas: Mohawk College Community Singers

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