Mélodies III: Fauré in Isfahan – the early works

By John Shakespeare Dyson | May 25, 2020


We now come to the last in our series of explorations of the works of composers of chansons – French art songs. The purpose of the series, which has so far covered Reynaldo Hahn and Achille-Claude Debussy, is to give people something to occupy them while in isolation. This instalment will focus on the songs of Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924), pictured above in 1864, at the École Niedermayer (left and middle) and in 1868 (right). As with my piece on Debussy, this one will be in two parts.

‘Who is this guy Fauré? I’ve never heard of him!’ you may say. Oh, but you have: here are three of his most famous works. Firstly, his Dolly Suite for piano (four hands), performed by the Jussen brothers – who gave one of the Istanbul Recitals at The Seed in Emirgan in October 2018:

Secondly, his Élégie for cello and piano. The cellist is Jacqueline du Pré. This video comes with some moving close-ups of her face – at the age of 28 her career was cut short by multiple sclerosis, leading to her death 14 years later. Here, the accompanist is Gerald Moore:

Thirdly, Fauré’s Pavane for orchestra – his biggest hit – played by the Philadelphia Orchestra (the conductor is not named):

A native of Pamiers (in southwest France, close to the border with Spain), Gabriel was packed off to Paris at the age of nine to study at the École Niedermayer, which specialised in church music: there, he received a thorough training as an organist and choirmaster. Among his teachers was Camille Saint-Saëns, who became a lifelong friend. It was Saint-Saëns, in fact, who was responsible for encouraging his pupil to take his first steps in the field of composition. After graduating from the École Niedermayer, Fauré’s career took a predictable course: he secured an appointment as organist at a church at Rennes, in Brittany, supplementing his income by giving piano lessons. He found life there unappealing, however, and after four years this provincial ordeal was mercifully brought to an end by shame and scandal. The parish priest had never been particularly impressed by his organist, being particularly miffed by the man’s habit of stealing out of the church during his sermons to smoke a cigarette. The crunch came when the fellow turned up to play at Mass one Sunday in his evening clothes, having been out all night at a ball. He was asked to resign.

Although by this time Fauré had begun to compose, he rarely had the opportunity to do so as church duties took up so much of his time. The first of his chansons to be published, Le papillon et la fleur (‘The Butterfly and the Flower’), is a jaunty setting of a poem by Victor Hugo. It dates from 1865, at which time our composer was 20 years old. Here is a link to Richard Stokes’s English translation of the poem on the Oxford Lieder website. The singer in the following recording is Elly Ameling, and the pianist Dalton Baldwin. The notes under the YouTube version (by Jeremy Grimshaw, taken from the AllMusic website) are quite instructive, and you also get the score:

Gabriel’s next appointment (secured with the help of Saint-Saëns) was as assistant organist at a church near Paris. This gig had only been up and running for a few months, however, when the Franco-Prussian War broke out. Fauré volunteered for military service, saw serious action in several battles, and was awarded a Croix de guerre. In the spring of the following year – the time of the Paris Commune (an insurrection in which, by the way, Debussy’s father took part) – he travelled to Switzerland. There he became a teacher at the École Niedermayer, which like him had relocated to escape the violence. Wikipedia notes the following:

‘Fauré's compositions from this period did not overtly reflect the turmoil and bloodshed. Some of his colleagues, including Saint-Saëns, Gounod and Franck, produced elegies and patriotic odes. Fauré did not, but according to his biographer Jessica Duchen, his music acquired “a new sombreness, a dark-hued sense of tragedy... evident mainly in his songs of this period including L'Absent, Seule! and La Chanson du pêcheur”.’

Let us see if you agree with that judgement. Here is La Chanson du pêcheur (‘The Song of the Fisherman’), a setting of a lament by Théophile Gautier. Oxford Lieder does not, unfortunately, provide a translation of this poem, but Christopher Goldsack supplies the lack on the Mélodie Treasury website. La Chanson du pêcheur, composed in 1872, is sung here by Nathalie Stutzmann. The pianist is Catherine Collard:

Now, a performance of the song by Gérard Souzay, accompanied by Dalton Baldwin:

Why, one wonders, did Fauré’s music fail to reflect the turbulence of his times? Well… no prizes for guessing that I will seek the answer to this question in his astrological make-up. Both his Sun and his Ascendant are in Taurus, a sign ruled by Venus, planet of harmony. The Moon, meanwhile, is in comforting, home-loving Cancer; this is her very favourite placement. Taurus is in sextile (that is, 60-degree) aspect to Cancer, making the two signs natural allies – although the Bull is likely to spill Cancer’s milky bedtime drink all over the chintzy coverlet. So it seems Fauré’s basic nature was agreeable, harmonious and not a little pleasure-loving: indeed, it is said that the ladies were not at all averse to his company. 

Other features of his birth chart are less positive. Jupiter in Aries is making a friendly sextile to Neptune in Aquarius, it is true; this aspect is no doubt responsible for the religious background (the Church being ruled by Jupiter, and the spiritual aspect of religion by Neptune). At the same time, however, Neptune is conjunct leaden Saturn in the tenth house – that of career – and both these planets are making a tense square to the Sun. This fact explains two things: firstly, Fauré’s lack of firm commitment to any form of organised religion (in any case, Aquarian rebelliousness is bound to spoil the sermon sooner or later), and secondly, his failure to achieve success as a composer until late in life – Saturn loves long, arduous ascents, and a square from this planet to the Sun is the ultimate ego-wilting wet blanket. The military exploits, meanwhile, are probably accounted for by Mars close to the Midheaven (the significator of reputation – remember the medal?). And, of course, those buff bulls are not invariably placid: the Egyptian hieroglyph representing this sign featured a bird well known for its fight-picking proclivities.

It seems that in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, Fauré went through a period of depression and self-doubt. With Saturn and Neptune so close together in his chart, compromising his belief in his own worthiness, he was perhaps bound to implode sooner or later. But that is not all: the poor guy had a hidden supertroll tailing him like some galactic Gollum – nasty Pluto in the 12th house, the realm of secrets and self-undoing. Pluto is, moreover, exactly square his Cancer Moon, undermining him emotionally at every step. Not by any means a happy camper.

Let us take a break from these astrological astringencies and turn the clock back to happier times. Here are two songs composed during Fauré’s youth. Settings of poems by Victor Hugo (click on the titles for English translations, once again by Christopher Goldsack), Rêve d’amour  dates from 1864 and Dans les ruines d’une abbaye from around 1866. The performers in both the following videos are Elly Ameling and (guess who?) the redoubtable Dalton Baldwin:

Lydia (c1870) is also fairly light-hearted. The author of the poem is Leconte de Lisle. Here is Christopher Goldsack’s translation.  In this recording the singer is Véronique Gens, and the pianist Roger Vignoles:

Now, back to the moodier stuff with Fauré’s 1873 (or thereabouts) setting of Tristesse, a poem by Théophile Gautier. Here is a link to an English translation by David Paley from the Poems Without Frontiers website. In my opinion this song is a classic. May I venture to say that no one does triple time like the French? In this recording Gérard Souzay is accompanied by Jacqueline Bonneau. The piano sounds rather tinny, but the singer’s rendition is a spirited one, and Ms Bonneau’s co-ordination with him is perfect:

Now the same song performed by Victoria de los Angeles and Gonzalo Soriano:

Another triple-time triumph is Au bord de l’eau. The date of the song’s composition is unclear (by which I mean that no two sources agree on the point), but I will venture to guess that the right answer is 1875. The poem is by Sully Prudhomme, and here is Christopher Goldsack’s translation. The singer in this recording is Régine Crespin, my all-time favourite. I am so enchanted by this performance that I have overlooked the fact that the accompanist is not named:

An alternative rendition: this time, we hear Sylvia McNair, accompanied by Roger Vignoles. Notice how completely the voice merges with the piano:

Sylvia McNair (a soprano from Ohio, born in 1956) does Broadway and jazz as well. Here, she is accompanied by André Previn (Andreas Ludwig Priwin, 1929-2019), who as well as being a pianist, arranger, music director and conductor was also a prolific composer of film music. The title of the song is Folks Who Live on the Hill. I assure you that absolutely no reference to American politics is intended:

Time for a biographical catch-up: in 1871 Fauré was appointed choirmaster of the Église Saint-Sulpice in Paris, working with the organist and composer Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937). Even if you haven’t heard of Widor, you may recognise the Toccata from his Organ Symphony No 5. This performance by Frederick Hohman on an organ in Newark, New Jersey gives you the score:

Wikipedia gives us an important piece of information about this period:

‘During some services Widor and Fauré improvised simultaneously at the church’s two organs, trying to catch each other out with sudden changes of key.’

I would hazard the opinion that the changes of key – indeed, the unchained modulations – that are so prominent in Fauré’s later songs may have been prompted, at least to some extent, by this experience. But more of that later… Earlier in the year 1871 Fauré had become a founding member (along with Saint-Saëns) of the Société Nationale de Musique, at whose concerts his works were regularly performed. It was here, in fact, that in January 1877 he notched up his first major success as a composer; the work in question was his Violin Sonata No 1. (As previously noted, Saturn, the Doyen of Disappointment, sat on him for ages before letting his light shine through.) Here is the sonata performed by Bomsori Kim – whom I heard play Bruch’s first violin concerto with the Tekfen Philharmonic Orchestra in March 2019 – and Hanna Holeksa:

Another development that took place in 1877 was Fauré’s appointment as choirmaster of the Église de la Madeleine. This may have been a source of professional satisfaction, but yet again the job left him little time for serious composition. And Saturn had hidden one more box of Bad News chocs up his sly sleeve. This time the disappointment was in Gabriel’s personal life – towards the end of the year his fiancée Marianne, with whom he was deeply in love, broke off their engagement. To take his distraught protégé’s mind off his troubles, Saint-Saëns took him to Weimar and introduced him to Franz Liszt.

The trip had an unexpected spin-off: it turned Fauré on to foreign travel in a big way. He had a chum – and former composition pupil – by the name of André Messager (1853–1929). Messager was successively conductor of the Opéra-Comique, the Paris Opéra and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and had his compositions performed not just in Paris but also in the West End and on Broadway. From 1878 onwards the two had regular Ring-binges, sitting through the whole of the cycle twice, first in Munich and then in London. (Gluttons for punishment! How they did it I really don’t know. I make no apologies for the fact that with the exception of Wagner’s marvellous overtures, I find his operas oppressive. Four hours of ruthless recitativo? No thanks!)

As I have already admitted, Fauré never made it as far as Isfahan. However, Switzerland was often on the cards, as I will have cause to remark in the second part of this piece. And speaking of travel, I will leave you, if I may, with an anecdote about Saint-Saëns. On one occasion, when he had gone off to an island to compose – I can’t remember if it was Madeira or Mallorca – he was surprised to find himself being questioned by the police on suspicion of being a spy. It transpired that the chambermaid who cleaned his hotel room had seen discarded pieces of manuscript paper lying in his wastepaper basket. Being a public-spirited lady, she had shopped him for writing suspicious messages in what she took to be some dastardly secret code.


The 1868 photograph of Gabriel Fauré from the Interlude website's post on the women in the composer's life, Babe Magnet Gabriel Fauré Marianne Viardot and Marie Frémiet (May 13, 2020).

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