Fauré :The Nocturnes

Composition was actually a difficult process for Gabriel Fauré; in 1903, for instance, he composed almost nothing, and when ideas came to him he often did not know either how to order them, or even for what sort of work they were intended. His was an art of ’pure’ music, and that art was centred on the piano, though he had no need of a piano at which to compose — indeed, as his deafness encroached, it became more of a hindrance. He confessed that composition for the piano was “perhaps the most difficult genre of all” because “it was no good using padding. Everything had to be interesting and to the point all the time”, and his relatively slow start at piano-solo writing would tend to corroborate this.

Anyone who has tried to play piano music by Fauré will know how unusual it feels under the fingers. Despite any of the more obvious influences on the piano writing — Schumann, rather than Chopin, as one might expect of such a great song composer; Liszt; Saint-Saëns — there is something peculiarly unfamiliar about his figurations. Allied to his prodigious lyrical gift, his studies at the Ecole Niedermeyer, and especially with Saint-Saëns, made him familiar with the old modes, and with the music of J. S. Bach (then much neglected), and from this grew on the one hand a harmonic language which blended tonality and modality in a very fresh and personal way, and on the other a contrapuntal ingenuity, above all with regard to the interrelation between melody and bass (“A nous les basses!” — “The bass is also our concern” — was one of Fauré’s favourite maxims) which involve the fingers in all sorts of unaccustomed patterns. It is surely this that Liszt sensed when he declared Fauré’s Ballade “too difficult”.

Though it is often assumed that Fauré’s piano music has been somehow overshadowed by that of Debussy and Ravel, his present neglect is nothing new. By the turn of the century, before Debussy and Ravel had begun their great series of works, the majority of Fauré’s piano music was already written and was simply ignored. In 1913, at work on his 10th. Barcarolle, Fauré wrote “As to the piece I have started, it will only be the fiftieth or more of my piano pieces that, with rare exceptions, pianists allow to pile up without playing. That has been their lot for 20 years”. Marguerite Long recounts the disinterestedness of even his first publisher, Hamelle, and that at one time Mme. Hamelle used to cover her pots of jam with unsold works of Fauré!

The perennial accusation of ‘salon music’ levelled at Fauré has seemed merited whilst only the ‘smaller’ pieces have been played with any frequency, and in what might be termed a ‘salon’ style. Again, Mme. Long reveals that Fauré confided to her how “it always gives me great pleasure to hear myself played with verve. On the pretext of getting involved in the work, people always play me as if the blinds were down, just the way they think that you have no need of a voice to sing my songs”. Debussy’s assessment of Fauré as ‘the master of charms’ has, I suspect, more to do with Fauré the ladies’ man than Fauré the composer! (Fauré’s infatuation with Emma Bardac, who later became Debussy’s second wife, is well-known — La Bonne Chanson was written for her; he dedicated more works to her than to anyone else; and, of course, her daughter Dolly was the eponymous ‘heroine’ of the famous suite.) Nevertheless, the music will sound as though it only has surface charm if only surface charm is explored. ‘Charm’ is, indeed, the quality most often associated with Fauré’s music, at least the earlier music; the equivalent way of talking about his later works is to refer to them as belonging to the ‘mellow autumn’ of his life. Against this background it is not surprising to read of ‘unexpected' violence or ‘startlingly passionate strength’.

Nowhere is the complex nature of Fauré’s art better exemplified than in the great series of 13 Nocturnes. They span almost the whole of his creative life, the first dating from 1875 when he was 30, the last from 1921 when he was 76. Whilst the appellation ‘Nocturne’ is neutral rather than evocative, it is quite clear that ‘Nocturne’ was chosen for piano pieces of the greatest emotional weight and depth, ranging from the poised equilibrium of No. 4 to the great struggle of No. 13, from the long lines of No. 7 to the terse and epigrammatic No. 9, from the uninterruptedly radiant flow of No. 3 to the inarticulateness of No. 10, from the serenity of No. 6 to the anguish and torment of No. 12.

This emotional range is projected in an equivalent variety of plastic forms and through an ever-growing arsenal of compositional techniques. The first 5 Nocturnes belong to the first great flowering of Fauré’s genius as a piano composer. Though, as suggested earlier, the piano writing owes less to Chopin than is generally supposed, the ABA, ‘calm — agitated — calm’, scheme is typically Chopinesque. Another quintessential Fauréan feature again derived from Chopin is that there are no introductions but all-important codas towards which everything leads — summations, fulfillments, resolutions, or qualifications.

Fauré wrote regretfully of the ‘similarity’ of his music: “It seems that I repeat myself constantly and that I cannot find a noticeably different approach from that already expressed”, and yet listening to the 6th. Nocturne which is separated from the 5th. by 10 years one is aware of an enormous development. Apart from the much richer, subtler, harmony there is, already, a mixture of sensuous lyrical appeal and something approaching the sparer, more angular manner of his later works. The piece juxtaposes various independent blocks of material which, however seem to dove-tail so logically and inevitably. Though quite unanalysable, it remains one of Fauré’s perfect works.

The 7th Nocturne is also multi-sectional but what is very striking is the way that each section, even the opening, starts from something unresolved. Although there are no long tunes, just evolving melodic cells, this is the longest, most ‘developed’ of the Nocturnes, surely because, while everything appears eventually to be resolved in one of Fauré’s most miraculous codas, we sense for the first time the difficulty of saying anything categorically.

© Paul Crossley