The ninth of November, 2010: spleen and paradise

A long and contemplative bus ride today, soundtracked thus:

Gabriel Fauré wrote his Requiem op.48 “for the pleasure of it”, apparently, which reflects, I think, a refreshingly upbeat approach to the writing of masses for the dead. It was a long job, taking over 20 years to assume its present form, the composition extending from 1877 to about 1893, and the re-orchestration for full ensemble being completed only in 1900.

Fauré’s biography in Grove’s Dictionary of Music (available free online to library-card holders) details an unfortunate love life (even though “[a]ll witnesses agree that Fauré was extraordinarily attractive”):

“In July [1877] he became engaged to Marianne Viardot (daughter of Pauline) with whom he had been in love for five years, but the engagement was broken off in October by the girl, who felt only affection mixed with fear for her fiancé.”

Yikes. It gets worse:

“On 27 March 1883 he married Marie Fremiet, the daughter of a highly regarded sculptor. Although he always retained great affection for his wife, her withdrawn, bitter and difficult character, coupled with his keen sensuality and desire to please, explain his infidelities.”

No wonder he started suffering from “spleen” once he hit his forties.

So what of his requiem?  I’ve always assumed that the requiem is a piece of classical music that people who really like classical music don’t really like, mainly because (a) I like it, particularly the Sanctus, and I don’t know anything about classical music, and (b) I can imagine it being used in an advert for a high-end saloon car or a provincial tourist board, or possibly being played on a harp by a nine-year-old on a Saturday teatime television programme.

But Fauré was, it seems, no populist; he “felt too much distaste for theatrical effects to be able to create a popular work”. According to the Britannica, the requiem “did not gain immediate popularity, but … has since become one of Fauré’s most frequently performed works”.

Moving on to critical analysis that I won’t pretend to understand…

According to Grove’s, Fauré “was a consummate master of the art of unfolding a melody: from a harmonic and rhythmic cell he constructed chains of sequences that convey – despite their constant variety, inventiveness and unexpected turns – an impression of inevitability. The long entreaty of the In Paradisum in the Requiem is a perfect example of such coherence: its 30 bars form one continuous sentence.”

This is the sort of thing that leaves me feeling deeply inadequate (as Auden said of his experience of being a poet in the company of scientists, like “a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes”). I have no idea, really, what it means – but here is the In Paradisum, so you can listen for yourself.

Fun trivia fact: Fauré was ambidextrous, a trait that is reflected in the equal treatment of the hands in his piano works.

Fauré is sometimes criticised for having chosen rubbish poems to set to music. To this, Grove’s ripostes that this criticism “ignores the fact that he sometimes chose his texts for their pliability, lack of reference to sounds and, particularly, lack of visual descriptions that would restrict him”.

I’ll finish with one of the poems that Fauré set to music: ‘To Clyméne’ by Paul Verlaine, from Fêtes galantes, no. 16, published 1869 (which became ‘À Clymène‘, op. 58 no. 4, in Cinq mélodies ‘De Venise’). The translation from the French is by AS Klein.

Mystical singing-birds,

Romances without words,

Dear, because your eyes

The shade of skies,


Because your voice, strange

Vision that must derange,

Troubling the horizon

Of my reason,


Because the rare perfume

Of your swanlike paleness,

Because the innocence

Of your fragrance,


Ah, because all your being,

Music so piercing,

Clouds of lost angels,

Tones and scents,


Has by soft cadences

With its correspondences,

Lured my subtle heart, Oh

Let it be so!

He could’ve chosen worse. Something by Pam Ayres, for instance.


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