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Fauré was one of the most prominent French composers of his era. He had a deeply personal style that was to have a widespread influence on composers of the early twentieth century. His melodic and harmonic innovations had an even longer influence, namely in the teaching of harmony for most of the 20th century.
The youngest of six children, Fauré showed immense musical skill as a child and was sent to study music. Young Gabriel spent 11 years as a boarding school pupil at the newly established Ecole Niedermeyer in Paris. The school was set up to enrich the level of music in French churches. His classes included organ, plainsong and Renaissance polyphonic works as well as literature. His piano teacher, Saint-Saëns was a revelation to him and remained his friend for life. Fauré foundSaint-Saëns to be a thoroughly inspiring teacher who gave his pupils an immense intellectual stimulus in the field of modern music and the arts in general.
Fauré’s first employment was as organist at St Sauveur in Rennes in 1866. The provincial life of Brittany did not suit the young musician, however it was nevertheless a period of intense composition, in which he was constantly searching for a personal style. After four years he moved back to Paris and was appointed organist at three different churches of the following four years. The three masterpieces of his youth are the First Violin Sonata, theFirst Piano Quartet and the Ballade for piano. It was in these years that Fauré travelled frequently. In late 1877, he went to Weimar where he metLiszt and he went to hearWagner’s operas at Cologne and Munich.
The 1890s were a great turning point in Fauré’s life. We was well-esteemed by a group of friends and musicians at the Societé Nationale de Musique, which had been set up to encourage the performance of works by living French composers. In 1896 he became the chief organist at the Madeleine and then he succeeded Massenet as teacher of composition at the Paris Conservatoire. His pupils includedEnescu, Nadia Boulanger and Ravel.
Marcel Proust knew Fauré and was ‘intoxicated’ by his music. In the grand salons of Paris at the time, for instance those of Mme de Saint-Marceaux and of the Princesse Edmond de Polignac, Fauré’s music was hugely celebrated. Music was important to this particularly society interested in ‘art’ and its fashions. Although both Proust and Fauré have been criticised for the superficial company they kept, Fauré was said to be far from snobbish – he kept up with these circles out of earnest friendship rather than a perceived necessity to appear fashionable. Fauré was said to have had a serene, diplomatic character and a gentle manner of speech, which can be reflected in his music.
Fauré recorded his Pavane and Sicilienne for player piano, an instrument that was popular in many Parisian homes at the time.
In 1905 Fauré became director of the Paris Conservatoire. This position made him more well-known and his compositions became more widely performed. He acquired the nickname ‘Robespierre’ due to his new important reforms that he implemented in the school, which led to various staff members resigning. In 1920, he himself resigned from the Conservatoire at the age of 75, by which time he had become something of a celebrity. That same year, he was awarded the Grand-Croix of the Légion d’Honneur, which was very unusual for a composer. His composition output increased in the wake of the newfound freedom from Concervatoire duties and he quickly produced the Second Cello Sonata, the Second Piano Quintet, the song cycle L’horizon chimérique and the Nocturne no.13.
The relationship between harmony and melody appears to be complex in Fauré’s music, such as in the In paradisum in his Requiem in which 30 bars conveys a single musical sentence. As early as 1877 in hisSérénade toscane, he was using cutting-edge composition techniques such as the whole-tone scale, which did not become prevalent until 30 years later. He also anticipated impressionism in his Ballade op. 19.Fauré’s life spans an age of fast evolution of music. He was born whenBerlioz was writing his La damnation de Faust and died in the same year as Berg’sWozzeck came into being. Fauré remained the most advanced French composer untilDebussy’s Pelleas et Mélisande appeared.