Piano Quartet No.1

Gabriel Fauré

Piano Quartet No.1 in C minor

Op. 15

About this work

Looking back in 1922, Fauré noted that "The fact of the matter is that before 1870 I would not have dreamt of composing a sonata or a quartet. At that time a young musician had no chance of getting such works performed. It was only after Saint-Saëns had founded the National Music Society in 1871, the chief function of which was to perform the works of young composers, that I set to work." The encouragement given to French composers by the Société Nationale de Musique can hardly be overestimated; with his mentor, Saint-Saëns, Fauré joined Franck, d'Indy, Duparc, Lalo, and Massenet, among others, in the establishment of this concert organization which helped break the stranglehold of opera upon French musical life. But Fauré's sanguine remark about "setting to work" overlooks the "indolence" with which he reproached himself frequently in his youth -- his First Violin Sonata was not begun until 1875, and the First Piano Quartet not until the year after, to be completed in 1879. Meanwhile -- apart from a discarded Symphony in F -- he had been finding his way stylistically in the intimate purlieu of the mélodie. It is also misleading to say (as is often done) that there was no chamber music in France before the Société Nationale -- Alkan, Franchomme, Louise Farrenc, Lalo, Castillon, and Saint-Saëns himself all made notable contributions to the genre well before the founding of the SNM. Nevertheless, that venerable organization brought focus to French soul-searching, helping to embed chamber and symphonic music in the cultural mainstream.

There are a number of remarkable things about Fauré's First Piano Quartet which mark it as a prominent turning point. One notes first the complete assurance in his shapely handling of sonata form, fastidious craft in a coruscating dialogue of parts, the richness and indelible personality of its deftly worked melodic material, and unfailingly adept writing for piano. Worth noting, too, is the combination of a highly refined personal style with compelling high spirits. Above all, his First Piano Quartet strikes persuasively not merely the urbane (the epithet which clings to Fauré), but the urban tone which George Bernard Shaw made explicit when he noted that "From Mozart I learned the art of saying important things conversationally."

Romanticism and its doleful heroics are left behind in this work, as are the frivolous, the formulaic, and the balletic. The first movement holds one through its fluent melding of energy and lyricism. The Scherzo surprises with blithe, pizzicato pricked, perpetuum mobile fantasy. The great Adagio demonstrates that profound passion is not incompatible with balance and classical purity of line. And a soaring Allegro molto caps all with a gracefully poised major/minor shimmer of gaiety.

Fauré was at the piano for the first performance of the First Piano Quartet with the Société Nationale on February 11, 1880. Responding to criticism from colleagues, he revised the finale. Thus, the work attained its final form only in 1883.