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The Renaissance of French Music

A Photograph of Gabriel Fauré with an orange background and his name written in a purple font

Gabriel Fauré (1845 – 1924) and the Renaissance of French Music

The centenary of Fauré’s death is a moment to reflect on his influence in driving forward the renaissance of French music, in the decades after the defeat of the French army during the endgame of the Franco-Prussian war, 1870-71. When he was born Chopin was still composing but by the time of his death he knew the music of the Second Viennese School - Schoenberg, Berg and Webern and he knew Jazz.


As a nine-year-old he was sent to the Niedermeyer School for church music in Paris where he came under the influence of his piano teacher, the dynamic composer Camille Saint-Saëns and he remained close to Saint-Saëns all his life. Fauré was a complex character; sometimes dreamy or depressive, he was diplomatic, always charming and definitely a party animal! Fauré's music was characterised from the start by an innate sense of balance and beauty. Its purity of sound derived from the plainsong and Renaissance church music he studied at the Niedermeyer School.


Fauré's style was continually evolving. In the mid−1890s he had a liberating love affair with Emma Bardac (who later became Claude Debussy’s second wife) and around this time his  works became more concentrated, abstract and exploratory.  During the last twenty years of his life, he shared with Beethoven a composer’s worst fate of increasing deafness so that he never heard the music of his extraordinary ‘Indian Summer’. Freed from his duties as Director of the Paris Conservatoire he devoted himself to composing, finding new  music welling up from his inner core, the soul that he believed in all his life. With both Beethoven and Fauré, as their outer ears declined so their inner ears took them to the depths of their creative source, a cosmos that lay within, finding strange new music never heard before. In Fauré’s case this included his Piano Trio, his Second Piano Quintet, late song cycles including the radiant L’horizon chimérique, the Second Cello Sonata Cello Sonata, Op. 117 (1921) and his final work completed shortly before he died, his String Quartet in E minor, Op. 121 - the only chamber music piece he composed without a piano.


In contrast with the charm of his earlier music, his works from this period are sometimes elusive and withdrawn in character, and at other times impassioned. This evolution in Fauré's music tracked closely and shaped the emergence of a distinct modern French school which particularly through Debussy reached out to a whole new world.

Ernst Zimmer-Das Lauenburgische Jäger-Bataillon Nr.9 bei Gravelotte

The Franco-Prussian War (1870-71)

The Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) had a major impact on French society, politics and culture. It caused a turbulent shifting of the political tectonic plates in Europe, particularly arising from the defeat of the French army. Once the German southern independent states had merged with the North German Confederation a powerful unified Germany brought together almost all German speakers, underpinned by Prussian militarism and Bismark’s iron grip on power. French defeat marked the end of imperial rule – Napoleon III was captured at the Battle of Sedan. He had been a popular monarch who oversaw in his 22 year reign the modernization of France; the creation of a serious navy, a colonial empire and filled Paris with new boulevards and parks.

During the endgame of the war Paris was besieged for four months by Prussian forces. The young composer and organist Fauré had enlisted in the light infantry and saw active service notably during the French army’s unsuccessful effort to raise the siege.  He was awarded a military honour but his experience left him shaken and horrified. He returned to Paris after the collapse of the short-lived Commune government (1871). Even before the war French composers had become increasingly restive under the century-old Austro-German domination of European music. Now the sight of Prussian soldiers marching down the Champs Élysées spurred their search for a French musical style to replace what they considered crushing German formalism.

The leading force in the re-birth of French musical culture was the Société Nationale de Musique Français, founded by Saint-Saëns in February, 1871, a few days before the German occupation of Paris. With the motto Ars Gallica, (‘French Music’) the Society over the next quarter-century nurtured a new generation of ‘Gallic’ composers – notably, Vincent D’Indy, Éduard Lalo, Henri Duparc, Emmanuel Chabrier, Bizet, Massenet, and Fauré. These composers developed a new French idiom with an emphasis on finesse, delicacy and nuance, and thus laid the groundwork for the musical impressionism of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel which took French music to a whole new level. The great French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez considered Debussy’s score of Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune to be the beginning of modern music, observing that "the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music."

Having recovered from his wartime experiences, in the next few years Fauré produced for the Society’s audiences three instrumental works – Violin Sonata No. 1 in A major, Op. 13, the Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 15 and the Ballade for Piano in F Sharp Major, Op. 19, all of them masterpieces.


In a change of programme the Piano Quartet No. 1 will be played in the York Chamber Music Festival on Saturday 14th September at the concert in the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall at York University.

"the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music."

Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op.15

Fauré began work on the quartet in 1876, but it was February 1880 before it premiered to great acclaim at a concert of the Société Nationale de Musique in Paris and its success is part of the reason he won the prestigious Prix de Rome. While the quartet is positive despite its minor key, the slow movement betrays something of the composer’s turmoil resulting from a broken engagement. But the significance of the Piano Quartet Op. 15  is that it exhibits the highly personalized idiom that was to mark Fauré’s instrumental music for the next half-century. From the quartet we can spotlight three characteristic elements found in the new French musical culture; music that through Fauré’s teaching and performances of his works morphed into the new era – heard, for example, in the radical string quartets of Ravel and Debussy.

First is the use of piano arpeggios and other broken figures to establish a sort of fluid counterpoint on which his music seems to float. Secondly, a key element in Fauré’s genius was his endless resourcefulness in harmony – unexpected progressions and modulations (key changes), all within the bounds of traditional tonality; the English composer Frank Bridge came under Fauré’s spell. In Bridge’s early chamber music there is much Gallic finesse and charm having learned the integration of his melodic ideas through graceful harmonic shifts.

The third element associated with Fauré is his melodic invention. It might be stretching the point to say that in the Germanic tradition tunes are memorable and we can hum them in the shower.  Fauré’s genius offers something very different; subtle, filigree melodies that seem to grow sinuously out of his harmonic scheme.

These elements are bound together with an elegance and craftsmanship that were part of the French tradition that Fauré inherited but marked with his own stamp. Fauré was very open-minded and his influence lived on not only through his works but also through his students. He helped them strengthen their individuality and this explains why Ravel, Enescu, Charles Koechlin, Florent Schmitt and Arthur Honegger are all very different. Fauré's quiet strength and his commitment to innovation, independence and integrity laid the foundations for many crucial developments in French music.

Under the surface of Fauré's music also lies a nostalgic classicism. We sense the spirit of French Baroque composers such as Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau, whose music is filled with an infectious grace and elegance. It’s all there in the wonderful Piano Quartet Op. 15.

Fauré’s influence on the renaissance of French music

Société Nationale De Musique Logo

In the twenty five years after the foundation of the Société Nationale de Musique a native music Ars Gallica (‘French music’) was flourishing. Fauré was unquestionably the most important figure in this transitional period, serving as the secretary and concert manager to the Société Nationale. On his discharge from the infantry in March 1871, Fauré found in the Society a ready sponsor for his own quest for originality. The concerts paid special attention to chamber music which had until then been under-represented in 19th century Paris, where opera was the predominant measure of a composer’s success. Indeed Fauré spent a long time looking for a workable opera libretto. He managed to complete his only opera, Pénélope, first performed in 1913 although by then totally deaf Fauré himself never ‘heard’ it.

Fauré quietly developing along his own path during the 25 years since the foundation of the Société Nationale had led the way to a point at which a French musical renaissance, in the sense of rebirth, was an accomplished fact. National consciousness was present in very different proportions in Debussy, d'Indy, Ravel and Fauré’; and in different proportions at different periods of their development. Nevertheless, by 1895 music in France was flourishing, a rich and varied native growth, as it had not flourished since the sixteenth century.


Fauré’s influence spread beyond national boundaries. He loved travelling, notably to England which he visited on numerous occasions – he was in London for the premiere of Elgar’s First Symphony in 1908 and dined with the composer after the concert. It would have been fascinating to have eavesdropped on their conversation as the genius composers wiped soup from their moustaches!

Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 117 (1921)


In the opening recital at the Unitarian Chapel (Friday 13th September 2024 1.00pm – 2.00pm) Tim Lowe and Andrew Brownell will play Fauré’s second Cello Sonata, Op. 117. 

The second cello sonata dates from 1921 the year after he resigned from the Conservatoire. He was 76 and after this sonata he wrote only a handful of works. For anyone less spiritually centred than Fauré these final years would have been a time of frustration as his physical body failed – he was a heavy smoker and totally deaf.  He worked on the cello sonata in a small guest house in Aix-les-Theremes during the summer but suffered a near fatal collapse of his bodily system and for a while he thought he was dying. Back in Paris he recovered sufficiently to finish the sonata, living for another three years. It shows how Fauré’s music became more elusive and withdrawn in character but, remembering that he was by then 76,  at other moments youthful and exuberant, and ends with a moment of transcendence.


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