- Gabriel Urbain Fauré - Elegance and Restraint [Biography]
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Gabriel Urbain Fauré

"I know that excellence and perfection do not seem much in an age when praise has lost all equilibrium; but to those who understand these things, they do after all still have meaning."

Gabriel Urbain Fauré had a profound effect on music in a very quiet way. While he could write in a dramatic or passionate style, the bulk of his compositions - which included mostly songs, piano pieces, chamber and instrumental works - are models of charm and refinement, and also very French. Marked by polished craftsmanship, flowing melody, and subtle harmony, his works are sheer poetry.

Fauré's music, like his life, graduated from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, from Romanticism to modernism.

The youngest of six children born to Toussaint (a school director) and Marie Fauré, Gabriel was born in Pamiers, Ariège, France on 12 May, 1845. As a boy Gabriel spent many hours playing the harmonium (a small portable reed organ) in a local chapel. Later he recalled that it was an elderly blind woman, who often listened to him, that first spotted his talent and pointed it out to his father.

When he was nine, Fauré was sent to École Niedermeyer, in Paris. He was of the first pupils sent to the newly formed 'School of Religious and Classical Music'. There he studied under Niedermeyer until his death in 1861. At that time, the composer Saint-Saëns became his foremost instructor and influence, introducing Fauré to the works of Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, and other contemporary composers. Fauré stayed at the school for eleven years, became a skilled organist and choir-trainer, and also (in his senior years) assisted with the teaching, a formative experience. In 1863, while still a student there, he published Trois Romances sons paroles for piano.

Fauré's youthful efforts at composing clearly showed his musical promise, but he was unable to earn a living from writing music alone. Instead followed a long and honourable tradition among French composers of serving as organist at one of the big Paris churches. In Fauré's case, he began in Rennes, proceeding until he gained a position at the fashionable and prestigious church of the Madeleine. In 1865 he became church organist of St. Sauveur in Rennes, Brittany. In 1870, he became Assistant Organist of Notre Dame de Cliqancourt in Paris. Fauré was not a particularly religious man, he much preferred writing songs and piano music. In fact, almost all his works were composed during the brief periods of time that he could snatch away from his "day job". It was during this time that one of his most loved works, Après un rêve was composed.

In 1870, with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Fauré deserted music to join the French Imperial Light Infantry. He took part in the action to raise the Siege of Paris and received the Croix de Guerre. After the fall of Sedan and the imprisonment of the French emperor, Napoleon III, a new republic was proclaimed in Paris. Fauré was demobilised the following year, bringing his brief military career to an end.

On leaving military service, he assumed the office of organist at Saint-Honoré d'Eylau in Paris. He stayed only a few months, next taking a position as Assistant Organist at St. Sulpice, where he remained until 1874. During this period, Fauré also joined the faculty of the École Niedermeyer, and (together with d'Indy, Chabrier, Duparc, and Lalo) helped form the Société Nationale de Musique. In January 1874, he became assistant organist to Saint-Saëns at La Madeleine, in Paris, where he also served as chorus master for a number of years. In April of 1877 Fauré was appointed choirmaster at La Madeleine in Paris.

Fauré's extensive literature for solo piano embraces impromptus, nocturnes, barcaroles, caprices, preludes, valse-caprices, and variations beginning in 1883. Fauré consciously modelled his piano music on Chopin's, giving his pieces poetic titles (impromptu, Caprice, etc.), and Chopin's influence can readily be detected in his earliest works. Fauré's nocturnes are exceptional - the delicate sensuousness of his language was ideally suited to the medium and he produced 13 fabulously crafted masterpieces in the classical style he had learned in school. In these early days of his career, he sold his songs to his publisher, along with full copyrights, for about fifty cents each. These early songs hint at his developing originality, but it is not until the 1890s that Fauré's personality really emerged.

In 1892, Fauré was appointed Inspector of music in Paris. One year later, he was made first organist of the Madeleine and professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire de Musique (succeeding Massenet). In 1905, he assumed the post of director of the Conservatoire and enacted sweeping changes that shocked some of the less progressive instructors there. His pupils there included Maurice Ravel, Nadia Boulanger and Georges Enesco. With his steady job at the Madeleine, Fauré turned his thoughts to marriage and settling down to family life. For many years, Fauré had been in love with Marianne Viardot. Her hesitation when he proposed turned into a year of disappointment and anguish for the composer, and when she finally did agree to marry him, her postponing of the wedding was more than he could take. In a fit of anger and depression, he broke off the engagement. The unmistakably personal and melancholy Élégie is an expression of Fauré's emotional state during this time. Although the piece begins as a funeral march, there is an underlying tone that speaks of renewed determination and strength of spirit. Sometime later, when a friend suggested an arranged marriage, Fauré consented to meet with a matchmaker and listen to her suggestions. One recommendation, Marie Fremiet, daughter of a well-known sculptor, appealed, and so the marriage was arranged and the wedding ordered for March of 1883. The marriage produced two sons, Emmanuel and Philippe.

He was a very self-conscious composer, always consulting with his closest friends before publishing a work. An excellent example of this is his Messe de Requiem. Written between 1887 and 1890, it was not written (as many think) in memory of his father or his mother (both of whom died before the work was introduced), but as a musical experiment. For a work of such tranquillity, the requiem had quite a troublesome birth. The composer wrote the earliest part of it in 1877. He went on to complete the first version in 1888, moved by the recent deaths of his father and mother. Fauré made many more revisions before the final version was published in 1901. Severe self-criticism led Fauré to destroy or withdraw almost every one of his attempts at large-scale compositions up until and including this time in his life, and many of his works have been lost.

In 1904 Fauré began having health problems - dizziness and migraines, and to show the first signs of hearing problems, an affliction he kept secret. Nevertheless, in 1909 he broke from the Société Nationale de Musique and (along with several students) formed the Société Musicale Indépendante, and continued to compose. Increasing deafness finally compelled him to give up his conservatory office in 1920. Degeneration into total deafness was a secret he managed to keep from all but his closest friends until the day he died, spending the last four years of his life in retirement. Nevertheless, he continued to produce significant music, and in 1922 was honoured with the highest class in the French Legion of Honour.

Until he was in his sixties, Fauré specialised in the smaller forms of composition: incidental music to plays, piano pieces and songs (at which he was a supreme master). The works of his last two decades are much larger in scope: finally he conquered his self-doubts about his ability to complete a large work. The songs are grouped in cycles, there is a full-length opera (Pénélope) and there are seven big chamber works. He used to be regarded as a composer of easy-going, exquisite trifles, and his reputation had suffered from the paucity of larger works in his musical output - but in his declining years he garnered the respect and love of his peers.

Much like his more cosmopolitan teacher, Camille Saint-Saëns, the gentle Fauré had lived a long and distinguished life that spanned several generations of French music. When Fauré was born, Berlioz was still at the height of his composing powers, while by the time of his death at the end of 1924, the Paris musical scene of Milhaud and Poulenc was already established. Fauré's works, such as Après un rêve - which perfectly sums up his character: civilised, passionately restrained, distinctive, and evenly balanced - form one of the most important collections of French songs, carrying on the tradition of the great French songwriter Charles Gounod. His sense of understatement, his subtle harmonies and sometimes elusive melodies laid the foundations for the works of Debussy and the whole school of French musical Impressionism in the early years of the 20th century.

On 4 November, 1924, at the age of 79, Gabriel Fauré died in Paris from pneumonia. He was given a state funeral at the Madeleine and his Requiem was played before he was laid to rest in Passy cemetery. His legacy includes a vast array of chamber works, piano pieces and some of the finest of all French songs.

contributed by Gifford, Katya


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