1845 - 1924

Gabriel Fauré

The greatest French art song composer, and one of the most original musicians of the 19th Century.

Vital Statistics

Born: Pamiers, Ariège (in Midi-Pyrénées), May 12, 1845
Died: Paris, Nov. 4, 1924
Nationality: French
Genre: Romantic-Modern
Performed as: Organist, pianist
During the composer's lifetime: After years of building steam-powered automobiles, Count Albert de Dion and the engineer Georges Bouton market a high-speed, gasoline-powered, internal combustion engine in 1896. Its success puts DeDion-Bouton at the head of automobile manufacturing: In 1900, the company produces 400 cars, 3200 engines, and even opens a factory in Brooklyn to serve the American market.

Biographical Outline

  • Boarding school, 1854-65: After early piano lessons, Fauré is packed off to the School for Religious and Classic Music in Paris, for training as a church musician. He remains there, as a boarder, for 11 years. In 1861, on the death of the school's founder, Louis Niedermeyer, Camille Saint-Saens takes over the piano class at the school. Saint-Saens becomes Fauré's mentor and friend. He extends his teaching to composition and introduces modern music (Schumann, Liszt, Wagner) to the curriculum.
  • First gigs, 1866-74: Fauré takes a job as a church organist in Rennes. In summer 1870, he enlists in the army to fight in the Franco-Prussian War. Discharged after the siege of Paris, he takes refuge in Switzerland during the two months of the Paris Commune (April-May 1871). In October, he is appointed assistant organist at the church of Saint Sulpice. He meets all of Parisian musical society at the homes of Saint-Saens and the singer Pauline Viardot. He joins the Société Nationale de Musique, founded in February, 1871 by Saint Saens, and dedicated to the promotion of French music, especially instrumental music. Fauré becomes the Society's secretary in 1874.
  • The emerging composer, 1874-82: Fauré begins to fill in as organist at the famous Church of the Madeleine, when Saint-Saens is on tour. He becomes choirmaster there in 1877. At the same time, he becomes engaged to Pauline Viardot's daughter, Marianne, but she breaks it off for unknown reasons. Seeking solace, Fauré goes traveling – meeting Liszt is a high point. The first performance of his Violin Sonata (at a SNM concert in January, 1877) puts him on the map.
  • Settling down, 1883-1892: Fauré gets married, continuing at his church job and teaching privately to provide money for his new family. He publishes songs and piano pieces and works on his Requiem, which receives its first performance in 1888.
  • Becoming famous, 1892-1905: Fauré widens his circle of friends and supporters, traveling to England almost every year up to 1900, and composing incidental music to Maurice Maeterlinck's play Pelleas et Melisande (1898) for its English premiere. He is appointed to the composition faculty of the Paris Conservatoire in 1896, where he becomes a much sought-after teacher. He becomes chief organist at the Madeleine. In the last year of the century, he completes Prométhée (1900), a “lyric tragedy,” which is a big hit at its first performance.
  • Conservatory chief 1905- 1914: Fauré is appointed head of the Paris Conservatoire and initiates a series of startling reforms that earn him the nickname “Robespierre.” Although his duties leave him little time for composition – he retreats to the Swiss lakes in the summers to do that – he becomes much more high-profile and his works are performed regularly. He writes an opera, Pénélope (1912), and in 1909 is elected to the Institut de France. At the same time, he begins to suffer from progressive hearing loss.
  • Later years, 1914-24: His last decade is one of the most productive; masterpieces flow from his pen. In 1920, increasingly frail and almost totally deaf, he retires from the Conservatoire. He is awarded the Grande Croix of the Legion d'Honneur and is given a national celebration and tribute at the University of the Sorbonne in 1922. He continues to mentor young composers, despite his ill-health, partly brought on by heavy smoking. He dies of pneumonia.

Fun Facts

  • Everybody’s friend: Fauré was a pleasant man – handsome, soft-voiced, courteous in speech and manner, down-to-earth and yet spiritually vital, sympathetic toward other people. Fame did not change him, or his simple living habits.
  • Arranged marriage: Fauré’s marriage was arranged: a matchmaker suggested three possibilities to him and he chose Marie Fremiet (the story goes, by picking her name from a hat.) Not surprisingly, though they got on well enough for a time, the marriage was not successful – they didn’t have much in common, and she disliked his constant social activity. Eventually they wound up corresponding by letter.
  • Affairs of the heart: Fauré had several extramarital love affairs. In the early 1890s he was attached to Emma Bardac, who later became the second wife of Claude Debussy. He dedicated the Dolly Suite, a delightful set of piano pieces, to Bardac’s daughter. In 1900, he formed a liaison with a pianist, Marguerite Hasselmans, and set her up in a Paris apartment. They were quite open about the relationship, which lasted until the end of his life.
  • Conservatory follies: Fauré’s appointment to the Paris Conservatoire was initially blocked in 1892 by some of the older faculty who thought him too radical. In 1896, his appointment came partly because the new head of the Conservatory, Theodore Dubois, had been chief organist at the Madeleine, where he was Fauré’s boss. In 1905, Maurice Ravel, one of Fauré’s students was denied the top composition prize, and again, many people thought it was due to the older, more conservative faculty. Dubois was heavily criticized and resigned, leading to Fauré taking the position.
  • Students: In addition to Ravel, Fauré taught a number of prominent composers, who took all kinds of different approaches – a testament to Fauré’s openness. Among them were Nadia Boulanger, who herself became the most famous composition teacher and mentor of the 20th Century. Fauré also taught Charles Koechlin, George Enescu, and his star pupil and good friend Jean Roger-Ducasse.
  • Youthful focus: When several of his students, led by Ravel, left the Société Nationale de Musique (which has become too dominated by the old guard to perform their music), Fauré accepted the presidency of their new organization, the Société Musicale Indépendante.
  • Change agent: When Fauré became head of the Conservatoire, he introduced independent, outside examiners to the committees on admissions and prizes, in order to avoid a repeat of the Ravel incident. Many older faculty resigned. Fauré also allowed such crazy things as the teaching of Wagner. He opened up the repertory that was played and studied at the Conservatoire to include older composers, like Rameau, and the newest music, like Debussy’s. In 1911, he oversaw the Conservatoire’s move to a new building, which it occupied until the 1980s, when the present college was constructed.

Recommended Biography

  • Jean-Michel Nectoux, Gabriel Fauré: A Musical Life, trans. Roger Nichols (Cambridge University
    Press, 2004). An excellent biography, but also 676 pages.
  • Jessica Duchin, Gabriel Fauré, 20th-Century Composers (Phaidon, 2000).
  • Robert Orledge’s biography, though older and out of print, is also worthwhile.

Explore the Music

Fauré was certainly the most individual French Romantic after Berlioz. His use of harmony was
especially original, but without becoming harshly dissonant -- everything in Fauré’s music is fluid.
Many of his stylistic markers (like the free use of 7th and 9th chords) reappear in the music of the so-
called Impressionist composers (Debussy and Ravel, mainly). He was the master of French song, more
so even than Debussy, partly because he wrote marvelous melodies whose phrases repeat generally but
with lots of changed details.

  • That Requiem: There are three versions of Fauré’s most famous piece. The first, presented at a funeral in the Madeleine church in 1888, has only five movements, a treble soloist, chorus, and organ and strings accompaniment. Two years later, the composer attached a Libera me movement, written in 1877, and the Offertory (1890) and expanded the scoring to include baritone soloist, horns, trumpets, and bassoons. This chamber orchestra version was premiered in 1893 and then forgotten until the 1980s, when John Rutter discovered, edited, and performed it. The full-orchestra score was prepared in 1899-1900 at the request of Fauré’s publisher, and the job may have been delegated to Roger-Ducasse. That was the version played at Fauré’s own funeral.
  • Where you heard that tune: One movement of the Requiem, in particular, has been heard in movies, TV and in pop culture: the In Paradisum – in Salt, The Legend of Bagger Vance, American Beauty, and The Thin Red Line among others (see the composer’s page at Internet Movie Database). Babe uses another Fauré piece sometimes confused with the Requiem – the Cantique de Jean Racine.
  • Wrath-less: Famously, there is no Dies Irae movement in the Requiem, making it much more
    contemplative than dramatic. The composer explained that this was intentional: “But it is thus that
    I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful
    experience.”
  • Everything else: Fauré wrote only one famous orchestral work, the suite from his incidental music to
    Pelleas et Melisande. As a composer, he wasn’t much interested in the orchestra. His opera is rarely
    performed. He is mainly known for his songs, piano music, and chamber works.

Recommended Websites

Gabriel Faure: 50 Songs look inside Gabriel Faure: 50 Songs (The Vocal Library). By Gabriel Faure (1845-1924). Edited by Laura Ward and Richard Walters. For high voice solo and piano accompaniment (High Voice). Vocal Collection. Romantic Period, Post-Romantic and 20th-Century. Difficulty: medium. Collection. Vocal melody, lyrics, piano accompaniment and performance notes. 288 pages. Published by Hal Leonard (HL.747071)

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Elegie, Opus 24 look inside Elegie, Opus 24 By Gabriel Faure (1845-1924). For cello and piano. Classical Period. Difficulty: difficult. Instrumental solo book. Piano accompaniment, fingerings and bowings. Composed 1879. 9 pages. Published by International Music Company (IM.897)

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