Gabriel Fauré, en 1880.
Gabriel Fauré, en 1880.  © Getty

10 (little) things you (might) not know about Gabriel Fauré

Did you know that Gabriel Fauré studied in a religious music school? That he loved the piano and became deaf at the end of his life? Here are 10 (little) things you (might) not know about the author of Cantique de Jean Racine.

Did you know that Gabriel Fauré studied in a religious music school? That he loved the piano and became deaf at the end of his life? Here are 10 (little) things you (might) not know about the author of Cantique de Jean Racine.

Renowned melodist, composer of the famous Pavane, professor of Maurice Ravel and controversial director at Paris’ Conservatoire... Gabriel Fauré earned his place in the greatest composers hall of fame.

One could sum up his entire corpus to his beautiful melodies and the legacy he left to prestigious students. But this would mean leaving out his 30 years serving as a church organist, his great curiosity for all musical genres and the fact that recognition of his talent in the music world came quite late.

Here are 10 (little) things you (perhaps) didn't know about this melody master!

Daily life in the church

Gabriel Fauré was born on May 12, 1845, in Pamiers, Ariège. It was his father, a provincial elementary school inspector, who first encouraged his musical talent and sent him to Paris to study at the Niedermeyer School of Religious Music.

Photographie du compositeur Louis Niedermeyer datée de 1853, année où il fonde son école de musique religieuse.
Photographie du compositeur Louis Niedermeyer datée de 1853, année où il fonde son école de musique religieuse.  /  Gallica/BNF

After 11 years of studies, Gabriel Fauré became a church organist, first in Rennes and then in Paris. For a long time, his name remains associated with his functions as a chapel master at La Madeleine. It’s only when he gets appointed to Paris’ Conservatoire that his work as a composer starts gains popularity.

And today, it’s the opposite, as he is mostly known for his secular pieces. But he indeed composed twelve lesser-known pieces of sacred music including the Cantique de Jean Racine,  which he completed on his 19th birthday, and a glorious Requiem, a mass he wrote "for pleasure’’, in his own words.

Camille Saint-Saëns, the godfather 

Gabriel Fauré meets pianist and composer Camille Saint-Saëns at École Niedermeyer where he teaches piano. A great friendship immediately ensues.

Indeed, it is Saint-Saëns who will introduce Fauré to the works of Schumann, Liszt and Wagner. Encouraging his talent as a composer, he helps him becoming Madeleine church’s organist and initiate him to Parisian salons.

"When I was young, Saint-Saëns often told me that I lacked an essential flaw, which, for an artist, is actually a quality: ambition!" Letter from Gabriel Fauré to his wife, 1907

Camille Saint-Saëns au piano, en 1900.
Camille Saint-Saëns au piano, en 1900.  © Getty

A patron of Parisian salons

To further his income, Fauré gives piano lessons all around Paris as a private teacher in addition to his organist position. And like many of his peers, it is at the worldly salons that he has the opportunity to showcase his compositions to the Parisian intelligentsia.

Saint-Saëns introduces him into singer Pauline Viardot’s popular evenings, where he will meet George Sand, Louis Blanc and Gustave Flaubert among others. As a social handsome man with a jovial constitution, Gabriel Fauré immediately attracts the sympathy of the Viardot family.

Pauline Viardot, cantatrice réputée du XIXe siècle, est l'épouse de Louis Viardot, critique et directeur du Théâtre des Italiens.
Pauline Viardot, cantatrice réputée du XIXe siècle, est l'épouse de Louis Viardot, critique et directeur du Théâtre des Italiens. © Getty

In salons, Gabriel Fauré plays his melodies on the piano, while his friends take care of the vocal parts. And if they lack the talent of lyrical theatre artists, the intimate context still allows them to perform refined and nuanced interpretations, sometimes even beautiful mezzo voce.

A fervent advocate of chamber music

In 19th Century’s Paris, where Gabriel Fauré evolves, lyrical theatre is much more popular than instrumental music, considered too academic and classical.

 But Camille Saint-Saëns is determined to reverse this trend and renew French instrumental music. In 1871, he founds the Société nationale de musique, immediately joined by many of his peers: César Franck, Jules Massenet, Henri Duparc... and Gabriel Fauré, whose first sonata for violin and piano will be met with great success.

A disillusioned lover

In 1877, Gabriel Fauré, age 32, is madly in love with Marianne, one of Pauline Viardot's daughters. Marianne is softened by the composer's feelings, but remains very shy and demure.

 Fauré’s passion is so strong and tumultuous that it scares Marianne Viardot away, who breaks off the engagement just before the wedding date. The musician will then sink into deep depression and this great sense of despair will infiltrate his musical work. This is evident for example in his famous Elégie for cello and piano composed in 1880 where the despair experienced by the composer is highlighted.

This disappointment will mark Gabriel Fauré who then becomes the seducer of Parisian salons and multiplies lovers. At age 40, thinking it is time for him to get settled, he takes Marie Frémiet as his wife in an arranged marriage. With two very opposed dispositions, the two spouses will live apart for almost all their marital life.

A passion for piano

If Gabriel Fauré’s position is to play the organ, his favourite instrument remains the piano. An excellent performer, he even plans to embark on a solo career for a while. But his day-dreaming nature and his social disposition lead him to enjoy sharing music more than sweating to be admired for very technically difficult pieces.

 And in fact, virtuosity is never at the center of his pianistic pieces that allow more for a fluid and expressive playing than technically complex structures. 

Prolific melodist

Gabriel Fauré is a poetry lover, admirer of Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine, and composed more than one hundred melodies. It’s the perfect balance between vocal parts and piano, the subtile modulations one can hear and the natural pronunciation of the words on the melody that have made his compositions notoriously appreciated.

Throughout 50 years of composition, Fauré's style undeniably evolves. If his first pieces are rather intimate, the vocal parts grow to be stronger and more expressive at the end of the 19th century, inspired by Italian lyricism.

Fauré will then return to the characterizing balance between vocal parts and piano before adopting a particularly refined style in the last years of his life.

In an interview with the Petit Parisien in April 1922, he says about his vocal melodies: “They have been performed a lot. Not enough for them to have made me rich, but far too much anyway, since my peers claimed that having done so well in this genre, I had to devote myself to it for life."

From intimate pieces to staged works.

Gabriel Fauré was not only interested in music only performed in church or salons. In 1900, he created, Prométhée, a titanic work, in which no less than 400 musicians and 200 singers shared the stage of Bézier arenas.

Thirteen years later, he also dabbles with opera, although Pénélope will not meet the expected success.

But this does not mean that Fauré will stop composing pieces for orchestra, and his very famous Pavane, since then considered one of the greatest ‘’hits’’ in classical repertoire, is certainly the best example of his success in this style.

From beloved teacher to criticized director

Gabriel Fauré finally receives the recognition he deserves (and had hoped for) in 1896, when he is appointed composition professor at Paris’ Conservatoire. There, he will teach impressive 20th century composers such as Maurice Ravel, Georges Enesco, Nadia Boulanger or Charles Koechlin.

 He is said to be very close to his students, and encourages collaborations, including on many of his own works. Among others, his suite Pelléas et Mélisande, composed for a special performance in London, is orchestrated by Charles Koechlin. 

In 1905, Fauré is appointed director of  Paris’ Conservatoire, where he will implement major educational reforms. This subjects him to virulent criticism: not being former student from the Conservatoire and has never won any Prix de Rome, his nomination as director is first strongly contested. He is then judged on the way he carries out his duties, his behaviour considered too serious and  too severe, even leading to the resignation of some professors.

When deafness opens new horizons

  At the beginning of the 20th century, Gabriel Fauré's real enemy is not criticism, but increasing hearing-loss

 But while the composer is deaf, he does not intend to stop composing. He thus embarks on the exploration of an inner musical universe, giving birth to a renewed, more refined style. This is evident in his late melodies corpus, L' horizon chimérique, or his String Quartet, completed a few months before his death in 1924, which attest great musical creativity.

You are listening to :