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.

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

One could summarise his entire corpus with his beautiful melodies and the legacy he left to prestigious students, but this would mean forgetting 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 master of the melody!

Daily life in the church

Gabriel Fauré was born on 12 May 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 remained associated with his functions as a chapel master at La Madeleine. It was only upon his appointment to the Paris Conservatoire that his work as a composer began gaining popularity.

Today, however, it is the opposite, as he is mostly known for his secular works. But he indeed composed twelve lesser-known works 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 met pianist and composer Camille Saint-Saëns at the École Niedermeyer where he taught the piano. A great friendship immediately ensued.

It was Saint-Saëns who would later introduce Fauré to the works of Schumann, Liszt and Wagner. Encouraging his talents as a composer, he helped him become the Madeleine church’s organist and introduce him to the 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 gave piano lessons all around Paris as a private teacher in addition to his organist position. And like many of his peers, it was at the worldly salons that he had the opportunity to showcase his compositions to the Parisian intelligentsia.

Saint-Saëns invited him to the singer Pauline Viardot’s popular evenings, where he  met George Sand, Louis Blanc and Gustave Flaubert, amongst others. As a handsome man with a jovial constitution, Gabriel Fauré immediately attracted 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 the salons, Gabriel Fauré performed his melodies on the piano, while his friends took on the vocal parts. And though they may have lacked the talent of lyrical theatre artists, the intimate context still allowed them to perform refined and nuanced interpretations, sometimes even beautiful mezzo voce.

A fervent advocate of chamber music

In 19th century Paris, where Gabriel Fauré evolved, lyrical theatre was far more popular than instrumental music, considered overly academic and classical.

But Camille Saint-Saëns was determined to reverse this trend and renew French instrumental music. In 1871, he founded 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 was met with great success.

A disillusioned lover

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

So strong and tumultuous was Fauré’s passion that Marianne Viardot eventually felt overwhelmed, breaking off their engagement moments before their wedding date. The musician then sank into a deep depression, one that would 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 particularly pronounced.

This disappointment marked Gabriel Fauré who became an infamous seducer of Parisian salons and multiplied his lovers. At age 40, convinced it was time for him to settle down, he took Marie Frémiet as his wife in an arranged marriage. With two very opposed dispositions, the two spouses would live apart for almost their entire marital life.

A passion for piano

Though Gabriel Fauré’s daily employment was as an organist, his favourite instrument nonetheless remained the piano. An excellent performer, he even regularly planned on embarking upon a solo career. However, the composer was a dreamer by nature and enjoyed far more sharing and listening to music rather than being admired for virtuoso performances.

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

The prolific melodist

Gabriel Fauré was a great lover of poetry, an admirer of Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine, and composed more than a hundred melodies. If today these are still remembered and revered today, it is for their perfect balance between the vocal and piano parts, while still allowing subtle modulations to shine through, and the natural pronunciation of the words on the melody.

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

Fauré then return to the characterising 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 remarked 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, an enormous work in which no less than 400 musicians and 200 singers shared the stage of the Bézier arenas.

Thirteen years later, he also dabbled with opera, although Pénélope did not generate the expected success.

However, this does not signify that Fauré stopped composing works for orchestra, and his very famous Pavane, since then considered one of the greatest ‘’hits’’ in the classical repertoire, is certainly the best example of his success in this style.

From beloved teacher to criticised director

Gabriel Fauré finally received the recognition he deserved (and had hoped for) in 1896, when he was appointed composition professor at the Paris Conservatoire. There, he taught the works of impressive 20th century composers such as Maurice Ravel, Georges Enesco, Nadia Boulanger or Charles Koechlin.

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

In 1905, Fauré is appointed director of the  Paris Conservatoire, where implemented major educational reforms. This subjected him to virulent criticism: not being a former student of the Conservatoire and having never won a Prix de Rome, his nomination as director was at first strongly contested. He was then criticised on the way he carried out his duties, his behaviour considered too serious and too severe, even leading to the resignation of certain professors.

When deafness opens new horizons

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

Though the composer grew deaf, he did not intend to stop composing. He thus embarked upon 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 to his great musical creativity.

You are listening to :