Fauré was born in Pamiers, Ariège, Midi-Pyrénées, in the south of France, the fifth son and youngest of six children of Toussaint-Honoré Fauré (1810–85) and Marie-Antoinette-Hélène Lalène-Laprade (1809–87). According to the biographer Jean-Michel Nectoux, the Fauré family dates to the 13th century in that part of France. The family had at one time been substantial landowners, but by the 19th century its means had become reduced. The composer's paternal grandfather, Gabriel, was a butcher whose son became a schoolmaster. In 1829 Fauré's parents married. His mother was the daughter of a minor member of the nobility. He was the only one of the six children to display musical talent; his four brothers pursued careers in journalism, politics, the army and the civil service, and his sister had a traditional life as the wife of a public servant.
The young Fauré was sent to live with a foster mother until he was four years old. When his father was appointed director of the École Normale d'Instituteurs, a teacher training college, at Montgauzy, near Foix, in 1849, Fauré returned to live with his family. There was a chapel attached to the school, which Fauré recalled in the last year of his life:
I grew up, a rather quiet well-behaved child, in an area of great beauty. ... But the only thing I remember really clearly is the harmonium in that little chapel. Every time I could get away I ran there – and I regaled myself. ... I played atrociously ... no method at all, quite without technique, but I do remember that I was happy; and if that is what it means to have a vocation, then it is a very pleasant thing.
An old blind woman, who came to listen and give the boy advice, told his father of Fauré's gift for music. In 1853 Simon-Lucien Dufaur de Saubiac, of the National Assembly,[n 2] heard Fauré play and advised Toussaint-Honoré to send him to the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse (School of Classical and Religious Music, better known as the École Niedermeyer de Paris, which Louis Niedermeyer was setting up in Paris. After reflecting for a year, Fauré's father agreed and took the nine-year-old boy to Paris in October 1854.
Helped by a scholarship from the bishop of his home diocese, Fauré boarded at the school for 11 years. The régime was austere, the rooms gloomy, the food mediocre, and the required uniform elaborate.[n 3] The musical tuition, however, was excellent. Niedermeyer, whose goal was to produce qualified organists and choirmasters, focused on church music. Fauré's tutors were Clément Loret for organ, Louis Dietsch for harmony, Xavier Wackenthaler for counterpoint and fugue, and Niedermeyer for piano, plainsong and composition.
When Niedermeyer died in March 1861, Camille Saint-Saëns took charge of piano studies and introduced contemporary music, including that of Schumann, Liszt and Wagner. Fauré recalled in old age, "After allowing the lessons to run over, he would go to the piano and reveal to us those works of the masters from which the rigorous classical nature of our programme of study kept us at a distance and who, moreover, in those far-off years, were scarcely known. ... At the time I was 15 or 16, and from this time dates the almost filial attachment ... the immense admiration, the unceasing gratitude I [have] had for him, throughout my life."
Saint-Saëns took great pleasure in his pupil's progress, which he helped whenever he could; Nectoux comments that at each step in Fauré's career "Saint-Saëns's shadow can effectively be taken for granted." The close friendship between them lasted until Saint-Saëns died sixty years later. Fauré won many prizes while at the school, including a premier prix in composition for the Cantique de Jean Racine, Op. 11, the earliest of his choral works to enter the regular repertory. He left the school in July 1865, as a Laureat in organ, piano, harmony and composition, with a Maître de Chapelle diploma.
Organist and composer
On leaving the École Niedermeyer, Fauré was appointed organist at the Church of Saint-Sauveur, at Rennes in Brittany. He took up the post in January 1866. During his four years at Rennes he supplemented his income by taking private pupils, giving "countless piano lessons". At Saint-Saëns's regular prompting he continued to compose, but none of his works from this period survive. He was bored at Rennes and had an uneasy relationship with the parish priest, who correctly doubted Fauré's religious conviction. Fauré was regularly seen stealing out during the sermon for a cigarette, and in early 1870, when he turned up to play at Mass one Sunday still in his evening clothes, having been out all night at a ball, he was asked to resign. Almost immediately, with the discreet aid of Saint-Saëns, he secured the post of assistant organist at the church of Notre-Dame de Clignancourt, in the north of Paris. He remained there for only a few months. On the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 he volunteered for military service. He took part in the action to raise the Siege of Paris, and saw action at Le Bourget, Champigny and Créteil. He was awarded a Croix de Guerre.
Staff and students of the École Niedermeyer, 1871. Fauré in front row second from left; André Messager
in middle row second from right
After France's defeat by Prussia, there was a brief, bloody conflict within Paris from March to May 1871 during the Commune. Fauré escaped to Rambouillet where one of his brothers lived, and then travelled to Switzerland, where he took up a teaching post at the École Niedermeyer, which had temporarily relocated there to avoid the violence in Paris. His first pupil at the school was André Messager, who became a lifelong friend and occasional collaborator. Fauré's compositions from this period did not overtly reflect the turmoil and bloodshed. Some of his colleagues, including Saint-Saëns, Gounod and Franck produced elegies and patriotic odes. Fauré did not, but according to his biographer Jessica Duchen, his music acquired "a new sombreness, a dark-hued sense of tragedy ... evident mainly in his songs of this period including L'Absent, Seule! and La Chanson du pêcheur."
When Fauré returned to Paris in October 1871, he was appointed choirmaster at the Église Saint-Sulpice under the composer and organist Charles-Marie Widor. In the course of his duties, he wrote several canticles and motets, few of which have survived. During some services, Widor and Fauré improvised simultaneously at the church's two organs, trying to catch each other out with sudden changes of key. Fauré regularly attended Saint-Saëns's musical salons and those of Pauline Viardot, to whom Saint-Saëns introduced him.
Fauré was a founding member of the Société Nationale de Musique, formed in February 1871 under the joint chairmanship of Romain Bussine and Saint-Saëns, to promote new French music. Other members included Georges Bizet, Emmanuel Chabrier, Vincent d'Indy, Henri Duparc, César Franck, Édouard Lalo and Jules Massenet. Fauré became secretary of the society in 1874. Many of his works were first presented at the society's concerts.
In 1874 Fauré moved from Saint-Sulpice to the Église de la Madeleine, acting as deputy for the principal organist, Saint-Saëns, during the latter's many absences on tour. Some admirers of Fauré's music have expressed regret that although he played the organ professionally for four decades, he left no solo compositions for the instrument. He was renowned for his improvisations, and Saint-Saëns said of him that he was "a first class organist when he wanted to be". Fauré preferred the piano to the organ, which he played only because it gave him a regular income. Duchen speculates that he positively disliked the organ, possibly because "for a composer of such delicacy of nuance, and such sensuality, the organ was simply not subtle enough."
The year 1877 was significant for Fauré, both professionally and personally. In January his first violin sonata was performed at a Société Nationale concert with great success, marking a turning-point in his composing career at the age of 31. Nectoux counts the work as the composer's first great masterpiece. In March, Saint-Saëns retired from the Madeleine, succeeded as organist by Théodore Dubois, his choirmaster; Fauré was appointed to take over from Dubois. In July Fauré became engaged to Pauline Viardot's daughter Marianne, with whom he was deeply in love. To his great sorrow, she broke off the engagement in November 1877, for reasons that are not clear. To distract Fauré, Saint-Saëns took him to Weimar and introduced him to Franz Liszt. This visit gave Fauré a liking for foreign travel, which he indulged for the rest of his life. From 1878, he and Messager made trips abroad to see Wagner operas. They saw Das Rheingold and Die Walküre at the Cologne Opera; the complete Ring cycle at the Hofoper in Munich and at Her Majesty's Theatre in London; and Die Meistersinger in Munich and at Bayreuth, where they also saw Parsifal. They frequently performed as a party piece their joint composition, the irreverent Souvenirs de Bayreuth. This short, up-tempo piano work for four hands sends up themes from The Ring. Fauré admired Wagner and had a detailed knowledge of his music, but he was one of the few composers of his generation not to come under Wagner's musical influence.[n 4]
In 1883 Fauré married Marie Fremiet, the daughter of a leading sculptor, Emmanuel Fremiet.[n 5] The marriage was affectionate, but Marie became resentful of Fauré's frequent absences, his dislike of domestic life – "horreur du domicile" – and his love affairs, while she remained at home. Though Fauré valued Marie as a friend and confidante, writing to her often – sometimes daily – when away from home, she did not share his passionate nature, which found fulfilment elsewhere. Fauré and his wife had two sons. The first, born in 1883, Emmanuel Fauré-Fremiet (Marie insisted on combining her family name with Fauré's), became a biologist of international reputation. The second son, Philippe, born in 1889, became a writer; his works included histories, plays, and biographies of his father and grandfather.
Contemporary accounts agree that Fauré was extremely attractive to women;[n 6] in Duchen's phrase, "his conquests were legion in the Paris salons." After a romantic attachment to the singer Emma Bardac from around 1892, followed by another to the composer Adela Maddison, in 1900 Fauré met the pianist Marguerite Hasselmans, the daughter of Alphonse Hasselmans. This led to a relationship which lasted for the rest of Fauré's life. He maintained her in a Paris apartment, and she acted openly as his companion.
To support his family, Fauré spent most of his time in running the daily services at the Madeleine and giving piano and harmony lessons. His compositions earned him a negligible amount, because his publisher bought them outright, paying him an average of 60 francs for a song, and Fauré received no royalties. During this period, he wrote several large-scale works, in addition to many piano pieces and songs, but he destroyed most of them after a few performances, only retaining a few movements in order to re-use motifs. Among the works surviving from this period is the Requiem, begun in 1887 and revised and expanded, over the years, until its final version dating from 1901. After its first performance, in 1888, the priest in charge told the composer, "We don't need these novelties: the Madeleine's repertoire is quite rich enough."
As a young man Fauré had been very cheerful; a friend wrote of his "youthful, even somewhat child-like, mirth." From his thirties he suffered bouts of depression, which he described as "spleen", possibly first caused by his broken engagement and his lack of success as a composer. In 1890 a prestigious and remunerative commission to write an opera with lyrics by Paul Verlaine was aborted by the poet's drunken inability to deliver a libretto. Fauré was plunged into so deep a depression that his friends were seriously concerned about his health. Winnaretta de Scey-Montbéliard,[n 7] always a good friend to Fauré, invited him to Venice, where she had a palazzo on the Grand Canal. He recovered his spirits and began to compose again, writing the first of his five Mélodies de Venise, to words by Verlaine, whose poetry he continued to admire despite the operatic debacle.
About this time, or shortly afterwards, Fauré's liaison with Emma Bardac began; in Duchen's words, "for the first time, in his late forties, he experienced a fulfilling, passionate relationship which extended over several years". His principal biographers all agree that this affair inspired a burst of creativity and a new originality in his music, exemplified in the song cycle La bonne chanson. Fauré wrote the Dolly Suite for piano duet between 1894 and 1897 and dedicated it to Bardac's daughter Hélène, known as "Dolly".[n 8] Some people suspected that Fauré was Dolly's father, but biographers including Nectoux and Duchen think it unlikely. Fauré's affair with Emma Bardac is thought to have begun after Dolly was born, though there is no conclusive evidence either way.
During the 1890s Fauré's fortunes improved. When Ernest Guiraud, professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire, died in 1892, Saint-Saëns encouraged Fauré to apply for the vacant post. The faculty of the Conservatoire regarded Fauré as dangerously modern, and its head, Ambroise Thomas, blocked the appointment, declaring, "Fauré? Never! If he's appointed, I resign." However, Fauré was appointed to another of Guiraud's posts, inspector of the music conservatories in the French provinces. He disliked the prolonged travelling around the country that the work entailed, but the post gave him a steady income and enabled him to give up teaching amateur pupils.
In 1896 Ambroise Thomas died, and Théodore Dubois took over as head of the Conservatoire. Fauré succeeded Dubois as chief organist of the Madeleine. Dubois' move had further repercussions: Massenet, professor of composition at the Conservatoire, had expected to succeed Thomas, but had overplayed his hand by insisting on being appointed for life. He was turned down, and when Dubois was appointed instead, Massenet resigned his professorship in fury. Fauré was appointed in his place. He taught many young composers, including Maurice Ravel, Florent Schmitt, Charles Koechlin, Louis Aubert, Jean Roger-Ducasse, George Enescu, Paul Ladmirault, Alfredo Casella and Nadia Boulanger. In Fauré's view, his students needed a firm grounding in the basic skills, which he was happy to delegate to his capable assistant André Gedalge. His own part came in helping them make use of these skills in the way that suited each student's talents. Roger-Ducasse later wrote, "Taking up whatever the pupils were working on, he would evoke the rules of the form at hand ... and refer to examples, always drawn from the masters." Ravel always remembered Fauré's open-mindedness as a teacher. Having received Ravel's String Quartet with less than his usual enthusiasm, Fauré asked to see the manuscript again a few days later, saying, "I could have been wrong". The musicologist Henry Prunières wrote, "What Fauré developed among his pupils was taste, harmonic sensibility, the love of pure lines, of unexpected and colorful modulations; but he never gave them [recipes] for composing according to his style and that is why they all sought and found their own paths in many different, and often opposed, directions."
Fauré's works of the last years of the century include incidental music for the English premiere of Maurice Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande (1898) and Prométhée, a lyric tragedy composed for the amphitheatre at Béziers. Written for outdoor performance, the work is scored for huge instrumental and vocal forces. Its premiere in August 1900 was a great success, and it was revived at Béziers the following year and in Paris in 1907. A version with orchestration for normal opera house-sized forces was given at the Paris Opéra in May 1917 and received more than forty performances in Paris thereafter.[n 9]
From 1903 to 1921, Fauré regularly wrote music criticism for Le Figaro, a role in which he was not at ease. Nectoux writes that Fauré's natural kindness and broad-mindedness predisposed him to emphasise the positive aspects of a work.
Head of Paris Conservatoire
In 1905 a scandal erupted in French musical circles over the country's top musical prize, the Prix de Rome. Fauré's pupil Ravel had been eliminated prematurely in his sixth attempt for this award, and many believed that reactionary elements within the Conservatoire had played a part in it. Dubois, who became the subject of much censure, brought forward his retirement and stepped down at once. Appointed in his place, and with the support of the French government, Fauré radically changed the administration and curriculum. He appointed independent external judges to decide on admissions, examinations and competitions, a move which enraged faculty members who had given preferential treatment to their private pupils; feeling themselves deprived of a considerable extra income, many of them resigned. Fauré was dubbed "Robespierre" by disaffected members of the old guard as he modernised and broadened the range of music taught at the Conservatoire. As Nectoux puts it, "where Auber, Halévy and especially Meyerbeer had reigned supreme ... it was now possible to sing an aria by Rameau or even some Wagner – up to now a forbidden name within the Conservatoire's walls". The curriculum was broadened to range from Renaissance polyphony to the works of Debussy.
Fauré's new position left him better off financially. However, while he also became much more widely known as a composer, running the Conservatoire left him with no more time for composition than when he was struggling to earn a living as an organist and piano teacher. As soon as the working year was over, in the last days of July, he would leave Paris and spend the two months until early October in a hotel, usually by one of the Swiss lakes, to concentrate on composition. His works from this period include his lyric opera, Pénélope (1913), and some of his most characteristic later songs (e.g., the cycle La chanson d'Ève, Op. 95, completed in 1910) and piano pieces (Nocturnes Nos. 9–11; Barcarolles Nos. 7–11, written between 1906 and 1914).
Fauré at the turn of the century
Fauré was elected to the Institut de France in 1909, after his father-in-law and Saint-Saëns, both long-established members, had canvassed strongly on his behalf. He won the ballot by a narrow margin, with 18 votes against 16 for the other candidate, Widor.[n 10] In the same year a group of young composers led by Ravel and Koechlin broke with the Société Nationale de Musique, which under the presidency of Vincent d'Indy had become a reactionary organisation, and formed a new group, the Société musicale indépendante. While Fauré accepted the presidency of this society, he also remained a member of the older one and continued on the best of terms with d'Indy; his sole concern was the fostering of new music. In 1911 he oversaw the Conservatoire's move to new premises in the rue de Madrid.
During this time, Fauré developed serious problems with his hearing. Not only did he start to go deaf, but sounds became distorted, so that high and low notes sounded painfully out of tune to him.
The turn of the 20th century saw a rise in the popularity of Fauré's music in Britain, and to a lesser extent in Germany, Spain and Russia. He visited England frequently, and an invitation to play at Buckingham Palace in 1908 opened many other doors in London and beyond. He attended the London premiere of Elgar's First Symphony, in 1908, and dined with the composer afterwards. Elgar later wrote to their mutual friend Frank Schuster that Fauré "was such a real gentleman – the highest kind of Frenchman and I admired him greatly." Elgar tried to get Fauré's Requiem put on at the Three Choirs Festival, but it did not finally have its English premiere until 1937, nearly fifty years after its first performance in France. Composers from other countries also loved and admired Fauré. In the 1880s Tchaikovsky had thought him "adorable"; Albéniz and Fauré were friends and correspondents until the former's early death in 1909; Richard Strauss sought his advice; and in Fauré's last years, the young American Aaron Copland was a devoted admirer.
The outbreak of the First World War almost stranded Fauré in Germany, where he had gone for his annual composing retreat. He managed to get from Germany into Switzerland, and thence to Paris. He remained in France for the duration of the war. When a group of French musicians led by Saint-Saëns tried to organise a boycott of German music, Fauré and Messager dissociated themselves from the idea, though the disagreement did not affect their friendship with Saint-Saëns.[n 11] Fauré did not recognise nationalism in music, seeing in his art "a language belonging to a country so far above all others that it is dragged down when it has to express feelings or individual traits that belong to any particular nation." Nonetheless, he was aware that his own music was respected rather than loved in Germany. In January 1905, visiting Frankfurt and Cologne for concerts of his music, he had written, "The criticisms of my music have been that it's a bit cold and too well brought up! There's no question about it, French and German are two different things."
Last years and legacy
In 1920, at the age of 75, Fauré retired from the Conservatoire because of his increasing deafness and frailty. In that year he received the Grand-Croix of the Légion d'honneur, an honour rare for a musician. In 1922 the president of the republic, Alexandre Millerand, led a public tribute to Fauré, a national hommage, described in The Musical Times as "a splendid celebration at the Sorbonne, in which the most illustrious French artists participated, [which] brought him great joy. It was a poignant spectacle, indeed: that of a man present at a concert of his own works and able to hear not a single note. He sat gazing before him pensively, and, in spite of everything, grateful and content."
to Fauré, 1922. Fauré and President Millerand
are in the box between the statues
Fauré suffered from poor health in his later years, brought on in part by heavy smoking. Despite this, he remained available to young composers, including members of Les Six, most of whom were devoted to him.[n 12] Nectoux writes, "In old age he attained a kind of serenity, without losing any of his remarkable spiritual vitality, but rather removed from the sensualism and the passion of the works he wrote between 1875 and 1895."
In his last months, Fauré struggled to complete a string quartet. Twenty years earlier he had been the dedicatee of Ravel's String Quartet. Ravel and others urged Fauré to compose one of his own. He refused for many years, on the grounds that it was too difficult. When he finally decided to write it, he did so in trepidation, telling his wife, "I've started a Quartet for strings, without piano. This is a genre which Beethoven in particular made famous, and causes all those who are not Beethoven to be terrified of it." He worked on the piece for a year, finishing it on 11 September 1924, less than two months before he died, working long hours towards the end to complete it. The quartet was premiered after his death; he declined an offer to have it performed privately for him in his last days, as his hearing had deteriorated to the point where musical sounds were horribly distorted in his ear.
Fauré died in Paris from pneumonia on 4 November 1924 at the age of 79. He was given a state funeral at the Église de la Madeleine and is buried in the Passy Cemetery in Paris.
After Fauré's death, the Conservatoire abandoned his radicalism and became resistant to new trends in music, with Fauré's own harmonic practice being held up as the farthest limit of modernity, beyond which students should not go. His successor, Henri Rabaud, director of the Conservatoire from 1922 to 1941, declared "modernism is the enemy". The generation of students born between the wars rejected this outdated premise, turning for inspiration to Bartók, the Second Viennese School, and the latest works of Stravinsky.
In a centenary tribute in 1945, the musicologist Leslie Orrey wrote in The Musical Times, "'More profound than Saint-Saëns, more varied than Lalo, more spontaneous than d'Indy, more classic than Debussy, Gabriel Fauré is the master par excellence of French music, the perfect mirror of our musical genius.' Perhaps, when English musicians get to know his work better, these words of Roger-Ducasse will seem, not over-praise, but no more than his due."