Monday, May 15, 2006


Composer Gabriel Faure was born on this date in 1845 in Pamiers, France.

Writing about music is about as easy and straight-forward as dancing about pies -- and writers about music have had a heck of a time writing about the music of Gabriel Faure. He was born 3 years after the death of Cherubini, the austere classicist; and by the time of Faure's death, Schoenberg was writing in 12-tone technique and Stravinsky had already debuted his Petrouchka. 80 years of musical innovation clamored through Europe during Faure's life, yet critics have never really found a place to put him among the styles of his many contemporaries.

My friend Carlo Caballero, in his book Faure and French Musical Aesthetics, has managed to draw some neat circles around Faure, adding much to one's understanding of Faure's inscrutable work. With apologies to Carlo, here is one way to approach Faure. Despite the influences swirling around him, Faure's works have a timeless sameness, revealing an aesthetic based on notions of sincerity (truth about the artist's interior life) and originality (a novelty of spirit, as opposed to a novelty of style, that is unique to the artist) -- aesthetic values that Faure tried to impart to his students.

A self-taught organist as a child, Faure's school inspector-father sent him to study in Paris, ultimately with Camille Saint-Saens, who encouraged him, introduced him to members of his circle such as Verlaine, Proust, Flaubert and Gounod, and helped him secure work. From his 20s to his 40s, however, apart from a stint in the Franco-Prussian War, Faure labored away as an organist in obscure posts in Rennes and Paris while writing mostly intimate pieces -- songs, short piano pieces and sonatas -- until he took dual appointments as the organist at La Madeleine and professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory in 1895. By then his music had found a small following among amateurs and critics, but it wouldn't be until 1905, when he was appointed director of the Conservatory (a post he would hold until deafness forced him to retire in 1920), that his compositions would begin to be considered by the broader public -- among them, his Elegie for cello and piano (1880), Messe de requiem (1887), Pavane for orchestra (1887), piano pieces and song cycles of works by Hugo, Baudelaire, Sully-Prudhomme and Verlaine.

Faure's work is often described as a dignified mesh of classical modes colored by subtle Impressionistic effects -- mild discords, metrical misalignments -- but it is even more typical to refer to Faure's music as "elusive"; Copland wrote of its "certain ungetatable quality . . . disconcerting to the uninitiated." It is probably more precise to say that, rather than beating us over the head with a composer's intentions, Faure's humble and dignified design is to give the initiative to the listener, to listen to his music with sincerity and originality.

Faure died on November 4, 1924 in Paris.

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