Fauré’s Luminous Requiem

My Requiem has been said to express no fear of death; it has been called a lullaby of death.  But that is how I feel about death: a happy deliverance, a reaching for eternal happiness rather than a mournful passing away…. Perhaps I have sought to depart from what is conventional because for so long I was organist at services of internment.  I’m fed up with that.  I wanted to do something different.

          – Fauré discussing his Requiem in a 1902 letter to Louis Aguettant

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The Requiem—the traditional Roman Catholic Mass sung for the dead—has formed an important part of choral music from the Middle Ages to today.  A vast number of composers from Palestrina to Andrew Lloyd Webber have penned a Requiem, even if they weren’t Catholic… or particularly religious at all.  It’s easy to see why; the Requiem text, like the ritual it is drawn from, is so broadly recognized that it provides as a easily understood starting point to explore universal questions of life, death, and life after death.

In composing a Requiem, there are several approaches that composers have taken.  On the one hand, there those that emphasize the dramatic nature of the words, focusing on anger at our loss, the fear of the unknown, or our terror of Final Judgment.  The Requiems of Hector Berlioz and Giuseppe Verdi are the best-known examples of this train of thought.  On the other hand, there are those that emphasize notions of comfort, solace, and a spiritual release as the deceased is gathered up by a merciful God—the approach recommended by Beethoven himself, who once wrote: A Requiem ought to be quiet music—it needs no trump of doom; memories of the dead require no hubbub.

The Requiem of Gabriel Fauré is one of the best-loved examples of this approach—a work this is luminous and delicate, which emphasizes the idea of consolation.  As Fauré told his friends, “Altogether, it is as gentle as I am myself.”

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Gabriel Fauré

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It is tempting to associate the Requiems of Brahms and Verdi with their respective homelands.  This is certainly true in terms of musical language; Brahms makes use of Bach-style fugues, and Verdi gives his work more than a few operatic touches.  But it’s also true that each Requiem captures something of the essential culture of Germany and Italy, particularly the two cultures’ approach to death and grief.

Similarly, Fauré’s approach is quintessentially French.

But for me a more specific metaphor comes to mind—the image that Fauré’s Requiem conjures up for me is that of a French formal garden.

French gardens are quite different from their English counterparts; the hallmark of a French garden is the idea of order… an order based on symmetry, geometry, precision and balance. French gardens are also meant to be viewed from a distance, so form and design play a major role. They tend toward a cool color palette, with an emphasis on whites, greens, blues and purples rather than bright pops of color. Perhaps most important, they are meant to highlight the centerpiece of the entire space, which would be the house (or, in most cases, the château).   In the wrong hands, such a design can seem rigid, artificial or severe… but when it works, it creates a stunning sense of harmony.

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A French formal garden in Bordeaux.

This is a perfect description of Fauré’s Requiem.  The work is wonderfully balanced—a remarkable feat, given that its various components were created separately over the span of several years.  Its seven movements are musically structured to center around the remarkable Pie Jesu, a solo section for soprano (or boy soprano). Similarly, the baritone soloists appears in two parallel, symmetrically placed movements. The sense of symmetry is further created by Fauré’s innovative choice to end the work with the antiphon In paradisum (not considered part of the Requiem proper, but rather part of the subsequent rites of burial).  Thus, the work begins and ends with the same word: requiem (rest).

Moreover, the work is marvelously controlled.  There is no doubt about the emotions in the work, but they are bound up in exquisitely fashioned, highly structured musical lines.  But there is also a sense of economy, too—there is nothing of a circus about the music, which says much with minimal effort.  It is the antithesis of Berlioz’s Requiem (a work Fauré cordially despised), which utilizes dramatic musical effects to make its points.

The Requiem is also noted for Fauré’s deliberate and highly idiosyncratic “pruning” or adaptation of the text to fit his overall conception.  For one, during the Offertoire (Dominae Jesu Christe), Fauré subtly edits the text to remove all mention of St. Michael and minimize mentions of Hell.  Far more radically, Fauré completely jettisons the Dies Irae section—the portion that dramatically depicts the coming Day of Judgement.  Composers since Mozart’s day have reveled in the opportunity to depict the Apocalypse through apocalyptic music, which makes the Dies Irae’s absence in Fauré’s work all the more striking.  If Fauré’s Requiem were to be used in a liturgical setting, the Dies Irae text could be included, but only in the understated simplicity of the original Gregorian chant… which would give its apocalyptic text a very different feel.

Most curious of all, Fauré ends the work with the section In paradisum, which as noted is not part of the traditional Requiem, but a hymn sung at the burial.  The text speaks of a chorus of angels welcoming the soul and leading it toward Paradise.  It is a striking addition, that further emphasizes the idea of comfort and Divine grace.

 

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Fauré probably began work on his Requiem as early as 1886. It was likely finished in early 1888, just in time to be used for a burial at Paris’s famed La Madeleine in January of that year.  Even so, the composer continued to tinker with it for some time.  It was originally seen as a work for liturgical use, meaning that in its earliest form it was scored for organ, a small number of lower strings and timpani—a small number of forces that a church would have readily at hand.  And in keeping with church tradition, the soprano and alto parts were originally sung by boys.  Five years later, Fauré expanded the orchestration for a funeral, and later for concert performances, again at La Madeleine.  The next major change came in 1900, when the work was performed in its full-orchestra form; it was this form that brought the piece international fame.  As the work became a staple in the concert hall, the earlier restrictions against women performing the work were lifted, and Fauré later remarked that he preferred adult, female voices to sing the choral parts.

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La Madeleine in Paris, where the Requiem was first performed.

The work begins with a somber opening, the Introït et Kyrie. The words Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine (Rest eternal grant them, O Lord) are stated simply and carefully, rising slightly in volume but never becoming too forceful. Beneath these vocal lines, the orchestra provides simple block harmonies, serving as a foundation and providing gentle punctuation.  Once the mood is established, the tenors begin a soaring melody begging God to grant rest to the souls of the departed.  This establishes another hallmark of the work—again and again, Fauré treats the vocal sections as soloists, having the entire section deliver sweeping musical lines in unison.  The tenors’ line is taken up by the sopranos and further developed, with the full chorus returning to the original melody for a final statement of Kyrie eleison, imploring God to look down with mercy.

The Offertoire follows, and again uses the simplest means to make its points.  The altos and tenors begin singing a prayer in canon—a parallel melody, slightly offset.  The prayer continues with the baritone soloist entering at the Hostias, cautiously petitioning God to accept the people’s sacrifices on behalf of the deceased.  The chorus returns with music from the opening that is sung as softly as possible, bringing the section to a reverential close. Throughout this section, and in keeping with his overall conception, Fauré selectively edits and manipulates the traditional text, in effect seeking to lessen the drama and lower the emotional temperature.  As a result, Fauré presents here not the desperate plea for Divine intercession that is more usual in a Requiem, but instead an intimate, personal prayer.

Fauré follows this contemplative ritual of the Offertoire with a luminous Sanctus. In the original score, a single violin breaks out, detached from the rest of the orchestra , and begins a melody of soaring ecstasy (in the final orchestral version, the violins play this in unison). The sopranos enter in with a soaring melody of their own—a line that looks simple on paper, but is breathtaking when sung.  The chorus echoes the line, giving it breadth and purpose, and together the voices build in intensity to cries of Hosanna! Hosanna in excelsis! It is a moment of pure light, that slowly slips again into silence.

What follows is the emotional core of the entire work: the Pie Jesu.  Fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns once remarked that “just as Mozart’s is the only Ave verum corpus, this is the only Pie Jesu.”  In this section Fauré spins out a visionary melody for solo soprano that somehow manages to be both bold and breathtakingly gentle.  It is a simple melody that is matched by the simplicity of the text—a prayer that Jesus grant the deceased rest everlasting.  The orchestration in this section is remarkable, subtly supporting the solo voice without ever intruding.  Overall, this movement embodies the virtues of the Requiem as a whole: its gentle restraint paradoxically heightens its emotional impact. It is pure without being mawkish, expressive without being dramatic.  It is pure Fauré.  It is no wonder this movement is so deeply beloved, and frequently performed independently of the rest of the work.

The Agnus Dei again begins with a solo section for the tenors—a gorgeous melody that recalls Gregorian chant.  It is both elegant and understated.  The full chorus enters in support, but the tenors continue their chant imploring Jesus, the Lamb of God, to grant rest to the departed.  At this point, the sopranos enter in with a still, luminous note that rises above the orchestra and hangs there, never wavering.  This launches the Lux aeterna section, one of the most remarkable parts of the Requiem.  The chorus comes in, hailing the Divine Light that illuminates Heaven and shines like a beacon across the universe.  But the harmonies shimmer and transform, melting and gliding from one to another without firmly landing. It is a glorious moment of musical impressionism beyond words.  And in truth, it is like diving into a pool of liquid sunlight, with the bubbles and eddies gently swirling around you and enveloping your in waves of warmth.   At the end this heavenly music resolves, and briefly returns to the somber music of the opening.  But almost immediately, the remarkable happens.  The mood is gently transformed as the music modulates again, gliding into a different, and brighter key. Darkness becomes light. The effect is magical.

The Libera Me follows, again with baritone solo and chorus. This setting is the only mention of Judgment Day in the work, but because Fauré relies heavily on a soloist in this section, the visions of Hell and Judgement by Fire he conjures up are on a smaller, more personal scale.  This is perhaps the most dramatic section of the work, but even so the emotions it evokes remain understated… more along the lines of dread than the visceral terror found in, say, Verdi’s Requiem.  This section again closes simply, more spoken than sung.

Fauré concludes the work in revolutionary fashion.  In paradisum is a shimmering vision of Divine Grace, with a text that comes from the burial service instead of the Requiem itself.  Fauré makes use of the a fluty sonorities of the pipe organ, but does so in a most unusual way—the organist plays a repeated series of pizzicato arpeggios that suggest both the plucked strings of angels’ harps, and the gentle flutter of their wings. The sopranos enter, leading a solo section with a touching text:

May the Angels lead you into Paradise.
At your coming
May the martyrs receive you
And conduct you
Into the holy city, Jerusalem.
May the chorus of Angels receive you,
And with Lazarus, once a pauper,
Eternally may you have rest.

There is a subtle difference in tone here.  While before the Requiem’s text focused on the community and all the souls of the dead, here the attention turns at last to the deceased loved one. We finally intone: May you be received into Paradise.  As before, Fauré uses the simplest of means to make the largest of impacts.  The melody is a mere wisp of a thing, and the accompaniment nothing more than a murmur… but it is so desperately beautiful you are riveted.  And transformed.  The full chorus comes in only at the end, serenely presenting a benediction that offers eternal rest in the embrace of God, before drifting silently into eternity.

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Versailles, after a February 2018 snowfall.  A perfect visual for a Fauré Requiem in Minnesota.

The final words about the Requiem should go to the composer himself: “Everything I managed to entertain by way of religious illusion I put into my Requiem, which moreover is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.”

Amen.

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Xochipilli

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5 thoughts on “Fauré’s Luminous Requiem

  1. Scott Chamberlain: While you have written an extraordinary document praising the Faure Requiem, I beg a moment of consideration for a work that has received mostly derision here. Yes Berlioz is known for his ‘wild, loud, and long’ orchestral works, there are at least three sections of his Requiem that are almost as delicate as M. Faure’s quiet work.1) Section 5: the brief Quaerens me (3:52), 2) Section 9: Sanctus with its canonic brilliance and soloist (10:27) & 3) Section 10: Agnus Dei (11:38) with its unusually gentle closing. Yes I admit a small bias. A friend of mine in college days LOVED the Berlioz Requiem and even brought the score to it with him when our Concert Band went to various High Schools to play. And he would make me look at the score while on the bus from school to school!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh I agree… and I could say similar things about Verdi’s Requiem, which also contains a wealth of delicate, subtle moments that don’t get nearly the attention as the thunderous Dies Ire. And truth be told, I don’t know that I prefer Fauré’s Requiem to that of Berlioz. But it’s clear from Fauré’s letters that he well and truly hated Berlioz’s Requiem, and saw his own work as a direct response to it.

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