Fauré: The Master of the Miniature

May 12, 2020

Gabriel Fauré shied away from the big, bombastic moments in favor of the intimate and intricate. On his 175th birthday, here’s a look at some of his most beautiful small-scale moments.

What’s the first thing that springs to your mind when you think “classical music?” For many people, it’s an orchestra, a great mass of instruments churning through some large-scale work like a symphony or concerto. Big moments like the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or the climax of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto can reverberate through concert halls and shake listeners to their cores.  

Those big moments really weren’t Gabriel Fauré’s style. He destroyed the only symphony he ever wrote and left his only concerto (for violin) unfinished. Sure, he had a few big hits for large groups like Masques and Bergamasques and his Requiem. By and large, though, his genius was in crafting intimate gems for small groups. Like a watchmaker working with tiny gears, everything that Fauré wrote fits together perfectly to make a miniature, personal masterpiece.  

To honor his 175th birthday, here are five of my favorite small-scale moments by Fauré. They may not have crashing cymbals, blaring horns, or fingers flying up and down a keyboard, but they’re just as powerful as any big finale.

Pie Jesu, from the Requiem

Any discussion of Fauré’s music has to include his gorgeous Requiem, one that features my favorite passage in all of classical music. Fauré’s Requiem is deeply personal, written to comfort the living. Fauré said that he viewed death as “a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience,” and it shows. In his Requiem he only focuses relatively briefly on the fire and brimstone of the Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”), preferring quiet contemplations of salvation and Paradise.  

At its heart is the Pie Jesu, sung by a soprano, that simply and plaintively asks for eternal rest for those who have passed. Those three or so minutes show off all the talents that make Fauré my favorite composer: an ear for melody, a sensitive heart, and just enough restraint to keep things from getting overly sweet or sentimental.  

String Quartet: III. Allegro

Like the Requiem, Fauré’s only string quartet seems to deal with the idea of mortality. He wrote it late in life, and it feels pensive and a bit nostalgic. The first two movements are stark and somber, but the third picks up the pace a bit with a frenetic energy.

Fauré was often plagued by self-doubt, and the stark, somber tone of much of the quartet seems to echo that. As the third movement chugs along, it sounds a bit like he’s rushing as he senses time running out. Right at the end, though, there’s a brief, final outburst of emotion. It’s almost as if, through all his rumination, Fauré finally finds what he’s looking for.  

Romance for Violin and Piano

As with many good pieces of music, this one comes with a tale of heartbreak. Fauré was smitten with the young daughter of a famous opera singer, Marianne Viardot. She seems to have reluctantly said yes when he proposed to her, only to have second thoughts and break the engagement off.

One issue was apparently that Fauré preferred writing chamber music and songs rather than operas, which were much more lucrative. Appropriately, he wrote this short chamber piece while waiting for her final answer.  

Don’t feel too sorry for Fauré, by the way. He ended up finding plenty of women who were interested in him and his music, even if Marianne wasn’t.  

Barcarolle No. 3 for Piano

One short form Fauré clearly loved was the barcarolle, originally based on of the songs of Venetian gondoliers. Over four decades, he wrote 13 of them, but this one has a shimmering quality that I can’t get enough of. He puts in plenty of runs and tricky passages for the performer, but it never feels like he’s trying to show off. Instead, it feels like an easygoing float one of those famous Venetian canals, with waves and swells splashing through every so often.

Mandoline, from Five Venetian Melodies

Short, sweet, and florid, Mandoline tells the story of “the players of serenades and the beautiful women who listen.” Fauré matches the carefree, romantic vibe of Verlaine’s poem perfectly with a bouncy piano accompaniment that imitates the plucking of mandolin strings and a melody that glides along effortlessly. Even if you don’t speak French it’s easy to get the basic idea of what’s going on.

What are your favorite Fauré pieces? Let me know on Twitter - I'm @tylerontheair.

Here's the full playlist of everything above: