Gabriel Fauré: Piano Quartet no. 1 in Cm, op. 15

performed by the Schubert Ensemble, or below by the Quatuor Ysaÿe with Pascal Rogé, piano

(cover image by Abigail Keenan)

Gabriel Urbain Fauré was born on May 12, 1845 in Pamiers, Ariège, “in the Occitanie region in southwestern France.” He was the youngest of six children, and his mother was the daughter of “a minor member of the nobility,” says Wikipedia. Of his siblings, he was the only one who displayed any musical talent or interest, and for some reason was sent to live with a foster mother until he was four. Wiki says that “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.”

I don’t know if there is some relation between those things, but it seems it was fortuitous, for Fauré recalls fondly his time at the chapel attached to the school. Per Wiki:

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.

He was noticed by people with connections, and at the age of nine, began boarding at the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse, where he would stay for 11 years. His sentiment was that there was nothing good about the experience but the musical education, which was apparently exquisite. Camille Saint-Saëns took over in 1861, and introduced him to the music of Schumann, Wagner, and Liszt. Of this experience, Fauré said:

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 was Fauré’s teacher, but also a dear friend until the elder’s death. Fauré would go on to be not only a composer, but organist at the Church of Saint-Saveur, among much else. In total, he wrote one string quartet, two piano quintets, two piano quartets, a piano trio, a large amount of vocal music, much religious music, a symphony that was later destroyed (with material reused in sonatas for violin or cello), and two operas.

The work interestingly comes during a happy and very sad time in the composer’s life, and we might be able to hear it in the interesting choice of key(s) and overall mood. Work on the piece begun in 1876, while he was courting one Marianne Viardot. They would be engaged the following year, but she would cut off the engagement after a few months. The work was completed in 1879, with the original finale trashed and rewritten in 1883, which version has survived to today.

The opening is arresting, in medias res, no introduction, no prefatory statement or gesture, just music. The strings are in step, moving as one, with the piano accenting the offbeats. The C minor in this piece is slightly melancholy, not in a sad way, but moody. It’s far from Beethoven’s tragic C minor atmospheres, but Fauré’s weather still clears for a quaint second subject, in E-flat major, as one would expect. Overall, the sound here is like a very early, very precocious Debussy, or a very mature, very French Brahms. This is, as I’ve said of other pieces, a piece to be enjoyed rather than analyzed.

The development should convince you of that, at least, but listen for the opening statement here and there. The music develops and changes the way the physical shape of a stream changes the way the water moves, speeding up in narrower passages, and slowing down in broader, more relaxed ones, with contours and rocks affecting this. This first movement is fluid in much the same way. The return of the opening theme is breathtakingly exciting.

The second movement scherzo is much more ornate than the first movement, with almost pointillistic textures, apparently a rare case when Fauré is showy. It’s flashier, but also a movement reminiscent of spring, bright and sunny.  It is virtuosic without being aggressive, and actually shows us a bit of humor especially in the trio.

The third movement is richly somber, with a mood that warmly, almost comfortingly, fills all the empty spaces of the room, or I imagine it would if we were hearing it live. The writing here is at once exceptionally rich, but as a quartet, manages to stay intimate. It’s heart-meltingly lyrical, but fades away with a curious staying power.

This work’s two longest movements are the first and the last (first is longer), bookending the work. The first subject is kind of chatty, busy, but again not in a terribly overt way. It’s more effervescent, although it sounds at first like it might become frenetic and agitated, it never quite becomes so. The second subject gets nearer to something we might call happy, but (spoiler alert) the movement, in its eight minutes and really superb, lush writing, finishes in C major, giving us a sense of motion toward a new destination, even if the ‘to the stars through difficulty’ (ad astra per aspera) nature of this work isn’t as pronounced. In fact, it’s almost uncharacteristically positive for a C minor work, so the ultimate arrival at C major may seem more like an inevitability.

The scherzo, in this very Romantic work, is a bit like the dash of acid that brightens a dish so you can taste it better, cuts a bit of the richness, balances things out. It’s by far the lightest, shortest of the movements. The work is time zones away from being paralyzingly somber, but it does make a difference.

Fauré is one of those names I knew of long before I’d planned to do this series. He’s finally on the blog, and maybe this isn’t his most famous piece, but it’s apparently one of his more popular, and really, it isn’t hard to see why.

We’ll also be seeing another very famous Frenchman tomorrow, in another chamber work from around the same time period, so do stay tuned for that, and thanks very much for reading.

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