Fauré, “Requiem”

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)

Requiem, op. 48 (1893 version)

Fauré is not well known for his orchestrational technique—his duties as an organist and teacher often precluded the creation of any large-scale works—which might explain the long gestation of his Requiem, a traditional Catholic death Mass. The compositional process began in 1877, when he composed the “Libera me” as an independent work, but he did not begin the larger work until the mid-1880s. The first version was premiered in 1888 and did not include any winds. After this, Fauré decided to expand the orchestration and add the newly-composed “Offertoire” and the previously-written “Libera me” for the version being performed tonight. It is not entirely known what happened for the third and final version. Most believe some variant on the story that Fauré’s publisher decided that the work would sell better as a stand alone concert piece with a full-sized orchestra. It even seems likely that Fauré did not even complete the final version and passed the work off to one of his Paris Conservatory composition students. At any rate, the 1900 “final” version was the only one known for years, until the British choral colossus John Rutter rediscovered the second version hidden at the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris in the early 1980s. This chamber orchestra version has since proven immensely popular and is often characterized as the “most authentic.”

The second version is peculiar in its scoring—for mixed choir, solo baritone, boy/soprano solo, harp, timpani, organ, solo violin, divided violas, divided celli, double basses, two bassoons, four horns, and two trumpets. There are no section violins, no flutes, no oboes, no clarinets, no trombones, and no tuba. The work may be completely unique in its reluctance to explore upper and lower registers; it exists almost entirely in the middle range. The soprano section never rises above an F, and even the violin solo in the “Libera me” barely rises above the traditional viola register. The most unusual choice, however, might go to Fauré’s emphasis on his own instrument, the organ. The quality of a performance of the Requiem hinges upon an excellent organist (and organ), and often the orchestra remains silent while the king of instruments rises to act as soloist, accompanist, or reinforcement of the choir.

Fauré opens the work with a clear demonstration of the dominance of the text over complex melodic or harmonic structures. The first movement, “Introit et Kyrie,” begins with an accented, quickly decaying D in the orchestra (while a D itself cannot be major or minor, the harshness of this opening note strongly indicates the minor mode—which is confirmed as soon as the choir enters on a D minor chord) and moves through several straightforward settings of the titular text, “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine/et lux perpetua luceat eis.” (Grant them eternal rest, Lord/and let the perpetual light shine upon them). The orchestra plays in unison. The choir sings a series of chords, mostly repeated—a homorhythmic chant of sorts. When the introduction moves into a more melodic middle section, the words remain the same. One cannot help but note the difference in mood Fauré utilizes while setting the same text, paralleling the natural human reaction of some fear in first contemplating death when followed by a reassurance and belief in the Christian afterlife. Eventually, the “Kyrie eleison,” (Lord have mercy), the oldest part of the Mass (so old as to be the only portion spoken in Greek instead of Latin), returns to the first melodic material of the movement, highlighting the connection between the texts.

Early in the “Offertoire,” Fauré composes a contrapuntal duet between the alto and tenor sections, a cappella, that highlights the similarities between the low female and high male voice, and how close their ranges are. In fact, the two lines are constantly crossing each other, with the tenors singing higher than the altos, and the two parts become indistinguishable at times. Eventually the bass section sneaks in as the music swells to a forte, but the sopranos have still yet to add their voices to the movement. The extended middle passage with accompanied baritone solo is easily misunderstood as an opportunity for a male soloist to show off, in part because of the moving orchestral accompaniment—but one who listens closely will be able to discern Fauré’s true intention. The score specifically states that the baritone soloist should be “a cantor-type,” and the music he sings reflects this. The melodic line is a remnant of chant, with many repeated notes and few leaps, and hearkens back to over five hundred years earlier, when a line such as this would be the only musical setting of the Requiem Mass. The choir returns (in full force this time) to repeat the opening text, with the addition of an “Amen” to close the movement. But at the moment of the “Amen,” the B minor that has dominated the entire movement melts into B major, and the music closes with choir and organ in a familiar, comforting moment.

The “Sanctus” (Holy) opens with harp, followed quickly by a flowing melody in the soprano section that is then echoed by the tenor and bass sections in the choir. It is not difficult to see this as a metaphor wherein the angels teach men on earth how to worship God. But while the angels still sing a floating “Hosanna in excelsis” (Hosanna [an exclamation of joy] in the highest), the men transform the melody into a more emphatic shout of praise, punctuated by the triumphant entry of the brass. The sopranos join, but only briefly, before the entire choir softly resolves in the manner of the opening.

Camille Saint-Saëns once famously commented on the following soprano aria (written for boy soprano, but often sung by a light female voice) by discounting all other settings of the same text: “Just as Mozart’s is the only ‘Ave verum corpus,’ this is the only ‘Pie Jesu.’” The aesthetic is that of a child-like voice, free of artifice and affectation, entreating Jesus to bestow peace on those who have died. Relegated at first to soft punctuations in between strophes, the orchestra sneaks into the organ texture for the third statement of the text and rises to a climax for a final, more passionate plea of the simple text “Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem” (Merciful Lord Jesus, grant them rest).

The text of the “Agnus Dei” (Lamb of God) is traditionally “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis” (Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us), but Fauré changes the text slightly but significantly to “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem” (Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest), thereby throwing the focus back to the deceased. Fauré switches between a mood of relief and one of mystery; the tone darkens when the choir reflects upon the concept of wiping sin away. The second section of the movement is the “Lux aeterna,” opening with a chorale in the choir and organ parts. The music intensifies to reach “cum sanctis tuis in aeternum quia pius es” (with your saints in eternity for you are merciful) and the brass enter again to punctuate the statement. At the end, the dark music that opened the entire work returns. The movement ends much as the second movement did—we hear the music turn from D minor to D major for a brief moment of promise.

The “Libera me” (Release me) is Fauré’s closest foray into the traditional “Dies irae” (Day of wrath) text. In Requiems past, composers relished the opportunity to take this fire-and-brimstone poem and use it to pull every dramatic trick in the book (see, for instance, Mozart and Verdi’s bombastic examples). After all, this portion of the Requiem was designed to frighten people into repentance! But Fauré takes a different view, one that reflects his own beliefs: “I see death as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience.” His own view of the Requiem as a whole was that it “is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.” One could even intuit this from the sheer number of places the word “requiem” (rest) appears in the work. This movement sets a small portion of the “Dies irae” text, but eventually reaches yet another entreaty of “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.”

The final movement is entirely in D major, fulfilling the trajectory implied at the ending of the “Agnus” and balancing the Requiem’s D minor beginning. In the opening of the final movement, “In Paradisum,” the soprano section makes a rare venture into the upper register, but again as a personification of the angels, and again with a prominent harp accompaniment. The rest of the choir enters to repeat “Jerusalem” at the end of the stanza, but at the beginning of the second stanza (which again references angels), the sopranos take over once again. The work ends with another repetition of the “Requiem,” finding a truly exquisite depiction of a peaceful ending

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~program notes by Jessica Davis, copyright 2012
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