A Footnote On Fauré's Requiem
from Richard Lines
Fauré's Requiem (or Mass for the dead) seems to be an increasingly popular work. I first really became aware of it a few years ago when I attended the funeral of a former colleague who had died while still in his thirties. Fauré's hauntingly beautiful music, sung by a small choir in the gallery of Butterfield's huge Victorian Gothic church, St. Alban's, Holborn, was perfect for this very sad occasion.
Since then I have heard several radio performances and I bought a CD version on Philips with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir, so I have been able to listen to this wonderful piece quietly at home. Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) was a French composer of the Romantic school who held a number of positions connected with church music.
In middle life he became organist of the famous Madeleine church in Paris. At about the same time he was appointed a professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire, of which he later became director. Fauré was famous as a song writer. He wrote much chamber music, an opera called "Penelope" and incidental music for a London production of Maeterlinck's play, "Pellas and Mlisande" (for which Edward Burne-Jones designed the sets). This was a few years before the appearance of Debussy's eponymous opera (closely based on the play). It is, however, for his Requiem that Fauré is now best known.
It was first performed in the Madeleine on 16th January 1888 for the funeral of a Monsieur Lesoufache, a well-known Paris architect. Many years later Fauré confided to an interviewer that when writing his Requiem he had been moved "...to stray from the established path after all those years accompanying funerals...I wanted to do something different. The Mass is in seven movements. The last, perhaps the most beautiful of them all, is the "In Paradisum". This comes, not from the liturgy of the Requiem Mass, but from the Office for the Dead. This was Fauré's "something different". It has been said that the words and music of this movement reflect his own view of death as "...a joyful deliverance, an aspiration towards a happiness beyond the grave rather than as a painful experience". A soprano sings:
It has been noted that Fauré was "a quietly free-thinking agnostic" rather than a conventional Roman Catholic of his day (see an article by Jessica Duchen in the BBC Music Magazine for January 1999). She says that, as a composer, he was a radical individualist who, in his quest for perfect expression, flouted both fashion and tradition. The Requiem represents "...a deeply personal and unconventional view of death and the afterlife". Time and again darker episodes are countered with tranquil, light-filled music of heavenly calm. The "Dies Irae" ("Day of Anger") is relegated to a short episode in the "Libera Me". She concludes by saying that this Requiem is a "Lullaby of Death", guided by a merciful God whose name was synonymous with Love.
Had Fauré ever read Swedenborg, I wonder? His religious writings were certainly an important influence on French culture of the nineteenth century, that influence having been spread above all through Balzac's novels. Fauré was a contemporary of the Symbolist writers and painters (the former included the Belgian Maeterlinck who lived in France and wrote in French) who drew inspiration from Swedenborg. He may well have had some acquaintance with his religious writings, but, even if he did not, there is "something" about the atmosphere of the Requiem (as with so much nineteenth century art, music and poetry) which suggests the inflowing of the new revelation.