in: Reviews

November 3, 2015

Fauré’s Requiem at Christ Church

by

Nadia Boulanger, guru to several BMInt writers.

Nadia Boulanger, guru to several BMInt writers.

Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem (1877) became a musical fixture of my childhood and I have cherished it ever since. My mother was particularly fond of his music, especially his songs and piano pieces, and we had plenty of records at home. When as a teenager I got to know other composers’ Requiem settings, from Mozart and Verdi and Berlioz to the very non-Latin Brahms, I came to understand that Fauré’s constituted a special case, a Requiem of consolation for the survivors of the departed, one that eschews justification in favor of inner and outer peace. I suppose that one reason it was regularly heard in Cambridge was that in 1944 Nadia Boulanger had organized a day-long conference on Fauré’s music at Harvard; Fauré had been director at the Conservatoire in Paris where she and Ravel and so many others had honored him as a teacher and friend. Fauré’s choral style set a new standard for French elegance in its day, undercutting a tradition that in composers like Cherubini, Thomas, Gounod, and Saint-Saëns was already growing stale. Yet Fauré’s sacred music, including the Requiem, really belongs to a lesser area of his total achievement. Nor is the Requiem universally admired; my own teacher, Randall Thompson, used to rudely refer to it as “la cocotte de la Madeleine.”

Together with his Auvergnat contemporary, Emmanuel Chabrier, Fauré was one of the two founding fathers of modern harmony in French music, and it is impossible to imagine the originality of Satie and Debussy without Fauré’s example before them. Trained at the École Niedermeyer, where harmony exercises included chant melodies using the church modes, Fauré early in his career developed an original flavor of tonal harmony that included modal inflections – use of diatonic scale degrees other than the conventional major and minor. (The only other composers of the time who experimented with these scales were Russians, and their influence in France wasn’t felt until the Wagnerian floodtide had passed its peak.) Fauré’s mélodies include many of the best French songs of all time; while his piano works include only two large-scale pieces among numerous smaller gems, his chamber music remains on a par with the best of its time anywhere.

I had sung the Sanctus and In paradisum in school; I sang in complete performances in church choirs, with organ and harp, during my college years; and I once heard a concert performance in Sanders Theater with orchestra. I realized early on that Fauré’s Requiem doesn’t depend much on its quite conventional orchestration (completed years later), and that a church performance with organ alone can be no less authentic, simply because of the directness of its choral writing. But yesterday’s Evensong in Christ Church (Episcopal) in Cambridge was the first time I had heard the work in a liturgical setting, and this was an actual service that would hardly be found in the Book of Common Prayer because of its eclectic mixture of celebrations, including a Litany of the Saints (for All Saints’ Day), a lesson from the last chapter of the Apocalypse (Revelation 22), and a variety of sung responses in which the congregation was well versed. It was reassuring to hear so much music in actual use; I’ve always maintained that the Episcopalians, like the Anglicans, keep the best music alive, and this was in the same church where, in 1950, I first sang parts of Brahms’s German Requiem as a ten-year-old choirboy. The Evensong Choir yesterday numbered less than 40, but sang with fine sound, good intonation, and impeccable control, ably accompanied and directed by Stuart Forster.  Brent Maher intoned the famous Libera me with penetration, William Bennett soloed effectively in the Hostias, Elizabeth Huttner-Loan floated a clear and limpid Pie Jesu. The new Schoenstein organ, radiant, beautiful, and strong, replaces the Aeolian-Skinner instrument that was only a decade old when I first heard it; when Forster postluded with Franck’s suitably mighty Pièce héroïque, the large congregation didn’t budge.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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