Civilized Passion: The Piano Music of Gabriel Fauré

The following article by Jeffrey Chappell appeared in Piano & Keyboard Magazine, May/June 1995 issue.

Common wisdom is not always the most wise. This is definitely the case with many people’s conception of the solo piano music of Gabriel Fauré. The common wisdom is that it is intimate music in scale and expression, written to be performed in Paris salons and therefore not suited for concert halls. If a student actually becomes curious enough to want to study one of Fauré’s works, teachers unfailingly recommend the Theme and Variations, opus 73. This is usually not because they have researched all of Fauré’s piano music and concluded that this piece is his greatest and most deserving of attention, but because common wisdom says it is so.

This also happens because the Theme and Variations is the only piece some people know about. For many, it is surprising news that Fauré wrote thirteen nocturnes, thirteen barcarolles, six impromptus, nine preludes, three “songs without words,” four valse-caprices, eight “short pieces,” and a ballade.

While it is rewarding and worthwhile to have an acquaintance with all of these works, each genre has its outstanding specimens. Many among these are well within the grasp of the intermediate level student, but some call for virtuosity. As evidenced by the titles of his compositions, Fauré was influenced by the works of Chopin, but he had his own unique way of writing for the piano that requires a flexible, precise dexterity as well as an atmospheric yet lucid sonority. It would be difficult to imagine this music being played on any other instrument.

One of Fauré’s greatest works is the Ballade, opus 19, which exemplifies the trademark arpeggiations and passagework that form a pillar of Fauré’s style. Liszt supposedly declared the piece to be unplayable. Originally composed for solo piano, the Ballade also exists in a version for piano and orchestra which occasionally receives performance. The opus number places it in his early compositional period, which is marked by melodic ideas of disarming freshness framed by a rich harmonic language.

It is especially this harmonic language which identifies Fauré’s music, and which eludes analysis. Throughout his life, Fauré explored ever more remote regions of harmony along some secret path that he discovered early on. An effective composer creates expectations in the listener and then deviates from them; through some miracle of chromatic alterations, voice leading, or imagination, Fauré always delivers something better than could be expected. Repeated hearings don’t seem to diminish the effect of these unanticipated delights.

The Ballade also shows an advanced grasp of structure. A long opening section serves as an introduction to the first theme, in 4/4, followed by the second theme, also in 4/4, and finally both themes combined in 6/8, with thematic transitional material joining the sections. Such stability and clarity of form remains a feature in all of Fauré’s piano works.

But the important point is the content of the form. As common wisdom allows, here we find intimacy, delicacy, gentility, understatement, and dreaminess. What is missing from the description is the soaring earnestness, the urgent climaxes, the passion. Coursing through the refined expression and the elevated vocabulary is an emotional power that comes straight from the heart.

Perhaps the strongest models of this quality were produced during Fauré’s middle period of composition. A persuasive maturity of expression replaces the gaieté of the early period, and there is greater melodic sophistication and harmonic complexity.

In this regard, the Fifth Barcarolle, opus 66, is remarkable. It is in F# minor, but tonal centers seem to shift from one measure to the next, threaded together at times only by the upper common tones of ninth chords. The “dolce” indication at the beginning is soon belied by one dramatic buildup after another. The taut opening theme is more of a melodic fragment, with unexpected rests interrupting the flow of the 9/8 time signature. The cantabile second theme and the middle section are also written against the meter, promoting the rhythmic tension. After the main turning point, the piece resolves to F# major; ten measures from the end, Fauré alternates that harmony with D# major in a surprising and inspired cadence unduplicated in any other work.

Although the Seventh Nocturne, opus 74, is a close competitor, the crown jewel of Fauré’s middle period is undoubtedly the Sixth Nocturne, opus 63. It is cast in a large ABA form, and the moonlit opening theme is one of Fauré’s most direct and powerful pronouncements. In the B section, spiralling sixteenth notes support a long, arching melody, producing an effect that is the sole property of the composer. After this section takes the listener on a spellbinding journey, the first theme reappears like a lost memory. The Nocturne reaches several high points, but these are not of the pressing, driving sort; rather, the music seems to expand and accumulate momentum in a manner that is totally unforced, generating huge waves of sound.

Fauré’s most dazzlingly virtuosic work is the Sixth Impromptu, opus 86, which is the composer’s transcription* of his Impromptu for harp. On the piano, the piece becomes grandiose. Solid forte chords announce the opening theme, which finishes with a brilliant cadenza. The second theme is also forte, with accents. The ensuing sections exchange the two themes, during which the performer must alternate and cross hands acrobatically to dive through extremes of register. The closing cadenza seems to want to break all boundaries as scales and arpeggios are heaped one upon another in a manner reminiscent of Liszt, except that the harmonies are so much more luscious.

through some miracle of chromatic alterations, voice leading, or imagination, Fauré always delivers something better than could be expected

The Thirteenth Nocturne, opus 119, is the summit of Fauré’s late compositions. It might also be the most comfortable introduction to them because it preserves some of the features of the earlier periods: engaging melodies, polished structure, and Fauré’s own brand of pianism. It has a glowing intensity that builds from the brooding opening through the agitated middle section, ending in an utterance of anguish and resignation. The harmonic language, however, has become personal and individualized almost to the point of strangeness. The main theme highlights the interval of a second, and because the four-part writing moves stepwise most of the time, one dissonance frequently resolves to another. This frequency of seconds and parallel sevenths is a notable ingredient in the late period works, and created such confusion in some of the first listeners that they suggested that it was the result of Fauré’s hearing loss.

The Tenth Barcarolle, opus 104 number 2, typifies two other late developments in Fauré’s style: a distillation of the keyboard idiom, with textures that are lean, not lush; and the use of sequences as building blocks–at one point in this Barcarolle we hear the same sequence six times in a row. Rather than being structured in sections, the piece unfolds seamlessly, with gradual crescendi and diminuendi creating a rise and fall like the body of water implied in the title.

Singular among all the piano works of Fauré, and perhaps among all piano works, is the Fifth Impromptu, opus 102. In it, Fauré set out to show that he too, as well as Debussy, could write using the whole tone scale. However, the result doesn’t sound at all like Debussy, because Fauré always anchors the harmonically ambiguous scale to a tonality. The Impromptu is a moto perpetuo at top speed in 2/4 time, with hands alternating groups of 16th notes on each beat. After seven pages of breathtaking runs, there is a quiet, furtive exit on an F# minor cadence.

These are the best pieces for advanced pianists to consider for study and performance. For intermediate students, the early period offers the Romances sans paroles (translated not literally as “songs without words”), opus 17, of which the first and third are the most accessible. The middle period offers the alluring Fourth Nocturne, opus 36; the Sixth Barcarolle, opus 70, melodious and carefree within a cleanly coherent structure; and the somewhat more difficult First Valse-Caprice, opus 30, which is a work that seems to have been written in a spirit of pure entertainment. Bordering the late period are the Pièces brèves (“short pieces”), opus 84, which include the pastel serenity of the Eighth Nocturne. And among the Preludes, opus 103, the eighth is a study in repeated notes, while the first and third display the exquisite subtlety of which Fauré’s reputation is made.

As for the Theme and Variations, the sturdiness and familiarity of the form make the work easy to grasp, which may partially explain its popularity. The quality of the variations is a bit uneven; the repetitive sixth variation, for example, doesn’t shed any new light on the theme. However, the final variation is revelatory, and in itself is an expression in microcosm of the essence of Fauré’s style.

Fauré’s piano compositions contain some of the most beautiful music ever written. After performing them, I am asked by listeners time and again, “Why aren’t these pieces played more often?” It is my hope in this year of the 150th birth anniversary of Fauré that you will make that question obsolete.

* The author later learned, in discussion with Fauré expert Jean-Michel Nectoux, that the transcription of the Sixth Impromptu was made by pianist Alfred Cortot, not Fauré, although Cortot’s name is not credited in the published score.