La Madeleine was one of the newest and most prestigious churches in Paris when Fauré took up his post there as organist, choirmaster and composer in 1874. He had recently returned to civilian life after being awarded the Croix de Guerre for his bravery in the disastrous Franco-Prussian war.  He now needed to rebuild his life as a musician, a career that began when an elderly blind woman heard the nine-year-old boy teaching himself to play the harmonium in her local chapel and alerted Fauré’s parents to their young son’s musical potential.

Before the war, he had been forced to resign from his church post after he tried the patience of the priest once too often, failing to show the required religious conviction by turning up one morning still wearing his evening clothes from the previous night’s revelry. Perhaps also his first-hand experience of conflict separated him further from the establishment; whilst contemporaries Gounod and Franck were composing elegies and patriotic songs, Fauré instead started to produce music with a new sombre sense of tragedy and absence of fashionable operatic sentiment. In later life, he went on to confront and sweep away the conservative French musical elite and to champion students such as Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger.

The Requiem first began to take shape in 1887 and a short version was first performed at La Madeleine in 1888. There were several revisions and expansions until the final, fully orchestrated version premiered at the Paris World Exhibition of 1900, and this is the version which is being performed this evening. Fauré commented later “I had been playing the organ at funeral services for so long I was completely sick of it … I wanted to do something different” and claimed that it came about “for the sheer pleasure of it” rather than the remembrance of any one particular individual. Also, like Brahms, Fauré was very careful to select and juxtapose texts that reflected his own unorthodox view of Christian death; indeed there had to be special dispensation given for it to be played at the composer’s own funeral. Conceptual and structural similarities between the two prompted one reviewer to suggest that Fauré’s work should be re-titled ‘A French Requiem’.

During his lifetime Fauré was most famous for his songs and chamber works and his Requiem is also lightly scored and generally intimate in tone. “It is as gentle as I am myself”, he wrote; “A happy deliverance, an aspiration towards the happiness of the hereafter rather than as a painful passing away.” The deliberate limitation and simplicity of melody in this work often seems to express a feeling of calm, fulfilled resignation. However, Fauré was celebrated not only for his love of pure melodic line and elegant harmony but also for his subtlety and complexity of effect and it is possibly too simplistic to view this piece merely as a ‘Lullaby of Death’. This Requiem is based on an intensely personal spiritual attitude. It juxtaposes darkness and light with a repeated pattern of austere chant and luminous melody which both contain many refined but evident shifts of the internalised passion which typifies much of Fauré’s work.

The structure of the Requiem is organised around the central point of the soprano solo, the Pie Jesu. Everything radiates from this, which is present in the earliest sketches and forms in some sense the nucleus for the development of the whole work. On either side are placed two groups of three movements, alternating between chorus alone and chorus with baritone solo. Overall the vocal writing shows the discreet influence of Gregorian chant (to be taken up again in Maurice Duruflé’s equally beautiful Requiem of 1947). 


Composer:  Fauré Wiki Link: Title of Musical Work:  Requiem

London Concert Choir concerts featuring this musical work:

Eiffel Tower
(10 July 2013)