2013-10-13 Notes from the Bench

“Cantique de Jean Racine” by Gabriel Fauré

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate

The choral work, Cantique de Jean Racine (Op. 11) was composed by Gabriel Fauré in 1864 when he was nineteen years old and graduating from the Niedermeyer School. He was awarded the first prize for this work. The original French text “Verbe égal au Très-Haut” (Word equal to the Very High one) is a paraphrase of a hymn by the 17th-century French playwright, Jean-Baptiste Racine (1639-1699). The accompaniment was originally written for piano or organ, and has been arranged for various instrumental ensembles including strings, orchestra, and harp. Today, this early composition of Fauré’s is among the works of standard choral repertory.

The French composer, organist, pianist and teacher Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) was born in Pamiers, Ariège, Midi-Pyrénées, in southern France, into a cultured, but not musical, family. He was the youngest of six children and the only one who demonstrated any musical talent. As a young child, Fauré would entertain himself by playing the harmonium in a small chapel that was attached to a teaching training college in Montgauzy where his father was appointed director. Recognizing his musical gifts, his family sent him to Paris to attend the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse (School of Classical and Religious Music) established by Louis Niedermeyer and was trained as a church organist and choirmaster. Camille Saint-Saëns was among Fauré’s teachers, an influential mentor, and life-long friend. Fauré earned a modest living as an organist, choirmaster, and teacher, and held positions at the Church of Saint-Sulpice and La Madeleine in Paris. He was renowned for his brilliant organ improvisations, however, he wrote no solo works for the instrument.

From the 1890s until his retirement in 1920, Fauré held various positions within the Paris Conservatory of Music, first as an inspector of music conservatories in the French provinces, as a professor of composition, and in 1905, was named Head of the Conservatory. As head, he radically changed the administration and broadened the curriculum of the conservatory. He retired from the Conservatoire in 1920 because of his poor health and increasing deafness.

Fauré is recognized as one of the leading French composers of his day whose teaching and compositional style influenced many early 20th-century composers. His life spanned a period of time when Romanticism gave way to the beginnings of 20th-century modernism. His use of colorful harmonies and subtle motivic development enhance the flow of the line encountered in his themes. In 1922, an unprecedented national musical tribute to Fauré was led by the president of the French Republic, Alexandre Millerand. Prominent French artists performed Fauré’s works as a public homage to, and in the presence of the composer. Fauré died in 1924 from pneumonia.

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