Gabriel Fauré
Cantique de Jean Racine

Born: 12 May 1845, in Pamier (in southwest France)
Died: 4 November 1924, in Paris

{Biography} {Cantique} {Further Reading} {Worth Exploring}

Biography

His musical talent recognized from an early age, Gabriel Fauré studied at the École Niedermeyer in Paris from the age of nine until he was twenty. His classes included subjects emphasizing sacred music, such as chant, organ, and Renaissance polyphony, as well as other topics. These included piano and composition, both of which he studied with Camille Saint-Saëns, the leading French composer of the day. By the time he left school he had gained prizes in numerous subjects, including a premier prix in composition for the Cantique de Jean Racine.

After leaving school Fauré initially supported himself with various church music jobs. He also travelled and fought in the Franco-Prussion war of 1870–1871. His path to fame was slow (his work obligations meant that most of his composing could take place only in the summer), but through his friendship with Saint-Saëns he was connected to all of the Parisian musical world. He knew other artists as well: he was a friend of John Singer Sargent, who painted his portrait, and Marcel Proust was a great admirer of his. The famous violin sonata by “Vinteuil” in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu is thought to have been inspired in part by Fauré’s Violin Sonata in A Major.

Fauré was one of the founders of the Société nationale de musique in 1871, and he later helped start the Société musicale indépendante as well. With recognition of his abilities came significant professional positions, including chief organist at the important Parisian church of the Madeleine (from 1896), composition teacher at the Paris Conservatoire (also starting in 1896), where his pupils included Ravel and Nadia Boulanger, music critic for the major French paper Le Figaro (1903 to 1921), and eventually director of the Conservatoire itself (1905 to 1920). His lively personal life included (in addition to his marriage to Marie Fremiet, daughter of a sculptor) an engagement to Marianne Viardot, daughter of composer and singer Pauline Viardot, and a liaison with Emma Bardac, later to become Debussy’s second wife.

Cantique de Jean Racine, Op. 11

Fauré is best known today for his Requiem, but his second most famous choral work is his youthful Cantique de Jean Racine. Originally composed in 1865 for four-part mixed chorus and organ, the piece won his school’s first prize for composition despite having keyboard accompaniment rather than orchestral parts, as required. In 1866 the work was revised for chorus, harmonium (a kind of reed organ popular in the nineteenth century) and string quintet, and then orchestrated (double winds, two horns, string quintet) in 1906. When the work was published in 1876 it was dedicated to César Franck. At least two arrangements for high voices and keyboard accompaniment exist: one in three parts (SSA) in D Major by Jean Ashworth Bartle, and one for four voices in Db by noted British composer and choral conductor John Rutter. Both come with singing rather than literal translations of the text by Jean Racine (1639–1699). Racine, a leading French dramatist (with Corneille and Molière) during the time of Louis XIV, wrote spriritual poems after his retirement from the theater. The “verbe” (word) of the first line of text is a reference to Christ.

The piece’s layout is a straightforward A B A' structure. A short instrumental prelude presents the main theme as well as the undulating triplet rhythms that pervade the texture. A brief instrumental interlude between the A and B sections also brings out the main theme. The B section is distinguished by different melodic material, the minor mode, and rapid modulations, after which the A section, expanded and reworked, leads to a hushed conclusion.

Text and Translation

Verbe, égal au Très-Haut, notre unique espérance,
Jour éternel de la terre et des cieux,
De la paisible nuit nous rompons le silence.
Divin Sauveur, jette sur nous les yeux.

Répands sur nous le feu de ta grâce puissante
Que tout l’enfer fuie au son de ta voix.
Dissipe le sommeil d’une âme languissante
Qui la conduit à l’oubli de tes lois.

O Christ, sois favorable à ce peuple fidèle
Pour te bénir maintenant rassemblé.
Reçois les chants qu’il offre à ta gloire immortelle
Et de tes dons qu’il retourne comblé.

Word, equal to the Almighty, our sole hope,
Eternal day of the earth and the heavens,
We break the silence of the peaceful night.
Divine savior, cast your eyes upon us.

Pour on us the fire of your powerful grace
So that all hell flees at the sound of your voice.
Dispel the sleep of a languishing soul
Who lives forgetful of your laws.

O Christ, look kindly on your faithful people
Assembled now to glorify you.
Receive the songs that we offer to your immortal glory
And let us depart, crowned with your gifts.

For Further Reading

English-language biographies of the composer include Jessica Duchen’s Gabriel Fauré (Phaidon, 2000), Jean-Michel Nectoux’s Gabriel Fauré: A Musical Life (Cambridge University Press, 1991), and Robert Orledge’s Gabriel Fauré (Eulenberg Books, 2nd ed. 1983). See also Edward R. Phillips, Gabriel Fauré: A Guide to Research (Garland, 2000).

Other Pieces Worth Exploring (an incomplete list)

Piano

  • Ballade in F#, Op. 19
  • Barcarolles Nos. 7–11
    (Opp. 90, 96, 101, 104 #2, 105)
  • Dolly, Op. 56 (piano 4 hands)
  • Impromptu No. 5 in f# minor, Op. 102
  • Nocturne No. 4 in Eb, Op. 36
  • Nocturnes Nos. 9–11 (Opp. 97, 99, 104 #1)
  • Nocturne No. 13 in bm, Op. 119
  • Trois Romances sans paroles, Op. 17

Voice

Did Fauré ever write a bad song? Here are some favorites:

Song Cycles

  • La bonne chanson, Op. 61
  • La chanson d’Eve, Op. 95
  • L’horizon chimérique, Op. 118
  • Le jardin clos, Op. 106

Individual Songs

  • L’absent, Op. 5 #3
  • Après un rêve, Op. 7 #1
  • Au bord de l’eau, Op. 8 #1
  • Au cimetière, Op. 51 #2
  • Automne, Op. 18 #3
  • Les berceaux, Op. 23 #1
  • Chanson d’amour, Op. 27 #1
  • La chanson du pêcheur, Op. 4 #1
  • Clair de lune, Op. 46 #2
  • Le don silencieux, Op. 92
  • En prière (1890)
  • En sourdine, Op. 58 #2
  • La fée aux chansons, Op. 27 #9
  • Lydia, Op. 4 #2
  • Mai, Op. 1 #2
  • Mandoline, Op. 58 #1
  • Nocturne, Op. 43 #2
  • Prison, Op. 83 #1
  • Rencontre, Op. 21 #1
  • Les roses d’Ispahan, Op. 39 #4
  • Soir, Op. 83 #2
  • Spleen, Op. 51 #3
  • Tristesse, Op. 6 #2
  • Trois poèmes d’un jour, Op. 21
    • Rencontre
    • Toujours
    • Adieu

Chamber

  • Berceuse for Violin and Piano, Op. 16
  • Cello Sonata #1 in dm, Op. 109
  • Cello Sonata #2 in gm, Op. 117
  • Elégie for Cello and Piano, Op. 24
  • Piano Trio in dm, Op. 120
  • Piano Quartet #1 in cm, Op. 15
  • Piano Quartet #2 in gm, Op. 45
  • Piano Quintet #2 in cm, Op. 115
  • String Quartet in em, Op. 121
  • Violin Sonata #1 in AM, Op. 13
  • Violin Sonata #2 in em, Op. 108

Chorus

  • Cantique de Jean Racine, Op. 11
  • Messe basse (for women’s chorus)
  • Requiem Op. 48

Orchestra

  • Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra in GM, Op. 111
  • Masques et bergamasques, Op. 112
  • Pavane in f# minor, Op. 50 (with chorus ad lib.)
  • Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, Op. 80

Stage

  • Chanson de Mélisande (from incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande)
  • Pénélope (opera)

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