Cantique de Jean Racine and Requiem
Born: 12 May 1845, in Pamier (in southwest France)
Died: 4 November 1924, in Paris
His musical talent recognized from an early age, Gabriel Fauré was a scholarship student at the École Niedermeyer (originally called the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse) in Paris from the age of nine until he was twenty. His classes included sacred music topics such as chant, organ, and Renaissance polyphony, but also 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-Prussian war of 1870–1871. His path to fame was slow (his work obligations meant that most of his composing took 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 modernist Société musicale indépendante as well and was its first president. With recognition of his abilities came significant professional positions, including chief organist at the important Parisian church of the Madeleine (from 1896; the organ there was by famous maker Cavaillé-Coll); composition teacher at the Paris Conservatoire (also starting in 1896), where his pupils included Ravel, Enescu, 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). Honors included election to the prestigious Institut de France in 1909, narrowly defeating Widor, and receipt of the Grand-Croix of the Légion d’honneur in 1920, unusual for a musician.
Fauré’s 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 (Marianne was the one who broke it off), and a liaison with Emma Bardac, later to become Debussy’s second wife. Bardac was the inspiration for Fauré’s beautiful song cycle La bonne chanson, and some say that Bardac’s daughter Dolly, dedicatee of Fauré’s Dolly Suite for piano four-hands, was really Fauré’s own child. His last years were marred by both distorted hearing and increasing deafness, yet his compositional chops remained strong until the very end. The Requiem was performed at his funeral.
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
Requiem, Op. 48
Most of Fauré’s choral music is not well known, largely because it is uncomplicated functional sacred music, as befits someone who spent most of his life as a practicing church musician. Indeed, one can see echoes of that in some components of the Requiem’s choral writing (no complicated meters or textures). The four works likely to be known by the general music lover are the Requiem, the Cantique de Jean Racine, the Messe basse for women’s voices, and the choral version of the Pavane. In this last work, Fauré took his famous orchestral Pavane and added a mixed chorus singing a poem by Robert de Montesquiou. During Fauré’s lifetime, the work was expanded still further by the addition of dancers. That’s one combination I’d certainly like to see revived.
Among famous Requiem masses, Fauré’s is unique for its overall gentle quality. The composer himself used that adjective, saying that death for him was a “happy deliverance,” not a terror. Others have called the work a “lullaby of death,” which is not a bad description. Fauré knew the Berlioz Requiem and was unimpressed by the older composer’s bombast, and he was helped in his quest for a more soothing composition by his decision not to set the “Dies irae” sequence that normally provides the fire and brimstone in the mass. Of the two soloists in the work, the soprano part was written for a boy soprano, while Fauré sought a cantorial rather than operatic voice for the baritone (a “soothing” voice)—hence vocal choices that underplay the dramatic. The vocal writing throughout is intensely melodic, with frequent highlighting of a single choral part. Fauré is one of the all-time great melodists (see his zillion wonderful songs), and the Requiem consists of one gorgeous tune after another.
Fauré’s Requiem has a complicated compositional history; an entire book has been written about the history of the various versions. The following is an abbreviated summary of the work’s evolution.
In contrast to many famous Requiems, Fauré’s was not prompted by any specific death or occasion (his father died two years before he began working on it, and his mother died after he had already begun composing). It was intended as a functional liturgical mass, and its premiere was in precisely that capacity, as a funeral mass for Joseph Lesoufaché (architect, city planner, and bibliophile) on 16 January 1888. The mass, conducted by the composer, took place at the church of the Madeleine (a windowless venue, by the way), where Fauré was then choirmaster, which meant a chorus of men and boys. The autograph score shows four movements only: Introit/Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus/Communion, and In paradisum. The chamber orchestra had the unusual make-up of low strings (divisi violas, divisi cellos, double basses), and organ, with a solo violin appearing in the Sanctus and nowhere else.
Various changes and additions were made over the next few years, so that by 1893 an expanded version was in place (first performed on 21 January 1893, again at La Madeleine with Fauré conducting). This version used fuller orchestration (addition of harp, two horns, two trumpets, timpani; still no violins apart from the Sanctus soloist) and added three movements. Of these three, the Pie Jesu was for boy soprano (no choir), while the Offertory and Libera me both used a baritone solo in addition to the chorus. The Libera me movement actually originated much earlier, in 1877, as a composition for baritone with organ accompaniment.
The final version was premiered on 6 May 1900 in Lille, conducted by Eugène Ysaÿe. This one now used full orchestra (addition of two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, and three trombones, plus violins at last, but only one section rather than the usual first and second violins) and was possibly prompted by a publisher’s request for something more suitable for concert and festival performance (it was played at the Paris World Exposition on July 12 of the same year). Because the original full orchestral score is now missing, there’s considerable uncertainty as to just how much Fauré actually had to do with the new orchestration; it’s possible that it was actually the work of one of his favorite students, Jean Roger-Ducasse.
The version with full orchestra was how the Requiem was known for most of the twentieth century. In 1989 John Rutter published an edition based on the 1893 version that he also recorded a few years earlier; Rutter unfortunately did not consult several key sources for his publication. A much better edition by leading Fauré scholar Jean-Michel Nectoux, begun long before that of Rutter, was published somewhat later and has been recorded by Philippe Herreweghe. And for many of us, our first crack at singing the Requiem was with organ accompaniment only; I suspect more performances take place that way that with either chamber or full orchestra.
The layout of the mass is as follows:
—Chorus and Baritone Solo
|b minor||C to 3/4 to C||ABA'|
|4. Pie Jesu|
|5. Agnus Dei|
|F Major||3/4 to C to 3/4||ABA'CDA"|
|6. Libera me|
—Chorus and Baritone Solo
|d minor||¢ to 6/4 to ¢||ABA|
|7. In paradisum|
The symmetry in terms of performing forces in the mass’s final form is obvious. Odd-numbered movements are for chorus alone; movements two and six add baritone soloist to the chorus, and the fourth movement is for soprano solo and orchestra. As already noted, Fauré eschews setting the sequence (Dies irae); he closes his mass with two texts (responsory “Libera me” and antiphon “In paradisum”) that are not components of the mass per se but are part of the post-mass Absolution sung over the coffin. The words of the “Pie Jesu” are the final ones of the sequence, but when set alone they serve as an elevation motet and are thus positioned here in the liturgically correct place.
The opening movement combines the Introit and Kyrie, as do many other Requiem masses; in terms of style it was evidently influenced by Gounod’s c minor Miserere from 1880. The orchestra provides the solemn opening, joined almost immediately by the chorus, at first on a static d minor triad. Our slow-moving opening then shifts harmonically but continues the homorhythmic texture as we sing of the text of the Introit antiphon, concluding with a fermata over a dominant triad. After a grand pause the antiphon text is repeated, but now at a faster tempo and sung by tenors alone. With the move to the text of the psalm verse (“Te decet hymnus”), the melodic line shifts to the sopranos, with chorus back in on “Exaudi” (hear my prayer). The antiphon text is not repeated (as it would be normally); instead we move on to the short Kyrie, whose beginning is the same music as the earlier tenor line. The movement closes on repeated choral octave Ds over a d minor triad in the orchestra.
The Offertory (“O Domine Jesu Christe”) was the last movement Fauré composed, and it is the most richly textured of the mass. The movement opens with a short, slow orchestral introduction in b minor, the relative minor of D Major (which is the parallel major of the the d minor of the opening movement). When the chorus enters it is alto and tenor only; further, the orchestra has dropped out, placing the voices in stark relief. We sing in close imitation and we are close in range as well, which means both that sometimes tenors are above the altos. The overlapping range also generates brief but effective dissonances (e.g. we trade B against C at “animas”). We then sing in thirds before returning to the same text (“O Domine...”) and the same music, now pitched a step higher, and again without orchestral accompaniment. More parallel thirds follow (“de ore leonis...”) and then the basses join us for more counterpoint.
Fauré may not have liked the Berlioz Requiem, but the short orchestral transition to the next section of the Offertory owes an awful lot to some of the transitions in Berlioz’s Dies irae.
The middle section of the movement, for the verse, changes tempo, meter, key, and texture: the baritone solo sings a lyrical melody, chant-like in its many repeated notes, in the key of D major over a gently rocking 3/4 accompaniment. When it concludes, the meter switches back to common time and all four choral voices enter in imitative counterpoint to repeat the “O Domine Jesu Christe” text and music again, but this time in D major, completely changing the character. for the concluding “amen” with its arching melodic line we switch toa bright B major in a transition to the positive texts coming in the next few movements.
For an alto, the Sanctus is noteworthy for restricting our part to the final three measures of choral writing. But I’ll admit it’s still a lovely movement, with its major key, completely diatonic melodic lines and simple triadic harmonies. Most of the time tenor and bass are in unison, imitating the soprano line or in alternation with it. The most dramatic part is the tenor/bass fortissimo unison “Hosanna” towards the end of the movement (underscored with triumphant brass) that is then echoed by the sopranos. The movement closes with (finally) altos joining in for one last “Sanctus,” now with both tenors and basses divided. But in some ways the most striking thing about the movement, at least in the 1893 version, is use of the high-pitched solo violin. Everywhere else the string sound is rich, thick, and dark, since no violins appear at all and both violas and cellos are divisi. We also hear the celestial harp for the first time in this movement.
The Pie Jesu is the beloved, shimmering centerpiece of the Requiem, providing a short rest for the chorus. The movement’s few words are repeated over and over; a short contrasting middle section is followed by an altered repeat of the opening. The harp contributes to the otherworldly mood here, and the solo organ accompaniment to the singer’s first two phrases sets the tone as well.
Fauré links the Agnus and Communion in the fifth movement. A short orchestral introduction is followed by an attractive melody sung by the tenors over the same music as the introduction. The chorus then sings the second, more chromatic Agnus in homorhythm. Tenors then have the third Agnus to themselves in a varied repeat of their earlier material.
As soon as the tenors finish, the sopranos enter softly with the Communion text “Lux aeterna;” the static melody line beginning with “Lux” (light; the orchestra temporarily drops out so that all our attention is on that one word) is an effective announcement for this new section. From the pianissimo entrance of altos, tenors, and basses, the material builds inexorably, with chromatic highlights, towards a huge forte cadence on an A major chord, the dominant of d minor. This return to the initial key of the entire Requiem is followed by a repeat of the opening of the entire mass. The musical return happens to fit perfectly here because the text of the Communion verse happens to be the same text as that of the Introit antiphon—thus, the textual repeat has engendered the musical repeat. But our brief glimpse of opening grief is soon banished; we cadence on a D major triad, and the orchestral opening of this movement is repeated to conclude the movement, but now in D major as opposed to the opening F major.
With the Libera me we are thrust back into d minor. This time the movement begins with the baritone solo; more than one writer has commented on the pulsing “heartbeat” accompaniment in the orchestra for this solo section. The chorus enters with the “Tremens factus sum” text; Fauré renders this “trembling, fearful” text in largely hushed dynamics and homorhythmic vocal writing. All of that changes when we shift to the “Dies illa” text with its brief reference to the Requiem sequence. Fauré whips us into 6/4 meter and ups the dynamic level to fortissimo; this is the dramatic climax of the entire Requiem. But we don’t stay here long; we are soon back to soft dynamics and then cut time. For the closing section of the movement we now sing the original baritone melody in octaves with the heartbeat accompaniment; the baritone soloist gets one last melodic line, and then we close the movement with pianissimo chords on “Libera me, Domine”: free me, Lord.
Fauré’s is a Requiem that promises peace and solace, and the last movement, unlike that of so many other Requiem masses, sweeps us off to Paradise, accompanied by harp, in a gentle D major. The sopranos are most prominent throughout, thus providing a link to the Pie Jesu. They are alone at the opening and are only slowly joined by tenors and basses, and finally the altos. Then it’s back to sopranos alone again until the rest of the chorus joins to provide a pianissimo chordal accompaniment. The ending is even quieter, as we sing our final “Requiem” at a ppp dynamic. Short, sweet, and deeply satisfying as a conclusion to this gentlest of Requiems.
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)
- 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
Did Fauré ever write a bad song? Here are some favorites:
- La bonne chanson, Op. 61
- La chanson d’Eve, Op. 95
- L’horizon chimérique, Op. 118
- Le jardin clos, Op. 106
- 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
- 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
- Cantique de Jean Racine, Op. 11
- Messe basse (for women’s chorus)
- Requiem Op. 48
- 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
- Chanson de Mélisande (from incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande)
- Pénélope (opera)
Revised, March 2021