'It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience... I wanted to write something different.'
Written between 1887 and 1890, Gabriel Fauré's Requiem is among the best loved pieces in the entire choral repertoire. Its contemplative, soothing atmosphere contrasts with many dramatic settings of the Requiem Mass, and as he explains in the paragraph above, the composer's own feelings on death are reflected throughout the work. Fauré's talent as a composer of songs is evident in the long, eminently singable melodies of the Requiem; as a result, it remains a staple of the repertoire, remaining popular with both amateur choral societies and professional choirs, as well as being frequently heard in a liturgical context.
Gabriel Fauré was born in Pamiers, Ariège, in the south of France, in 1845. His talent was recognised at an early age, and he was sent to Paris aged nine to train as an organist and choirmaster. After graduating, he took up a post as a church organist in Rennes, where he had an uneasy relationship with the parish priest; he was often seen leaving the organ loft for a cigarette during the sermon, and was finally asked to resign after arriving one Sunday morning in his evening clothes, having spent the previous night at a ball. However, he quickly found a job in Paris, and after being awarded the Croix de Guerre in the Franco-Prussian War, he was appointed choirmaster at St Sulpice in 1871. From 1874, Fauré spent much of his professional life at the church of La Madeleine in Paris, where he served first as assistant organist to his old teacher, Saint-Saëns, who described him as 'a first class organist when he wanted to be'! He succeeded Théodore Dubois as choirmaster at the church in 1877, following Dubois's appointment as organist, and in the same year he wrote a Libera me for baritone solo; a decade later, a reworked version of this piece was to find a place in the Requiem.
Work on the Requiem began in earnest in 1887, but was not prompted by any specific event; as Fauré explained in a letter, 'My Requiem wasn't written for anything – for pleasure, if I may call it that!' The Introit and Kyrie, Sanctus, Pie Jesu, Agnus Dei, and In Paradisum were first performed at La Madeleine on 16th January 1888 at the funeral of an architect, Joseph Le Soufaché. The choir of the church, consisting of men and boys, was accompanied by the organ, timpani, and a small string orchestra. The following year, Fauré began to produce a version for more elaborate funeral liturgies, adding the Hostias, expanding the Offertorium, and including the 1877 Libera me. The orchestration was made more colourful with the addition of bassoons, horns, trumpets and trombones. The work proved extremely popular, to the extent that a third version of the piece, with full orchestral accompaniment, was produced in 1900, and performed during the Paris World Exhibition in July of that year.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Fauré's composition is his choice of text. Fauré described his Requiem as 'dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest', and Fauré set only the texts that were in sympathy with this vision of peace and reassurance. The long Dies irae sequence so beloved of romantic composers such as Verdi, with its vivid depiction of the Day of Judgement, is almost entirely omitted; only the final verse, the famous Pie Jesu, found a place in Fauré's setting. The only hint of anything apocalyptic is found in the Libera me, but even there the storm soon subsides. He also included the In Paradisum, perhaps the most popular movement of the whole piece, which is technically a part of the burial service, rather than the Requiem Mass itself. Its gentle harp arpeggios, luminous string writing and treble solo paint a radiant picture of the heavenly Jerusalem.
Peter Stevens - Assistant Master of Music
Master of Music, Westminster CathedraL
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