So said Judith Weir about Fauré’s Requiem, and the composer would surely have smiled approvingly. 

Imagine, for a moment, that you are Fauré, as depicted here in 1887 at around the same time as you are writing a requiem “for no particular purpose… for the pleasure of it!’, despite the contemporaneous loss of both parents. You have also “instinctively sought to escape from what is thought right and proper, after all the years of accompanying burial services on the organ! You know it all by heart”. You wanted to write something different, make an unusual choice of texts and write music of restrained, melodious simplicity. You liked what you saw in the score of Brahms’ German Requiem, its personalised faith, its hollowed out orchestration and two other composers you admire, Gounod and Saint-Saëns, have composed requiems just recently. You have taken great interest since last year in Jean Morėas’s Manifesto of Symbolism; it’s noticeable that some of your latest songs, Nocturne (op. 43/2) and Clair de lune’ (op. 46/2) a setting of Verlaine, are explorations of serenity, the left-hand of the piano accompaniment tracing the same pattern throughout.  These are new features in your work that are deployed to great effect in the Sanctus and In Paradisum movements of your Requiem, the chant-like melodies creating an ageless, sacred effect.

It has been almost twenty years since the disastrous Franco-Prussian war in which you took part and were awarded the Croix de Guerre. Anti-German feeling lingers and you instinctively resist the allure of Wagnerian gigantism. Likewise, the sensationalism of those Requiems written for the concert hall by Berlioz and Verdi. In 1904 you will write in Le Figaro condemning the thunderous fanfares Berlioz wrote in the Tuba Miram. Against your better judgement, presumably, your publisher Julien Hamelle, seeing a commercial opportunity, will persuade you to revise and expand the work to include orchestral accompaniment and the original, intimate conception will be lost to the world until a certain John Rutter makes amends almost a century later. Even so, no revision detracts from the startling, prayer-like simplicity of the Pie Jesu movement that forms the keystone of this work, displacing the habitual terror of the Day of Judgement.

Later generations will admire these qualities but your contemporaries, including those whose opinion you respect, do not seem impressed. After the Requiem’s first performance at a society funeral on January 16th 1888 for the architect Joseph Lesoufaché at the Église de la Madeleine in Paris, a member of the clergy takes you aside and says, “Monsieur Fauré, we don’t need all these novelties; the Madeleine’s repertoire is quite rich enough.” Your friend and admirer, Marcel Proust will describe listening to the Cantique de Jean Racine “with delight” but he will never once mention the Requiem. You share with Debussy the pursuit of “elegance, refinement, sensibility and a highly developed feeling for sonorous beauty” but you don’t think much of his moral character and he calls you “a music-case of a band of snobs”. Ravel, one of your pupils, will be more gracious to you but you will have reservations about his enthusiasm for virtuoso orchestration. Erik Satie? His Gymnopédies appeared in the same year as your Requiem, following a similar aesthetic principle yet you appear not to notice each others’ music: at least, you don’t write about him

In 1908 you will meet Elgar in London at the premiere of his First Symphony and he will see what he can do about getting the Requiem performed in the Three Choirs Festival but his enthusiasm will not be enough to sway the festival committee and the first English performance will not take place until 1937, nearly half a century after the home premiere.

Your Requiem will be performed at your state funeral. A very important personage, when told of your death will ask unashamedly, “Who is he?” and it will take several days of heated discussions until the ministers are finally convinced. Your former place of employment, the Église de la Madeleine will be chosen. The Minister of Education and Fine Arts, M. François Albert will give the eulogy, and you will be interred in the Passy Cemetery in Paris.

On your death bed you will ask:  “Have my works received justice? Have they not been too much admire, or sometimes too severely criticized? What of my music will live?” Your two operas have not fared well but everyone adores your songs, especially the early ones such as Après un rêve, Lydia, Mai, et al. The Fantaisie op. 79 is still the rite of passage to virtuosity for all flute players and your piano and chamber music remain in the concert repertoire while the Sicilienne and Pavan are classics of their kind and the Dolly Suite takes all British people of a certain age back to their 1950s childhood.  And, of course, the Requiem. Your star pupil, Nadia Boulanger will get it mostly right when she describes it as ‘a sober and somewhat severe expression of grief: no disquiet or agitation disturbs its profound meditation, no doubt tarnishes its unassailable faith, its quiet confidence, its tender and peaceful expectation’. That chimes with something you yourself said in an interview: “Everything I managed to entertain by way of religious illusion I put into my Requiem, which moreover is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.”

And hats off to your biographer Jean-Michel Nectoux: “The fundamental reason for Fauré’s subdued style of orchestration is to mirror his artistic aims: to express the most elevated sentiments by the simplest means.”

Such enlightened observations as these help to explain why, in the centenary of your death, there will be a performance of the Requiem somewhere in this country every month of this year. Portsmouth Baroque Choir is delighted to be performing it in a manner that recaptures the “quiet confidence” of the original conception.

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