Friday, February 16, 2018

Gabriel Fauré's "ChristoPagan" Requiem

Above: The interior of Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall during the intermission
of the January 9 performance of the Minnesota Orchestra.

This time last Friday I was with my good friend Brian at Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis. I was Brian's guest for the Minnesota Orchestra's February 9 concert, a definitely highlight of which was the orchestra's performance of Gabriel Fauré's Requiem, Opus 48 (concert version of 1900).

Conducted by Bernard Labadie, the performance featured a four-part mixed chorus (Minnesota Chorale) with soprano and baritone vocal soloists (Helene Guimette and Philippe Sly respectively), plus orchestra comprising two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, harp, organ and strings. Yes, it was quite the performance!

I also realized that as a teenager I had sang the Requiem's Sanctus in a little high school chorale group I was a part of in 1980 or '81. I recognized it immediately when I heard it last Friday night, the first time in over 35 years! Indeed, I'd never totally forgotten it and could still hum a good part of it. What I had forgotten, though, was where it was from and who wrote it. Now I know.

In the concert's excellent program notes, written by Eric Bromberger, it's noted that Faure's Requiem has been called pagan rather than Christian. This gave me a good chuckle, especially given my interest in aspects of the pagan spiritual path. Bromberger contends that those who consider the Requiem to be pagan do so because it doesn't include a description of the horrors of damnation or an admission of humanity's unworthiness. It's a fair enough contention, but in stating it Bromberger appears to make the common mistake of equating "pagan" with "non-believer," seemingly in all things sacred.

To be clear: like people on other spiritual paths, those on the pagan path seek, discern, and respond to the Divine Presence. What is perhaps unique about paganism is that this path recognizes the Divine Presence in all things, though particularly in the natural world – the elements, the cycle of the seasons, and the inherent diversity of life. There is an elemental power and beauty in all of these things, a grounding power and beauty that paradoxically transcends doctrine and dogma. I hear and feel such beauty and gravitas in Faure's Requiem.

Indeed, I actually think Faure's Requiem is a wonderful reflection of the inclusive path known as "ChristoPaganism," a range of spiritualities which, as Lisa Frideborg writes "combines beliefs and practices of Christianity with those of Paganism, or observes them in parallel." (For previous Wild Reed posts that focus on this combination and these parallels, click here, here and here.)

Following, with added images and links, is Eric Bromberger's commentary on Gabriel Fauré's Requiem, Opus 48. Enjoy!

Setting the Requiem Mass for the Dead to music is a challenge which makes certain composers reveal their deepest nature, and when we hear their Requiem settings, we peer deep into their souls. From the self-conscious pageantry of the Berlioz Requiem to the lyric drama of Verdi, from the independence of Brahms (who chose his own texts to make it a distinctly German Requiem) to the anguish of Britten’s War Requiem, a setting of the Requiem text can become a spectacularly different thing in each composer’s hands.

The gentlest of settings

What most distinguishes the Requiem of Gabriel Fauré is its calm, for sure this spare and understated music is the gentlest of all settings. Where Berlioz storms the heavens with a huge orchestra and chorus, Fauré rarely raises his voice above quiet supplication. Verdi employs four brilliant soloists in an almost operatic setting, but Fauré keeps his drama quietly unobtrusive.

While Brahms shouts out the triumph of resurrection over the grave, Fauré calmly fixes his eyes on paradise. Britten is outraged by warfare, but Fauré remains at peace throughout.

Much of the serenity of Fauré’s Requiem results from his alteration of the text, for he omits the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) of the traditional text. Berlioz and Verdi evoke the shrieking horror of damnation, but Fauré ignores it – his vision of death foresees not damnation, but only salvation. While he reinserts a line from the Dies Irae in the Libera me, the effect remains one of quiet confidence in redemption. Fauré underlines this by concluding with an additional section, In Paradisum – that title reminds us of the emphasis of the entire work, and Fauré brings his music to a quiet resolution on the almost inaudible final word “requiem” (rest).

The Requiem’s evolution

The Fauré Requiem has become one of the best-loved of all liturgical works, but it took shape very slowly. The mid-1880s found Fauré [left] struggling as a composer. He had achieved modest early success with a violin sonata and piano quartet, but now, in his 40s, he remained virtually unknown as a composer. For more than 25 years he supported himself by serving as choirmaster and organist at the Madeleine, and it was during these years – particularly following the death of his father in 1885 – that Fauré began to plan his Requiem setting. He was just completing the score when his mother died on January 31, 1887. The first performance took place at the Madeleine two weeks later, on February 16.

But the music performed on that occasion was very different from the version we know today. It was scored for a chamber ensemble and was in only five movements rather than seven. Over the next decade, Fauré returned to the score several times and changed it significantly. The orchestration began to grow, and he added two movements: the Offertorium in 1889 and the Libera me in 1892. The “final” version dates from about 1900.

The music: “from a twilight world”

The Fauré Requiem seems to come from a twilight world. There are no fast movements here (Fauré’s favorite tempo markings, which recur throughout, are Andante moderato and Molto adagio), dynamics are for the most part subdued, and instrumental colors are generally from the darker lower spectrum. Violin sections were added only in the final version, and even here they remain silent in three of the seven movements. In the Introit and Kyrie, the chorus almost whispers its first entrance on the words “Requiem aeternam,” and while the movement soon begins to flow, this prayer for mercy comes to a pianissimo conclusion.

At this point in a Requiem Mass should come the Dies Irae, with its description of the horrors of damnation, the admission of man’s unworthiness, and an abject prayer for mercy. Fauré skips this movement altogether and goes directly to the Offertorium with its baritone solo at “Hostias.” This movement, which Fauré composed and added to the Requiem the year after its original premiere, comes to one of the most beautiful conclusions in all the choral literature as the long final Amen seems to float weightlessly outside time and space. Fauré does finally deploy his brass instruments in the Sanctus, but even this movement comes to a shimmering, near-silent close.

The Pie Jesu brings a complete change. In his German Requiem, Brahms used a soprano soloist in only one of the seven movements, and Fauré does the same thing here. The effect – almost magical – is the same in both works: Above the dark sound of those two settings, the soprano’s voice sounds silvery and pure as she sings a message of consolation.

At the start of the Agnus Dei the violas play one of the most graceful melodies ever written for that instrument, a long, flowing strand of song that threads its way through much of the movement. Tenors introduce the text of this movement, which rises to a sonorous climax, and at the point Fauré brings back the Requiem aeternam from the very beginning; the violas return to draw the movement to its close.

The final two movements set texts from the Burial Service rather than from the Mass for the Dead. The Libera me was composed in its earliest form in 1877, and Fauré adapted it for the Requiem in 1892. Over pulsing, insistent pizzicatos, the baritone soloist sings an urgent prayer for deliverance. The choir responds in fear, and the music rises to its most dramatic moment on horn calls and the sole appearance in the entire work of a line from the Dies Irae. But the specter of damnation passes quickly, and the movement concludes with one last plea for salvation.

That comes in the final movement. Concluding with In Paradisum points at the special character of the Fauré Requiem: It assumes salvation, and if Fauré believed that death was “a happiness beyond the grave,” he shows us that in his concluding movement. There is a surprising parallel between the conclusions of the Fauré Requiem and the Mahler Fourth Symphony, composed in 1900: Both finales feel consciously light after what has gone before, both offer a vision of paradise, and in both cases it is the sound of the soprano voice that leads us into that world of innocence and peace. Mahler’s soprano soloist presents a child’s unaffected vision of heaven, while Fauré has the soprano section take the part of the angels who draw us into paradise. Fauré “wanted to do something different” with his Requiem, and he achieves that in a finale that quietly arrives at “eternal happiness.”

Fauré’s Requiem has been called pagan rather than Christian, no doubt by those who miss the imminence of judgment. But it is hard to see this gentle invocation of Christ and the mercy of God – and confidence in paradise – as pagan. Rather, it remains a quiet statement of faith in ultimate redemption and rest, one so disarmingly beautiful as to appeal to believer and non-believer alike.

– Eric Bromberger
(from Minnesota Orchestra – February 2018 / Showcase)

To listen to Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem as performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Robert Shaw, Conductor), Judith Blegen (Soprano), and James Morris (Baritone), click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Advent: A "ChristoPagan" Perspective
Celebrating the Coming of the Sun and the Son
Pope Francis' Understanding of Catholicism: An Orchestra in Which All Can Play!
A Musical Weekend
Fusion, Fluidity and Grace: The Music of Claude Chalhoub
The Most Sacred and Simple Mystery of All


David said...

Fauré’s Requiem is such a deeply moving work. Part of it was sung at President Kennedy's funeral service, if I recall correctly.

James said...

Breathtakingly beautiful.