Program Notes: Fauré Requiem

Program Notes: Fauré Requiem

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One-minute notes:

Rigel: Symphony No. 4
This brief symphony comes from a composer who was well-respected in the musical circles of 18th-century France; yet much of Rigel’s work was hidden in the shadow of Haydn and is little-known today. The outer movements drive ahead with intensity, while the central Andantino offers a simple, elegant arc.

Mozart: Symphony No. 31, Paris
To please the Parisian audiences that were known to love bold and dramatic new music, Mozart used all of the resources available to him when scoring his Paris Symphony for the largest orchestra he had yet used—with added personnel in the strings and a full contingent of wind instruments.


Fauré: Pavane
Graceful in melody and airy of texture, this music is distinguished by the restraint of its emotional display and its gentle solo woodwinds. Today’s performance features the rarely-heard version with chorus.

Fauré: Requiem
Fauré’s Requiem is the gentlest of all settings of the Mass for the Dead, casting aside the darkness of the Dies Irae emphasized by other composers in favor of a vision that assumes salvation, ultimate redemption and rest. Instrumental colors are generally from the darker lower spectrum, as in the opening of the Agnus Dei, where violas play one of the most graceful melodies ever written for the instrument. In the finale, the soprano section takes the part of the angels who draw us into paradise.

Full program notes:

Henri-Joseph Rigel

Born: February 9, 1741, Wertheim am Main, Germany
Died: May 2, 1799, Paris, France

Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Opus 12, No. 4

For someone in the business of musical archeology (if that’s indeed a thing), the experience of unearthing a forgotten, yet first-rate composer must be the find of a lifetime; even a career-making thing. After all these years, can there possibly be excellent composers still left to discover from the days of Haydn and Mozart?

Apparently, there’s at least one: consider the case of Henri-Joseph Rigel, who spent most of his career in Paris. Those involved in the rediscovery of the German-born Rigel deserve our thanks, because his music is full of imagination and individuality. Personally, I was astonished to learn about him. During my 30 years in the Minnesota Orchestra’s viola section, not once has his name come up, even in passing. In fact, these concerts mark Rigel’s first appearance on any program in the Orchestra’s 115-year history, so you’ll be forgiven for wondering, mid-performance, how Rigel has escaped detection all these years. Perhaps that is where we should begin.

a time of tectonic shifts

Paris at the time of Monsieur Rigel’s residency—about 1760 through the century’s end—was a terribly confusing place to live for a composer, or for any citizen, for that matter. It was a time of tectonic shifts in French politics (a euphemism for the very bloody French Revolution), and the highly-respected Rigel had the misfortune to die at 58, right in the middle of the chaotic collapse of the Republic. As a result, his posthumous reputation was probably doomed, as his music was neglected for many years.

But there is another layer to this story. Tectonic shifts were simultaneously happening in the musical tastes of the Parisian public, and Rigel happened to align with the losing side of musical history. The flavor of the day had become the Austrian Franz Joseph Haydn, whose sophisticated, poised symphonies had become immensely popular in Paris in relatively short order. 

One historian posits that the success of Haydn in Paris “nearly dealt a death blow” to French symphonists. Indeed, Rigel actually quit writing symphonies after completing 20, bowing to the forces of changing tastes and Haydn’s success.

But Rigel’s output remained high: he also wrote 14 operas, dozens of harpsichord pieces and at least six string quartets, among other works. In fact, he was a well-loved and highly respected composer during his time—he was a founder of the Paris Conservatoire—and his conducting talents led him to become head of the resident orchestra there and teacher of young César Franck. In summary, Rigel was, at one time, a really big deal.

music of drama, intensity and beauty

Rigel’s music is especially notable for its “Sturm und Drang” style (literally “Storm and Stress”), a movement popular with Parisian audiences who favored bigger orchestras and more dramatic music. That is audible from the first bars of his Fourth Symphony, which jumps off the page with crackling intensity. Rigel was a naturally gifted melodist; witness the slow movement, as beautiful, simple and tuneful as anything Schubert would write. The three-movement affair closes with a finale of effervescent energy driven forward by the irrepressible strings.

for further fun…

At home, consider putting on a recording of some Rigel for friends—especially those who think they know a lot about classical music. This is a “guess-the-composer” quiz they are doomed to fail! (Some honorable mention answers: Schubert, C.P.E. Bach and Johann Baptist Vanhal—or for bonus points, František Benda.)

Instrumentation: 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 horns and strings

Program note by Michael Adams.

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart

Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 31 in D major, K. 300a [K. 297], Paris

Between 1774 and 1778, his eighteenth to twenty-second years, Mozart did not write a single symphony. He composed nearly 100 other works during this period, but not until his visit to Paris in the spring of 1778 did he have occasion to write another symphony—inevitably, of course, given the moniker Paris.

Mozart took care to write a work tailored to the prevailing Parisian taste. One feature of the Symphony No. 31 that sets it apart from most others in his catalog, including all 30 that preceded it, is the size of the orchestra. It requires a full wind complement of pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets (used for the very first time in a Mozart symphony) and bassoons, plus horns, trumpets and timpani. In addition, the string section Mozart had at his disposal in Paris was far larger than what he was used to in Salzburg: reportedly 40 members strong at the symphony’s premiere on June 12, 1778.

a symphony catered to French tastes

In structuring the symphony, Mozart omitted the minuet movement, which was not yet accepted in Parisian symphonies, and kept the harmonic scheme simple throughout.

allegro assai. A notable feature of the first movement is the premier coup d’archet (first stroke of the bow), which in French style meant a loud, big chord from the full string section. Mozart obliged the French by including all the winds as well.

andantino. The central movement has been the subject of considerable debate, for Mozart wrote two entirely different movements to go with this symphony. The man behind the commission, Joseph (also known as Jean) Le Gros, was dissatisfied with the movement played at the symphony’s premiere, so the composer humored the man’s questionable judgment and wrote another shortly thereafter. However, due to confusion regarding tempo markings and autograph versus published scores, we are not certain today which was really the “original” movement. The only means of identifying them unequivocally is by meter: 6/8 or 3/4. Many orchestras today play the movement in 6/8; that version is heard at tonight’s performance. (Stay tuned, though, for a word from the conductor before intermission.)

allegro. Atypically for a Mozart symphony, the final movement begins softly, and the composer gauged its effect correctly. The audience at the first performance was still chattering away following the conclusion of the slow movement (audience behavior is markedly different today!), so when the music was perceived through the din, there were cries of “Hush! Hush!” Just about the point where everyone was “hushed,” the full orchestra came crashing in with overflowing joy and exuberance. The audience immediately broke out in applause at being caught off guard like this—another departure from modern concert decorum.

Mary Ann Feldman, former Showcase editor and annotator, offers this verdict: “Brilliant and capricious rather than profound, the Paris Symphony brings to mind, in paraphrase, what Goethe said about his short-lived contemporary: Nothing can explain the phenomenon of Mozart but genius—and it is through such genius that God works his miracles.”

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Program note by Robert Markow.

Gabriel Fauré

Born: May 12, 1845, Pamiers, France
Died: November 4, 1924, Paris, France

Pavane in F-sharp minor, Opus 50

When discussing some French composers, the same words turn up again and again: precision, craft, elegance and—not the least—restraint. With such a piece as Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane, they are no doubt appropriate. The music reflects the man, who was refined, discerning and invariably described as “aristocratic,” though his career gave him little in the way of leisure or affluence.

organist, teacher, composer—and harmonic pioneer

The youngest of six children in a family of modest means, Fauré first attended a school housed in a medieval convent. From his earliest years he developed a penchant for ancient music that later would be reflected in his fusion of old modality with the 19th-century harmonic system—a direction that made him one of the pioneers of 20th-century harmony.

Starting at age 21, Fauré took a series of church organ positions first in Rennes, then Paris. His lengthiest affiliation was with the famous church of the Madeleine on the Place de la Concorde, where he started out in 1874 as deputy for the principal organist, Camille Saint-Saëns. Twin career triumphs came in 1896, when Fauré was named principal organist at Madeleine and was appointed professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire. There he was revered by his pupils, including Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger, for cultivating an atmosphere of artistic freedom.

Despite the exhausting demands of a double career as organist and teacher, Fauré composed a substantial number of works, most of them during his summer holidays, all of them in an idiom distinctively his own, fundamentally untouched by the Wagnerisms of the day. He was by nature averse to extravagant orchestral effects, and he produced relatively few works for orchestra, instead focusing primarily on art songs and chamber music. Today’s concert offers two of the Frenchman’s works for vocalists and orchestra: the Pavane and the Requiem.

the spirit of the past

Many French composers of Fauré’s time recreated the spirit of the past, especially in fragile, evocative pieces that recalled the elegance and artifice of the rococo, or Late Baroque—the early-18th century artistic movement that reacted against the strict restrictions of the Baroque, instead emphasizing a more graceful approach. Fauré’s Pavane dates from 1887 (characteristically composed during summertime), when he was called upon to contribute music for an entertainment at the Opéra-Comique that was conceived in the pastoral spirit of a painting by the rococo artist Jean-Antoine Watteau.

Graceful in melody and airy of texture, this work is also distinguished by the restraint of its emotional display. Fauré’s use of solo woodwind is as gentle and refined as the pastel colorations of rococo art. The title itself suggests a nostalgia for the past, one far preceding the rococo: the pavane was a slow, dignified court dance of the 16th century thought to have originated in Spain.

with or without voices?

Two versions of Fauré’s Pavane premiered in quick succession in November 1888: one for orchestra alone, and the other with a chorus added on top of the same instrumentals. The choral lyrics were written by Robert de Montesquiou, a French poet, art collector and intellectual of Fauré’s time. Although the Pavane is nowadays seldom performed with voices, these concerts feature the version with chorus included.

Instrumentation: four-part mixed chorus with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns and strings

Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.

Requiem, Opus 48

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 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.

Instrumentation: four-part mixed chorus with soprano and baritone vocal soloists, plus orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, harp, organ and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.


Minnesota Orchestra Staff