On Fauré’s Requiem

Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem is one of the more unusual works in the genre.  Not written for any reason in particular (“pleasure, if I may call it that,” said the composer), it doesn’t stand as a memorial to a person or event.  (Fauré’s mother actually died during its composition, in 1887, so it cannot have been initially conceived of in her memory.)  The circumstances are hardly the most unique thing about it, though.  Unlike nearly all other works in the genre, it contains none of the drama, anxiety, or fraught emotions one tends to associate with human thinking about death.  Nearly all references to the last judgement from the Catholic liturgy (and trust me, there are plenty) are excised.  Its general affective state is one of contentedness and an almost detached beauty.  It is relatively short, only 35 minutes.  Its formal proportions are slight and symmetrical.  Its original two versions were for small ensemble, with hardly a note for the single solo violin, nothing but a point on the top of the overtone series.  Even its full orchestra version leaves out the violin section for large passages, preferring the mellow sound of the viola.  Let us go even farther: it is an anti-Requiem, at least at we tend to think about the genre.  Even its primary key area -- D minor -- seems to be consciously chosen to negate.  It is surely a reference to the Mozart Requiem, though through its use, we are made to feel the photographic negative of that work’s angst and anxiety.  

Can we take Fauré’s statement to an interviewer at face value?  Initially, to be honest, I have my doubts:

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. The music of Gounod has been criticised for its over-inclination towards human tenderness. But his nature predisposed him to feel this way: religious emotion took this form inside him. Is it not necessary to accept the artist's nature? As to my Requiem, perhaps I have also instinctively sought to escape from what is thought right and proper, after all the years of accompanying burial services on the organ! I know it all by heart. I wanted to write something different.

Though there is something here I find striking, namely the last bit -- that somehow Fauré’s decision to write such a piece is bound up in personal habit.  Worth mentioning at this moment as well is a work with an intertextual significance (obvious only in hindsight): Brahms’ German Requiem.  A few surface details are surely worth pointing out by way of proof -- prominent use of the viola section, the composers’ liberal use of their own judgment regarding the text (rather than an uncritical adherence to the liturgical function, which even a radical like Berlioz is guilty of in his work in the genre), and finally, a generally consolatory tone.  Brahms’s focus on the emotional states of the living and communication between listener and performer/composer in a work he later admitted he should have called the “human Requiem” -- one almost gets the sense that he is talking directly to us sometimes -- obviously influenced Fauré’s conception as well.  While the Frenchman’s approach is less direct and more reserved (“more French” if you will forgive the generalization -- not in a nationalistic, but in a reception-history stylistic, sense), it is obviously a product of the same overall cultural milieu.  Embedded in the notion of composer-as-consoler is a much broader notion of post-Enlightenment self-actualization that is presupposed in a bourgeois society.  

The Introit, featuring the conventional text, begins on an imposing unison D, descending stepwise as if thematizing the very concept of of D minor (or perhaps the Dorian mode), while the choir responds as if quietly resisting inexorability.  The texture of the Kyrie is strikingly simple -- as if a modern re-thinkings of chant lines.  Both the orchestra and choir are notably sparse.  The interval of the fourth becomes the basis for melodic lines.

The Offertory, the longest movement, begins with an ostensibly archaicizing canon whose resultant harmonies betray its composer’s time and place, raising by step as the text becomes more urgent and more personally addressed to Jesus.  The middle section, a baritone solo, returns to the D key center of the first movement, this time in the major mode.  While its smoothing, gently undulating texture may seem odd for music about a sacrifice, the possibilities of the comfort that such an act brings come to the fore.  The brief return of the opening ends with a fauxbourdon (full of parallel sixths) Amen, music reminiscent of much earlier church styles.  Just as the first movement had incorporated chant-like passages, a modernizing impulse -- an historical consciousness -- continues here.

The Sanctus, typically celebratory and extroverted, is here a dream-like haze of E-flat major in which both the local (the subdivisions of the violas are composed to be ambiguous-sounding) and global (what is the meter?) rhythmic security is intentionally obscured.  The violin section, floating above the texture, invites all manner of interpretation -- the heavenly realm? anticipating the “highest” in the phrase “hosanna in excelsis”? the holy spirit?  A sudden fanfare reverses the opening movement’s fourth into a fifth, before returning the movement to rest.

The brief Pie Jesu emphasizes an individual, subjective relationship with both the divine and with death by its very choice of singer -- a single, solo soprano, innocence itself thematized.  The melody is fittingly simple, though, inevitably related to other movements by its prominent ascending fourth.

The Agnus Dei begins as gently as the lamb it describes; ravishingly gorgeous music accompanying the tenor section.  Darker music must represent the “sins of the world” that this symbol of impeccability takes away.  The text of the communion follows with no break -- an otherworldly shift of keys to A-flat major (the very farthest possible tonality from D minor in the diatonic system) accompanies the “eternal light” that shines upon them, and augmented harmonies add to the sense of wonderment.  Death, thus, leads to the diametric opposite of life.  After such a sublimely inspired moment, it is hard for the return of the opening music to avoid sounding trite, though that is surely not Fauré’s intention.

The Libera Me, returning to D minor, notably, contains the only references to the final judgment in the entire work (the lengthy sequence, the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath), often the longest part of the Requiem, having been conspicuously, almost confrontationally, omitted by Fauré).  A baritone solo takes the interval of the fifth from the Sanctus as the basis for his plea.  It is the chorus, though, that spells out the details of “that day,” accompanied by the horns and trombones; while obviously representing the final trumpet, the actual orchestral trumpets are omitted.  Even the last judgment in Fauré’s version is not so harsh.  Augmented harmonies reminiscent of the “eternal light” section of the Agnus Dei seem to provide another clue to the composer’s vision of the afterlife. 

Indeed, the In Paradisum, rarely set in the Requiem by previous composers, is in a D major tonality, resolving the tensions of world, for which many words -- “radiant” or “translucent” or “beautiful” -- seem inappropriate.  The harmonies are plagal.  Key shifts are free and unprepared.  Though there are a few conventional authentic cadences, they are subtly undermined, not structural, not emphatic -- as if to eschew the human psychological strife that tonality is, by its very nature, mimetic of.