Gabriel Fauré: A musical life by Jean-Michel Nectoux
Cambridge University Press
This latest work on Fauré is far from the last word. As its preface modestly insists, "Fauré research is only at its beginning". This may seem surprising, and indeed disappointing, after Jean-Michel Nectoux's twenty years and as many books or articles devoted to such research, culminating in this massive monograph with its sixty-three illustrations, ninety-five music examples, and detailed chronology, catalogue, notes and bibliography. But there is no real contradiction here; the subject is all but inexhaustible in its depth and range. One objective measurement of greatness in art is sheer incontestable technical mastery. Another is public response; how many different lives, in how many different ways, and for how long, have been enriched? By such criteria, Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) enjoys an exalted status. He was among the best-trained composers of his time, scrupulously schooled in music history, theory and technique as well as endowed with keyboard virtuosity and creative genius. He evolved into two very different composers, each with his own special voice and language, speaking successively in nineteenth and twentieth-century styles. The latter has often fallen on ears as deaf as his own had by then become.
This is the crucial Fauré problem, here defined thus: "The instant seductive power of his early music still too often masks the important but more severe creations of his last twenty years. This revolution, which...still upsets any number of Fauré enthusiasts, happened from within." It is specifically dated 1900-05. It coincided, though surely not by mere coincidence, with attacks of dizziness, migraine and aural hallucination as well as sever deafness. In Nectoux's book it is represented as the apotheosis of Fauré's art. This assessment was already evident in the same author's New Grove article of 1980, which summarized its subject as "the most advanced composer of his generation", whose personal style and practice profoundly influenced composers and teachers alike. To many Fauréans this will seem a merely perverse description of the greatest master of nineteenth-century French song, born only twelve years after Brahms and fifteen before Wolf, with whose lieder Fauré's well-named mélodies are fully comparable. But Jean-Michel Nectoux loves and values late Fauré above all, as he makes clear throughout this long and detailed book. That personal preference is only avowed, not defended or argued. Nevertheless, some basic aesthetic assumptions can be inferred; and they need defining, since this book must be intended for those who share them.
The main one is that music is an independent spiritual entity, unaffected by such mundane physical considerations as age or infirmity. Otherwise the following comment, also found in the Grove article, would rank among the saddest in the whole history of music. "Having reached the age of 75, he could at last devote himself entirely to composition". Meanwhile, as Fauré himself had presciently sung twenty-five years earlier, "les sons devienent vagues". So did the style, for example in the elusively introverted songs aptly entitled Le jardin clos, Mirages, L'horizon chimérique and so forth. As Nectoux says, "it is easier to discover [Fauré's late-style motifs] in reading his scores rather than in just listening to the music".
Just so; but Fauré's motifs are the source of his power, in every form and genre, and music should surely be heard rather than seen. Of course, it is justifiable to prefer the late style, and right to discuss it in detail. Nectoux is an able and dedicated reporter; Fauré's lonely journey to his own interior stands in special need of detailed coverage, and even a rescue operation. But that emphasis does the composer a disservice. This book's open contempt for the earlier Fauré may make more converts than its reverence for the later; and they were after all the same person. Was Après un Rêve really "under the influence of his psychological disturbance", and does its popularity really "come from its excess of feeling"? Such excess seems far more evident in the condemnation of that sweet song Les Roses d'Ispahan as "decadent music for a decadent epoch!"
An analogous unsureness of touch pervades the chapter on Words and Music, which claims that Fauré's alterations of his song-lyrics often "prove him to have been more a poet than the poet himself". But Nectoux himself admits that he cannot always be sure of the original textual source, let alone justify the composer's supposed changes. On the available evidence, many of the variants are just mistranscriptions which should be corrected in performance, not admired as improvements. Thus Fauré's "un choc funèbre" for Baudelaire's "des chocs funèbres" is an impossible reading, whether as prosody or sense; and such casual destruction of verse-form as the omission of three lines from Verlaine's terza rima in "N'est-ce pas?" would be adjudged more as philistinism than "refined literary sense" in any lesser song-writer.
It was Fauré himself who explicitly declared that song-music was meant to bring out the deepest poetic feelings, which words could not possibly describe with exactitude; and his own work in any genre was essentially expressive. So the attempt to illuminate and proselytize the late style by verbal description and analysis is subject to severe limitations. But the task is surely well worth while. As this book points out, almost half Fauré's piano output is hardly ever played; indeed, the same might be said of all his last-period music. Let one example stand for all. Fauré toiled at his only opera from 1907 to 1912. Again the name is apt; Pénélope, whose admirers sometimes seem to be drawing the long bow rather maladroitly, has indeed been sadly neglected. Nectoux's lucid commentary on this marvellous masterpiece should surely serve to promote further study, performance and recording. But one dimension of meaning remains missing, namely interpretation. Even the keenest Fauré enthusiast may need guidance with music which is so hard to hear distinctly. We need to know what precisely it is saying, and in what tones and accents. This book offers far too much bland generality. To cite an entirely typical example: "Pénélope's [theme] appears straight away, a sad, mournful theme, as much harmonic as melodic over a rhythmic counterpoint whose double dotted motif will frequently be in evidence". Here and elsewhere, Roger Nichols's competent and well-intentioned translation imposes further imprecision by trying to be helpful; thus the French text makes no mention of melody, and says "used in the score", not "in evidence".
Conversely, all the salient points have already been made in native English by Robert Orledge in his much more musicianly book on Fauré (1979, revised 1983), where the same prelude with its "desolate yet loving" motif "suggests Pénélope's long wait for Ulysse's return and her faith that he will come back to her". These succinct comments derive directly from technical analysis. At less than a quarter of the price, Orledge has every advantage, including a work-list originally compiled by Jean-Michel Nectoux which is up to date enough for all but the most dedicated musicologist and even includes more details, such as manuscript location.
Times Literary Supplement, Jan. 1991 © the estate of eric sams