By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) may be classified as one of those composers who developed slowly, reaching compositional maturity relatively late in life. It was not until1890 that he began to realize some of his ambitions and to achieve international recognition as a composer of distinction.
One biographer, Jean Michel Nectoux, asserts that Fauré is widely regarded as the greatest master of French song. Of his three collections the first comprising youthful romances and songs appeared in 1879, the other two much later. Central also to his achievement are his excellent piano and chamber compositions most of which follow the Requiem in time.
Fauré’s fierce self-criticism eliminated his earlier essays into the concerto and symphony. He never appears to have indulged in large-form composition or orchestration with any degree of relish. Even his great admiration for Wagner's music dramas failed to influence the development of his more intimate style.
This style was rooted in his earliest training at the Ecole Niedermeyer where he prepared for a career as a choirmaster and organist. His studies immersed him in plainsong, the Renaissance choral classics, and great organ literature. By the age of twenty he had assimilated these elements into a style which won for him the school's first prize in composition with his Cantique de jean Racine, a work clearly presaging the style of the Requiem. Fauré’s motets and the excellent Messe basse for female voices likewise must be seen influencing the Requiem. ,
Fauré elaborated his Requiem in three stages, each separated by a period of five or six years. The customary version produced in 1898 for full orchestra received its premiere in July, 1900, at the Trocadero Palace during the Paris World Exposition. This version, published by Hamelle, may have resulted from Hamelle's urging Fauré to prepare a concert version of the work to insure more frequent performances. Some musicologists conjecture, among them John Rutter the currently prominent English composer who has produced a new edition of the Requiem, that Fauré, as was his occasional practice, left the elaboration of the full orchestration for this concert version to someone else, perhaps a pupil, Roger-Ducasse, who made the piano reduction for the vocal score. These critics argue that the hundreds of misprints and inaccuracies in the orchestral parts and score would not have escaped Fauré's meticulous vigilance over the printer's proofs. In a letter of 1900 Fauré wrote to Ysaye, who was to conduct the Brussels' premiere, lamenting the misprints in the vocal score. On the other hand, Dr. Wagner maintains that Fauré indeed produced the orchestration of the 1898 version.
Robert Orledge in his biography and study, Gabriel Fauré, states that "Hearing Fauré's Requiem as he originally intended it to be performed would be a revelation to most people:' Orledge's analysis of the work's genesis from the small intimate "low Mass" conception of 1887-88 largely depending on organ and low string accompaniment to the full-blown concert version is thorough in its research and critique.
Fauré began his composition of the Requiem, "purely for the pleasure of it'' as he observed twenty three years later in 1910. Nor did he avert then to the possible influence the death of his father in 1885 and his mother in 1887 may have exercised on him. He clearly desired to contrive something quite unconventional as he remarked in 1902; '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.'
The 1888 version, the only one surviving in manuscript, was sung at a funeral service at the Madeleine for M. Joseph Le Soufache. It comprises the Introit and Kyrie, Sanctus, Pie Jesu, Agnus Dei, and the In Paradisum, which concluded the ceremony of the blessing of the casket after the Mass. At that service sung by Fauré's choir of no more than 20 to 30 men and boys the essential instrument was the organ supplemented with divided violas, cellos, and the basses, to which was added timpani in the Introit and a harp and solo violin in the Sanctus and In Paradisum. Subsequently in 1893 these movements had horn, trumpet and bassoon parts added. This was the version customarily performed at the Madeleine until the turn of the Century.
For grander ceremonies Fauré added in 1893, and the much earlier Libera Me, written in 1877 as an independent work. Both additions call for baritone solo. Again, too, the Libera Me constitutes part of the ritual at the casket after Mass. It is the only segment of the whole work where the words "Dies Irae ... " elicit from Fauré highly dramatic writing. The subsequent addition in the published version of 1900 of full orchestral accompaniment seems a far cry from the "petit Requiem" Fauré described in his letter of 1888 to a friend, Paul Poujaud.
As is well known, Fauré's conception of this Requiem is characterized by restrained and sombre instrumentation conveying less the drama of judgment Day than of the eternal rest enjoyed by the dead. Fauré emphasizes the word "Requiem" seven times in the work's progress. "It has been said that my Requiem," he wrote, "does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is in this that I see death, as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than a painful experience:'
The Requiem has achieved astounding and widespread popularity, due to its technical, choral, and harmonic interest and accessibility. Striking in its sublime simplicity a sympathetic chord in the hearts of the sensitive, it has become one of music's most enduring and beloved works.
A greater contrast could not be imagined than between the musical principles espoused by Fauré, and Walton's massive, tightly compressed oratorio, Belshazzar's Feast. William Walton (1902- 1983) received his commission from the B. B.C. to produce a large choral work for the Leeds Festival of 1931. That Festival had programmed Berlioz's Requiem with its extensive orchestra and brass bands, offering Walton the opportunity to utilize these huge forces.
Belshazzar's Feast (along with Vaughan William's Sancta Civitas of 1925) has come to be recognized generally as the biggest oratorio landmark since Elgar's Dream of Gerontius. Unlike the lengthy "Handelian" style oratorio of the 19th Century, both Vaughan Williams and Walton compressed their essays in the field into works of slightly more than half an hour. Walton's work exhibits taut, vivid, and highly dramatic episodes which are paced and unified by an orchestra and chorus utilized with extraordinary symphonic versatility. The frankly pagan overtones in Belshazzar's Feast illustrating especially the ephemeral grandeur, wealth, and pride of Babylon and the King rendered it for a period quite unacceptable for performance in the cathedral atmosphere of the famed Three Choirs Festival. Its first international performance took place in 1933 in Amsterdam.
Walton's close friend, Constant Lambert greatly influenced his music. Both composers have incorporated elements of the American jazz idiom into their compositions. But it was an idiom transformed into sophisticated symphonic dimensions by "highbrow European composers:' as Lambert observed in his rather abrasive book, Music Ho! Lambert’s principles found realization in his masterpiece Rio Grande (1927) which directly inspired Walton in his approach to Belshazzar's Feast.
Both composers likewise collaborated with the Sitwells, Lambert with Sacheverell and Walton with Osbert, in the formulation of the texts for the two works. Osbert Sitwell organized his libretto for Walton from Psalm 137, the Fifth Chapter of the Book of Daniel, and Psalm 81 in that sequence. Of course, this was not Walton's first collaboration with a member of this famed literary family. Between 1920 to 1930 on and off, Walton had lived with them as an "adopted or elected brother:' Not only did he produce his popular 'entertainment' Facade to Edith's poems, but also the overture Portsmouth Point, his Sinfonia concertante, and his orchestral masterpiece, the Viola Concerto, all emerged from this beneficial cultural experience.
Belshazzar's Feast, following immediately upon the Viola Concerto, found no precedent in any of his previous works. At first the choral parts were judged exceedingly difficult. Today, however, with the widespread advance of choral singing, they have come to be regarded as a significant but attainable challenge to many choral societies. Moreover, the initial musical shock enthusiastically sustained by the audience at Leeds in 1931 has receded as the rhythmic, harmonic, and instrumental modernities of the work have become assimilated into our musical heritage and the oratorio into the standard repertoire.
The commentator, Edward Greenfield, writes: "But Walton does much more than provide a brilliant setting of one of the Bible's most colorful stories, he matches the religious feeling behind that story with choral music of an intensity rarely matched in any oratorio:'
Belshazzar's Feast comprises three segments. The work opens with a simple trumpet blare after which the unaccompanied voice of Isaiah announces exile to the Jews. This simple recitative device used in several instances throughout the oratorio serves only to heighten and enhance the orchestral and choral entrances and the musical color achieved. The choir now represents the lamenting Jews by the Waters of Babylon, as they invoke curses on their captors.
The scene shifts and all forces depict in vivid musical colors the magnificence and wealth of "that great city.' The overweening pride of King Belshazzar at the banquet wherein the drinking from the sacred temple vessels highlights the king's wantonness received brilliant treatment. The finger traces the fateful words on the Wall to Walton's eerie orchestral accompaniment. After the chorus shouts "slain!" to the terse announcement of the monarch's demise, it returns to its role as the Jewish people, this time exulting in the glorification of the God of Jacob in Psalm 81. Triumph reaches its climax with the ecstatic repetition of the Alleluia.