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Nocturne No.9 in B Minor Op.97

Fauré: Nocturnes 8-13

Nowhere is the complex nature of Fauré’s art better exemplified than in the great series of 13 Nocturnes. They span almost the whole of his creative life, the first dating from 1875 when he was 30, the last from 1921 when he was 76. The appelation ‘Nocturne’ is neutral rather than evocative; Fauré disliked evocative titles and, like his near contemporary, Brahms, would have preferred abstract titles like ‘Piano Piece’; the 8 Pièces brèves (a fascinating collection of pieces composed at various times, which mixes the rigour of the Fugues with the allure of the Allegresse and the 8th Nocturne, and the strange power of the Adagietto) were give their individual titles by the publisher against Fauré’s wishes –hence the so-called 8th Nocturne which, in its scope and manner, stands slightly apart from the series of Nocturnes.

What is, however, perfectly clear is that ‘Nocturne’ was chosen for piano pieces of the greatest emotional weight and depth, ranging from the posed equilibrium of No.4 to the great struggle of No.13, from the long lines of No.7 to the terse and epigrammatic No.9, from the serenity of No.6 to the anguish and torment of No.12.

The 7th and 9th Nocturnes, separated by 10 years, stand on either side of the great personal and creative watershed in Fauré’s life. There is plenty of evidence in the stylistic variety of Fauré'’ later works to suggest that the creative crisis which overtook the composer in the early years of this century was not due to any drying up of a creative impulse but rather a deliberate renewal of his language in the face of his own works (and in a significantly different direction from Debussy, and from Ravel who had by this time been a pupil). While this evolution was not enforced it was certainly intensified by much that was happening in Fauré’s life. Apart form coming to terms with the form of partial deafness which was to afflict him for the rest of his life, there was, on the more side, an upsurge of creative encouragement after years of public and professional indifference: to add to the stimulation already received from his pupils and their radically new voices, was his appointment as head of the Paris Conservatoire in 1905, which he set out to reform with such zeal as to earn him the nickname of ‘Robespierre’; there were new champions, pianists like Alfred Cortot and Marguerite Long, musicologists like Joseph de Marliave; last, but by no means least, he changed his publisher from Hamelle to Heugel, which provided not only a psychological fillip, but also a contract which actually stipulated that he produce a specified quantity of new pieces.

I find it very difficult to talk about the very special world of the late Nocturnes of Fauré. In the case of one of them, No 11 we are made aware of something of this elegiac piece’s background from its dedication to the memory of Noémi Lalo, wife of the critic Pierre Lalo. But, in general, their moods are very private and very elusive. They are not ‘comfortable’ pieces, and the very qualities which give then their strength and greatness at the same time possibly explain why they are not often played or better known. They are pieces about struggle and conflict, in the cases of Nos.9, 10 and 11, not struggles between various elements but struggles – choked and inarticulate – toward some form of expression, in the cases of Nos.12 and 13, anguished, bitter, unresigned, hence the crucial importance, in all cases, of the codas.

Paul Crossley


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