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9 Préludes Op.103

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)

9 Préludes Op.103

Throughout his life Fauré (1845-1924), one of France’s greatest if most underestimated composers, proclaimed the necessity for ’clear thought, formal purity and sobriety,’ and stated his disdain for the burning fever of novelty.’Yet while his music exemplifies this very Gallic philosophy, it is only superficially conservative, with the widest and most subtle variety of textures, rhythms and harmonies turning potentially one-dimensional material into an iridescent stream of fantasy; an eternal fountain of distilled wisdom and beauty.

The 9 Preludes (1910-11) belong to Fauré’s final period and, prompted by increasing deafness and the death of his father-in-law, are essentially elegiac in mood. Yet these are no conventional expressions of grief but reflections of an often desolating irony and dislocation. The gently swaying start to No.1 may evoke some distantly glimpsed horizon (the more optimistic L’Horizon chimérique Op.115 was still to come), yet the mood of cool serenity is quickly blighted and disfigured by unease, a potential for turbulence later confirmed in the central episode’s slow and painful climb. The principal fragment or idea is finally extricated from its dark and tenacious companion and emerges in its initial transparency, a bloodless, wraith-like presence drained of all consolation. Fauré’s way of turning some of his most nightmarish pages into a state of tranquillity is sufficiently ambiguous to once more suggest irony. The sighing and ebbing close to No.2, a Saint Vitus’s dance with syncopated chords snapping at the dancer’s heels, hardly erases one’s sense of tumult and dissonance, and the liturgical reminder of the Libera me from the Requiem that closes No.5 is similarly ambivalent. No.3 is a supreme instance of music whose song-like eloquence is constantly thwarted or broken, creating an agony of incompleteness. Fauré, that incomparable master of fluidity, of an endlessly evolving line and lyricism, now expresses the inexpressible in a state of near inarticulacy. Even the addition of each new musical strand cannot facilitate the progress of No.7, its halting and stammering course, suggesting not so much emotion recollected in tranquillity as in a state of numbness. The parallel here is with the seventh Barcarolle where the expectations set up by the lilting 1/8 rhythm are again frustrated. No.4 is less haunted and crepuscular, a brief venture into sunlight, though the end hardly offers conventional balm or reassurance. No.6 is notably cool after No.5 and has been greatly admired by Copland, its deliberate impersonality suggesting a reflection of Bach and a prophecy of Shostakovitch. No.8 is a repeated note scherzo enigmatically journeying from nowhere to nowhere while No.9 concludes with a conciliatory close that comes too late to bring much sense of comfort or assuagement.

Bitter and turbulent, ironically teasing and light-hearted, this extraordinary sequence of Preludes exposes the most private feelings to view. And it says much for Fauré’s genius that he could express such a dark night of the soul with such unfaltering courage, lack of indulgence and supreme compositional strength.

© Bryce Morrison 1987

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