Four of us went along to the Philharmonic Hall last night for a concert programme headlined by Fauré’s Requiem. My encounters with classical music are fairly limited and it’s not my usual musical stamping ground, but I really enjoyed this. Faure’s spare and delicate orchestration for the Requiem, composed in the late 1880s, impressed me. Whereas composers of the day were tending to write for bigger and bigger orchestras, with denser textures, Fauré opts for a smaller ensemble and spare orchestration, omitting violins and wind instruments that he felt were unnecessary.
Unlike many composers, he wasn’t inspired to compose a Requiem because of the death of a loved one (though his father had died two years before); rather, he said, ‘My Requiem was composed for nothing … for fun, if I may be permitted to say so!’
Although the Requiem now ranks among the most frequently performed and most admired of Gabriel Faure’s works, it wasn’t until the 1930s that it was first performed in the UK, and it didn’t achieve its present enormous popularity until the 1960s. And it was only in 1969 that a French musicologist discovered the parts used for the first performances of the Requiem in the archives of the church of La Madeleine in Paris, where the composer was maitre de chapelle from 1877, and organist from 1896 to 1905. The arrangements corresponded to those of a chamber orchestra and not full symphony orchestra (as in what had been the official version since 1901). Thanks to the publication of this new edition of the Requiem, this splendid work of sacred music at last regained the intimate character that its composer intended.
YouTube excerpts from the Requiem, performed by the Exultate Festival Choir and Orchestra:
The Requiem is made up of seven sections written between October 1877 and January 1888: the Introit, Kyrie, Offertorium, Sanctus, Pie Jesu, Agnus Dei, and In Paradisum. In an jnterview in 1902, Faure declared, with a touch of humour:
Perhaps I also instinctively tried to get away from the well-trodden paths. I’ve accompanied funeral services on the organ for so long! I’ve had them up to here! I wanted to do something else.
The Requiem was an immense success from the start, making it one of the composer’s most popular works. However, some commentators reproached Faure for giving it a somewhat pagan character, and for deleting certain passages from the Mass. Faure’s response was that he wasn’t seeking to address the Catholic community alone, and that he was aiming at conveying his conception of death in terms of universal significance. Faure’s avowed aim was to ‘to get away from the well-trodden paths’ and ‘do something else’.
If this all sounds knowledgeable on my part, bear in mind that, not being Catholic and not being particularly well-educated in religious signs and symbols, the first time I remember being aware of the words Kyrie Eleison was when they were sung by the Electric Prunes on the soundtrack to Easy Rider (one of the road movies that was the subject of a witty and incisive deconstruction by comedian Rich Hall in his BBC 4 documentary Continental Drifters this week).