Saturday, 30 June 2012

Fauré and the Senses of the Night

Delphin Enjolras, Portrait of an Elegant Lady Reading

The music of Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924) is particularly close to my heart (in my superior vena cava perhaps?). For my first post about the great man's music I'd simply like to compare two of his pieces - one of the loveliest of the early piano nocturnes and one of the finest of his later ones.

The Nocturne No 3 in A major, Op 33/3 dates from around 1882 and shows how Fauré had already passed well beyond his beginnings in Chopin and Schumann, despite the somewhat Chopin-like shape of the piece's opening melody. There is a harmonic sensuality to it that is pure early Fauré and as soon as the melody is outlined those characteristic harmonies, tinged with modality, begin flowing in. The first paragraph of the nocturne floats upwards gradually until it is left suspended on an enchanting pattern. The lovely appoggiatura-soaked second subject then enters and sings. A modal melodic continuation grows out of it, gently. It then crescendos into a heady reprise of the second subject in octaves. The main theme is then re-introduced beautifully. The earlier ascent to the heights is re-imagined and its figures spun into something fresh before a magical modulation lifts us again into the deepest beauty. The work seems to me to be an unblemished gem. 

Contrast the romantic opulence and sensual joy and Fauré's Third Nocturne with the leaner, darker world of his Nocturne No 9 in B minor, Op 97 of 1908. The piece opens with a wistful modal theme which might mislead you into thinking that you are about to hear a soothing piece. That misapprehension is soon banished by the dark whole-tone-inflected thunder that bursts in within bars and the lovely tune's immediate return is followed by a passage of anxious sequences, full of jet-black harmonies and aching dissonances, which tug at the music's tonal security with increasing desperation.  Fauré holds off again and again from releasing us from this anguish and even the main theme's beautiful return fails to free us as the tension keeps on mounting until the storm erupts again. The coda begins suspended in harmonic ambiguity before an heroic attempt is made to climb to major key security. Its success feels well and truly earned. The whole nocturne is something of an emotional epic in miniature. 

Beautiful pieces, aren't they?

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