The French mélodie, Fauré’s Cantique, and a note on the French tradition


So, we have been practising Gabriel Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, an exquisite piece of choral music composed by Fauré at the age of only 19!

Fauré, of course, is one of the masters of the French art song or mélodie, and many of his songs are well-known and much-loved.  Ravel wrote in 1922 that Fauré had saved French music from the dominance of the German Lied.  We the Classical Singers love lyrical music, whether German Lieder or French mélodies, and especially pieces where the music is about the ensemble singing, whether a cappella or when interweaved with the piano or the orchestra.  It has to be said that, compared with the Lied, the French mélodie tends to be more suggestive than literal – the moods are implied rather than directly depicted.

Very much a composer for the voice, Fauré’s mélodies are intimate and often introspective while filled with harmonic complexities.  On top of that, D flat major is a beautiful key – Chopin’s very poetic D flat major nocturne, for a start … (anything else?).

Considered a “classicist” musically, much of Fauré’s work has been songs and short works for chamber audiences – his songs for solo voice and piano constitute a cornerstone of the French repertory.  While one of us in the group much prefers singing in German to singing in French, every time we practise, we are always struck by the beautiful harmonies contained in the Cantique.  (We would probably still prefer the piano accompaniment version of this piece, but we love this interpretation by the Choeur de l’Orchestre de Paris and Orchestre de Paris conducted by Paavo Järvi).  The piece’s first performance, it has to be said, used the organ version, with the composer himself at the organ – although Fauré is known to have preferred the piano to the organ!  (It has to be said, for those who want to know Fauré more, especially the instrumental side, the repertoire is not large but the Élégie in C minor for cello and piano is one of the most endearing pieces especially when Jacqueline du Pré is playing it!)

While “cantique” can be translated “song”, the English “canticle” accurately evokes the prayer of supplication that is the essence of the work.  Fauré’s gift for melody is apparent – the simplicity of the melodic line provides for a steady declamation of the sung text supported by the purity of the harmony in the rhythmic triplet accompaniment.

The American composer Aaron Copland saw Fauré’s early songs to be influenced by Charles Gounod, while the “real Fauré“ emerged with the second volume of 60 collected songs including “Les berceaux”, and “Clair de lune”.

And when I look more, I find that there are many exciting French mélodie choral pieces in the tradition.  One of these I am absolutely in love with at the moment is Camille Saint-Saëns’ lush Calme des nuits (this is a nice interpretation) which, interestingly, is dedicated to his fellow composer, Charles Gounod (Saint-Saëns was himself a teacher and lifelong friend of Fauré).  It is another wonderfully intimate and poetic piece of French music.  A second piece that is a very interesting mix between American and French influence is Morten Lauridsen’s Dirait-on (an American composer crafting more of a French modern folk song (chanson populaire)-style rather than a mélodie-style piece based on a French text by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke!) – we love this version.  I couldn’t get this French tune out of my head on a Monday afternoon in the office …. (and could it be because it is also in D flat major?)

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