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A Fragile Spring: The Beauty of Fauré’s Requiem

“It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience.” – Gabriel Fauré, 1902

fra·gil·i·ty  /frəˈjilədē/  noun – the quality of being delicate or vulnerable

Everything feels fragile right now. War, pandemic, society, families, the economy; even the planet seems delicate. In discussing the Ars Nova season with some of you recently I commented that we could likely perform a requiem every month for a while, to help process all the community grief surrounds us and feel overwhelming at times.

Fauré’s gentle Requiem is perfectly suited to our times, and we’re pleased to offer it here at the tender start of Spring. We haven’t performed this lovely work since 1987, and it feels like a comforting return to a more youthful time. The noted American choral conductor Dennis Keene observed, the Requiem “depicts the timelessness of human existence, the procession of generations, human longings, profound sorrow, fear of the unknown, as well as light, hope, the ultimate joys of heaven, and, above all, peace.”

Composer Gabriel Fauré was a church organist for much of his career, and as such had extensive experience playing music for funerals. In this, his most famous choral work, he wanted push back a bit against the tradition:  “As to my Requiem, perhaps I have also instinctively sought to escape from what is thought right and proper, after all the years of accompanying burial services on the organ! I know it all by heart. I wanted to write something different.”

Throughout his life, Fauré fought bouts of depression, and despite his long career as a church musician, he viewed himself as a gentle agnostic. “Everything I managed to entertain in the way of religious illusion I put into my Requiem, which moreover is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.”

Madeleine Church, Paris, where Fauré served as organist Photo by Joe deSousa (2011)

The sense of universality, of a less dogmatic, more open spirituality pervades the music, and has brought the piece to broad appeal in the musical world. Compared with other settings of the Requiem (by such composers as Brahms and Verdi), Fauré’s is remarkably subdued. It omits entirely the famous “Dies Irae” segment, with its visions of wrath and hellfire, and adds the “Pie Jesu” and “In Paradisum” texts, which are not part of the Requiem proper, but emphasize the granting of eternal rest.