Absolute Modernity

Paul Driver

The near-simultaneous appearance of these volumes prompts thoughts on the development of French music out of the last century and into the next. One’s first thought, though, is bound to be: do Fauré and Boulez have anything in common at all? Could two composers linked by nationality ever have seemed at first sight so antipodean? Fauré the Proustian saloniste (an important model for Vinteuil) and Boulez the blazing theorist, for whom even the music of Messiaen was little better than salon music (‘brothel music’ was what he called it); Fauré the apogee of civility, refinement and classicism, and Boulez, the apostle of mathematical determinism and absolute modernity, Fauré the diffident man and cautious innovator, Boulez the scathing polemicist and compulsive revolutionary: these standard conceptions of the respective composers would seem to exclude them from any common ground except that of genius. Yet as one looks further, the parallels between them and their respective situations begin to emerge. Both men travelled from the provinces to the stars, or at least to the head of illustrious Paris institutions – in Fauré’s case, the Conservatoire, in Boulez’s the Institut de Recherche et de Co-ordination Acoustique-Musique (IRCAM). Boulez the endless reviser of his works shares Fauré’s perfectionism; a revulsion from rhetoric characterises both composers, as does a quintessential Frenchness. Boulez has mellowed with the years, even if he has not exactly become diffident, while Fauré was not without a certain avant-garde doggedness. In the end, one even suspects that it is Fauré who will stand in 20th-century musical history as the truly pioneering figure.

Fauré’s work has been relatively slow to establish itself. If he is now a world classic, that is chiefly thanks to the late but massive popular success of the chastely melodious little Requiem and a handful of other popular items such as the Pavane and the Pelléas et Mélisande sicilienne have helped: but it has taken a long time for Fauré to be freed from his role as a kind of caviare composer. Never by his own admission a crowd-pleaser, he was all too readily co-opted by connoisseurs of chamber music and song (as by Francophiles and neo-Hellenists), and this stylistic and sometimes snobbish emphasis has tended to obscure his fundamental musical importance. That, in a nutshell, is modalism – or rather, the combination of modal and tonal usages. As Jean-Michel Nectoux recounts, Fauré was lucky enough to receive an education at Louis Niedermeyer’s enlightened school that not only insisted on the lasting importance of the ancient modes but interpreted conventional tonal procedures with a wide latitude deriving from an awareness of modal alternatives to them: hence ‘modulation’ was regarded as a greatly more flexible process than it was ever allowed to be at the unprogressive Paris Conservatoire. The astonishing freedom of modulation – the veritably ‘roving harmony’ (to borrow a Schoenbergian phrase) – of Fauré’s best and most characteristic music followed quite naturally from the Niedermeyer principles, and quietly performed a harmonic revolution. Thus in his brilliant, stylish and still necessary ‘Master Musicians’ study of 1946, Norman Suckling could write: ‘The use made by Fauré of these ancient forms of musical speech consisted ... in a development of them along lines different from those followed in the course of musical history; he went back as it were to the fork of the roads and took the other turning, and indeed travelled so far along it as to be able to see those of his companions whom he had left on the more familiar road.’ Modernists such as Wagner, Liszt, Schoenberg and indeed Boulez all took or would take this more familiar road.

The harmonic daring is what gives Fauré’s music its particular frisson, the frisson of the suddenly new that Walter Pater’s Gaston de Latour finds in the poetry of Ronsard (‘the one irresistible poetry there had ever been, with the magic word spoken in due time, transforming his own age and the world about him’), and that is easily to be had listening to, say, the Third Nocturne for piano, which effortlessly sails into a distant key at its 11th bar and as serenely returns home a couple of bars later, or to any page of the masterly, highly chromatic song cycle La Bonne Chanson. Fauré’s sleight-of-hand with enharmonic modulations (that is to say, with re-spelling the notes so that they happen to describe another key) is unrivalled (one is even put in mind of Joycean puns); his music’s poise of the unexplored and the consolidated is uniquely distinctive and exemplary. Nectoux has an illuminating chapter on these and equivalent technical matters of rhythm, polyphony, melos and orchestration. Of a descending harmonic progression in the Sixth Nocturne, he eloquently suggests that ‘Fauré seems to find his way over immense uncharted wastes with the sovereign ease of a man who has his goal always clearly before him.’ He draws attention to Fauré’s stretching of tonality to its limit in such late music as the scherzo of his Second Piano Quintet or the introduction to the finale of his Second Cello Sonata, so that ‘the ear searches in vain for the tonal signposts that Fauré is normally so careful to set up in the course of his wanderings.’ (But Fauré never entirely penetrates the realm of atonality entered by Schoenberg and the far more Fauré-esque modalist, Ferrucio Busoni.) He comments perceptively on Fauré’s use of regularly displaced accents, and makes the important connection between rhythm and harmony: ‘Fauré’s love of accenting weak beats obviously goes hand-in-hand with his propensity for modulating to chords built on the so-called weak degrees of the scale.’ He admires Fauré’s long, nonchalantly graceful but firmly buttressed melodies, and finds more interest in Fauré’s orchestration (often assumed to be non-existent, since much of it was farmed out) than have many commentators. He informs us that, ‘according to Roger Ducasse, Debussy admired the orchestration of [the opera] Pénélope and compared it with that of Parsifal,’ and concludes his discussion with an italicised allusion to Debussy’s description of his aims in his late sonatas: ‘The truth is that Fauré’s sober style of orchestration mirrors his artistic aims: to express the most elevated sentiments by the simplest means, so as to reach, in some form, the naked flesh of emotion.

Fauré’s life-span (1845-1924) fully embraces Debussy’s (1862-1918) – a fact we are apt to overlook. The paring-down to a newly chastened but deepened classicism that Debussy achieved in those last three sonatas Fauré was also achieving at much the same time. His later works – the two cello sonatas, Second Violin Sonata, two piano quintets, the last few nocturnes and barcarolles, the piano trio and, above all, the unearthly string quartet – have a spareness of texture and an austerity, a sort of luminous bleakness of mood betokening a remarkable progress from the Mendelssohnian salon-style and ‘incessant semi-quaverage’ (Eric Blom’s phrase for the two piano quartets) of many of the ‘early’ and ‘middle’ period productions. Debussy – and Ravel (1875-1937) no less – were not only seriously influenced by Fauré: they had to catch up with him. As Nectoux observes, the dissonant writing at the beginning of the Fifth Barcarolle (1894) and the end of the Seventh Nocturne (1898) had not yet been emulated by either of the composer’s juniors. The works thus far of Debussy, ‘(Suite Bergamasque, 1890; Images oubliées, 1894) are promising but generally conventional, while the young Ravel was cultivating a Satie-like modal delicacy (Menuet antique, 1895; Pavane pour une Infante défunte, 1899).’ Fauré, moreover, can be found – so Nectoux (backed by Françoise Gervais) suggests – exploring ‘new scales and occasionally Hindu modes, in distant anticipation of Messiaen’, and certainly the early work of the latter has its moments of Fauréesque harmonic sweetness. At the same time, Fauré’s boldest gestures may equally well be felt to refer backwards as well as forwards. Of the last, and ‘with the Sixth, incontestably the most moving and inspired’, of the series of 13 Nocturnes, Nectoux observes: ‘The chromatic counterpoint and the dissonances caused by harmonic suspensions are of a daring that compares with the most astonishing of Bach’s chorale preludes.’ (These, incidentally, count among Boulez’s favourite pieces of music.)

With his ‘advances’ of technique and sensibility, and what, though it was the opposite of programmatic, might be called (and was) his ‘Modernism’, Fauré is, like his slightly younger admirer Elgar, a fascinatingly transitional figure: a voyager into the 20th century who remains very much the contemporary of Franck, Saint-Saëns (his mentor), Chabrier and Chausson; a figure poised on the threshold of the modern period who is doing compositional things (and not just in his own ‘late’ period) with direct or indirect consequences for composers from Frank Bridge to Peter Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr (both the last mentioned have matured into a style informed by a concept of modal tonality), and from Messiaen to Pierre Boulez – whose orchestral Rituel in memoriam Maderna (1974) rescinds ‘total serialism’ and plumps (as Dominique Jameux explains) for a seven-note mode.

To set beside this image of ‘Fauré the progressive’ (to adapt another Schoenbergian phrase), there is the familiar, beloved Fauré of simple charm and elegance and wit: the composer of the Dolly Suite, the Masques et Bergamasques overture, and (with André Messager) of that four-minute, four-hand piano quadrille on favourite themes from L’Anneau du Nibelung, the crisp and droll Souvenir de Bayreuth. But Fauré’s Modernism has scarcely yet been recognised, and the idea of his influencing post-war music remains controversial. What is so compelling about the idea is that Fauré’s life and work is the perfect refutation of that kind of ideological and evolutionary thinking about modern musical history which has been so dubiously disseminated by the polemical Boulez, following in the wake of theorists like Busoni (with his agendas for a ‘new aesthetic of music’) and Schoenberg (who considered that his twelve-tonery would guarantee the supremacy of German music for a hundred years), not to mention Schoenberg’s Marxian apologist, Theodor Adorno. Fauré’s work exquisitely evades the latter’s ‘negative dialectic’ (which would find beauty only in wonted ugliness), quietly offering itself as an example of how to move out of romantic tonality without experimentation or the sacrifice of musical values. Twentieth-century music has surely been deafened by the trumpetings of composer-theorists: a new translation – an impressive job by Stephen Walsh – of Boulez’s first (1966) gathering of manifestos and trenchant analyses, Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship has even now appeared, as if the dry controversies of yesteryear (‘Schoenberg is Dead!’) needed resuming. In the case both of Schoenberg and of Boulez, strict application of their own theory to their creative work has tended to produce stone-dead music (the former’s Wind Quintet Op. 26, the latter’s two books of Structures for two pianos), while their best pieces invariably entail adjustments of theory. On the other hand, those works which it can be argued really do embody fruitful solutions to problems of modern music’s language and form – at a pinch, Debussy’s two books of piano Etudes, Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Fauré’s Nocturnes – come without the trappings of theory and polemic and risk going unnoticed.

Moreover, Souvenir de Bayreuth apart, Fauré’s music precisely exemplifies the sort of purity of discourse (no allusiveness, quotation, Wagnerism, use of popular song or dance forms etc) which within its own historical terms Boulez’s theorising strives for, but which composers rarely attain, and which is not perhaps particularly desirable anyway – imperfection (if we are to believe Robert Lowell) being the language of art. Eclecticism would certainly seem to be the language of art, but Fauré’s music, early or late, is just mysteriously there in its purity, whereas the development of Boulez’s music has largely been from a purity artificially induced by a historically deterministic way of thinking into a richer, more referential, more tonal-modal idiom: that is to say, from the piano sonatas, the Livre pour cordes and Structures to Domaines for clarinet and instrumental groups, Eclat-Multiples for 27 instruments, Rituel and the electro-acoustic Répons. This is not a view shared by Jameux in his book, so far as one can tell – which is not far, since he mostly adopts the neutral, factual tone of the programme-note writer – and, come to think of it, half the book is programme or sleeve-notes anyway.

These notes are reasonably useful and informative, but one misses the flash of insight and the dazzling critique. The book’s first half is a thorough but highly circumspect (and highly sectionalised) biographical account of Boulez’s brilliant and inconveniently ongoing career; again, one misses the element of stylishness – Jameux reads ploddingly beside Peter Heyworth’s New Yorker profile ‘The First Fifty Years’, reprinted in Pierre Boulez: A Symposium, edited by William Glock. It is not a clear ‘life and works’ divide, however: biography shades into and out of musical explanation, with heavier-duty exegesis always to look forward to in the second part of the volume. Nectoux’s organisation of material is not dissimilar, but more satisfying: a vivid and copious chronological narrative constantly subject to essay-length interpolations on pertinent musicological topics. Both books have weighty appendices – work-lists, discographies, bibliographies – and definitely offer themselves as definitive studies. But although, as he virtually admits in his preface, he sometimes betrays the weariness induced by more than twenty years’ sedulous research into his subject (he is indisputably the leading Fauré scholar), Nectoux is much the more shrewd and interesting musical commentator, as well as the more gripping biographer – gripping in spite of the fact that just about every Fauréan scrap of information has had to find a place here. His book is a cornucopia of its kind; Jameux’s, when it is not too journalistic, seems provisional and stiff-jointed.

Nectoux’s verdict on Fauré is somewhat surprising. ‘Certainly,’ he writes, ‘we cannot ignore the limits imposed on him by his excessive modesty and by a certain artistic pusillanimity, but at least he should take the credit for having exploited the ambiguities of his character to the point of genius.’ That is a rather sour note on which to close the file. I should have wanted to celebrate Fauré’s ability in his greatest music – the sets of nocturnes and barcarolles, the Pelléas et Mélisande incidental music, the Piano Trio – to induce in the listener a unique state of nuanced well-being.