Paris, 1921

Nicky Gluch examines Fauré’s Piano quintet no 2

The film Midnight in Paris premises on the idea
that each of us has an era to which we believe we were truly suited. Like the film’s protagonist, Gil, I have a hankering for the 1920s, happily imagining myself among the cafes of Paris, sipping coffee with Hemingway, studying music with Nadia Boulanger and attending the Ballet Russes in the evening (when I wasn’t at a jazz club, that is). The war had brought the world to Paris, soldiers who fought to defend France’s liberty and fell in love with her beauty, and Russians who sought to escape the ravages
of revolution. On 17 May 1921, I could thus have
attended the premiere of Prokofiev’s ballet Chou,
a Russian tale fittingly backdropped by the sets of Mikhail Larionov, and then four days later stepped into the very French world of the Société Nationale de Musique.

The Société had been founded 50 years earlier by Romain Bussine and Camille Saint-Saëns: early members saw themselves as a brotherhood of composers who wished to promote French music as its own voice against the dominant German tradition. Although Bussine had died in 1899, Saint-Saëns was still alive, and yet very much at odds with music’s evolution over the half-century. A traditionalist, he was disenchanted with both impressionism and dodecaphony, though had retained a friendship with his pupil Gabriel Fauré who is known as the man who brought the Paris Conservatoire into the 20th Century.

One wonders then what Saint-Saëns would have made of Fauré’s Piano quintet no 2, which premiered on 21 May to great acclaim. It was a work made possible by Fauré’s reluctant retirement from the Conservatoire in 1920, as the slow and contemplative composer who’d spent 18 years on his first quintet now had time to compose. The result is seamless: a score that honours all five voices and unfolds as if there was no other option for how it could sound.

In four movements, it is mighty, with its C minor tonality providing a sense of tension and urgency, emphasised by the low piano arpeggios which open the piece. The quartet, working in tandem rather than led by the first violin, criss-cross over each other to arrive at powerful moments of monophony. In the second movement, the piano and quartet begin to converse, echoing each other briefly before going their own way, once again.

In the slow, third movement, it is the quartet which gets the first chance to speak. The piano enters in the eighth bar, anticipating the first violin’s melody, and later has the chance to sing its own tune, introducing the second theme. The final movement opens with a stripped back texture, the piano merely accompaniment to the viola’s tune. Layers build, as does the energy, a gradual accelerando taking the piece towards its climax. The end is loud, and assured, a bold C major that rings of triumph.

It is a work undeniably of its time and yet perhaps best understood by looking backwards: our Sunday Special includes a quintet from the 1870s, when the Sociéte began, and one from the 1820s, perhaps Saint-Saëns’ golden age? As to which era suited Fauré, that we can only guess: his late quintet suggests he might have been a man temporally content!

Sunday Special, Sunday 2 May 2021, 3pm-5pm.

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