Author: Greschner, Debra
Date published: May 1, 2010
Journal code: JRLS
Graham Johnson, Gabriel Fauré: The Songs and their Poets. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2009. Cloth, xxviii, 460 pp., $89.95. ISBN 978-0-7546-5960-0. www.ashgate.com
To aficionados of art song, Graham Johnson is a familiar and respected figure. As a collaborative pianist, he has recorded all of the lieder of Schubert and Schumann, as well as the complete mélodies of Fauré; as a writer, he has authored A French Song Companion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000; reviewed in JOS 58, no. 3 [January/ February 2002]: 260-262), as well as voluminous liner notes for his recordings. Johnson's most recent contribution to the literature, Gabriel Fauré: The Songs and their Poets examines the mélodies in the context of the composer's life, as well as the lives of the poets who inspired the songs.
The volume is a gargantuan undertaking. Johnson channels all of the tributaries and streams of influences upon Fauré-the events of his life, the political and social climate of his era, and the poetry (with corresponding information about the poets)-into a massive river of information. It is a testimony to Johnson's literary prowess that the reader does not drown in a sea of details, but instead is drawn into a fascinating account of an enigmatic composer. As with all of Johnson's writing, the style is seamless and the content is captivating. The pages are laden with particulars, yet me prose never descends into ponderousness or pedantry.
The volume is prefaced with a brief overview of the notable events of Fauré's life dovetailed with a chronological listing of his song output. In the opening chapter, Johnson proffers insight into the composer's character; he did not have a close relationship with his parents, and the author speculates that the emotional isolation Fauré experienced as a child fostered an indifference to success. Equally fascinating is a keen analysis of the influences that shaped Fauré's musical fingerprint, including harmony lessons at École Niedermeyer, and the romances (forerunners of mélodies) with which he was acquainted as a student. There is an undeniable similarity between Fauré's childhood as a loner and his inimitable style as a composer. His musical education was broader in scope than that received by his contemporaries at the Conservatoire; under Niedermeyer's tutelage, Fauré learned modern harmony that was expanded to accommodate the antique modes. The extended language gives rise to sonorities that are unique to Fauré, both in their harmonic significance, and in their importance to the melodic line. (The author asserts that Fauré's flair for innovative harmonies makes sight-reading the mélodies challenging: ". . . the pianist's fingers, after being used to playing the Viennese classics, go automatically into keyboard grooves that often prove to be the wrong ones.")
The songs (which total 109) are studied in chronological order. The title for each of the thirteen chapters devoted to the oeuvre sometimes reflects events in the composer's life, sometimes transitions in his writing, but always includes the names of the pertinent poets. The biographic information for the poets who served as Fauré's muses is not cursory; instead, Johnson presents thorough data about their lives, influences, and works. From the earliest song, "Le Papillon et la fleur" (on a verse by the francophone literary heavyweight Victor Hugo), to the final cycle L'Horizon chimérique (settings of four poems by Jean de La Ville de Mirmont, who was killed in action in the first year of World War I), Johnson offers scintillating commentaries. Richard Stokes provides translations for each song.
Readers familiar with A French Song Companion will recognize the same meticulous research and facile writing style that characterizes Johnson's earlier volume. In addition to an entry for each song, the volume includes general performance notes that encompass issues well beyond the subject's traditional scope. Johnson's opening paragraphs in this section are not for the faint of heart; he is so adamant in his conviction that Fauré's songs demand the best singers and pianists that mere mortal musicians may be tempted to pack away their recueils. Yet, Johnson himself points out, there were periods when the composer preferred the amateur performer to the professional because the former approached his music with devotion, while the latter was often hampered by egotism. The author warns about the danger of "interpreting" Fauré, rather than giving what is asked for in the score. He discusses the value of learning about the composer's life, rather than approaching the music in a vacuum, and elucidates the differences between lied and mélodie, particularly in regard to tempi. Under the heading "The Pitiless Beat," Johnson expounds upon Fauré's renowned abhorrence of rubati, and counsels performers to "contain feelings with form." The final chapter contains rehearsal notes and metronome markings for each song. The section encompasses a discussion of the role of the pianist, and the paradigm of the composer at the keyboard.
The first of two appendixes lists the songs of Fauré in their opus number grouping, while the second catalogues the mélodies by tonality-an unexpected treasure tucked away at the end of the volume. Johnson counsels performers to investigate the original keys for the mélodies, and consider performing them in Fauré's intended tonality. Representative instrumental pieces in the same key are listed for extended study; the rationale for this inclusion can be found in the foreword to the book where Johnson notes that the acquisition of a well balanced understanding of the composer requires a consideration of all genres in which he wrote.
In the opening chapter, the author opines that Fauré stands alone: he did not imitate other composers (not even his respected teacher Saint-Saëns), and he was not copied. This very individuality that secured his place in the annals of music history can pose a stumbling block to serious students of his mélodies; linear developments are logical, but anomalies are often confounding. Johnson, in this tour de force, encourages singers and pianists to explore and program the works of the man whom he describes as " . . . exceedingly subtle, sometimes evasive, always mysterious, charming and somewhat distant." The adjectives can surely apply to Fauré's songs as well. Gabriel Fauré: The Songs and their Poets is an indispensable guide to the composer's music and life, and the poets who inspired him. It is highly recommended.
Debra Greschner holds the Bachelor of Music and the Bachelor of Education degrees from the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, and the Master of Music degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She was selected as one of the twelve participants for the 1994 NATS Internship program in Boulder, CO. A lyric soprano, Greschner's solo appearances include those with the Nevada Symphony, the Symphony of Southeast Texas, Nevada Opera Theatre, and Chamber Music Southwest. Greschner is currently Lecturer of Voice at Lamar University in Beaumont, TX. In addition to managing the Bookshelf column, she has written book reviews for The Opera Journal.