Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy

by Anja Weinberger

Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy – Contemporaries in the france of the “Fin de Siècle”

Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy were contemporaries.  Fauré was born in France in 1845 and Debussy in 1862. Strictly speaking, they were separated by almost a whole generation, 17 years, but both were part of this exciting period, which was given such different names as Fin de Siècle, Belle Époque or Année folles.  Both were very successful with their music and extraordinarily present in the cultural life of their home country, both left very special works for our beautiful instrument. And yet there is a big difference. The name Fauré is not really familiar to everyone, whereas with Debussy one knows immediately. And even more peculiar: Fauré’s music is actually extremely popular, played frequently. Nevertheless, he remains one of the great unknowns of classical music, disappeared in the “impressionist fog”.


Gabriel Urbain Fauré was thus born in 1845 in Pamiers, in the very south of France, near Carcasonne. There, playing intuitively on a harmonium, the still very young boy showed clear signs of an extraordinary musical talent. No music was made in the family, so he then received piano lessons, presumably from a music teacher at the École normale, where his father had taken up the post of director in 1849. At the age of 8, his progress was already so great that the family was advised to send him to the École Niedermeyer in Paris. Financially, however, this burden would have been too great, so that they first had to seek a partial scholarship. Then, a year later, in 1854, the time had come and Gabriel could begin his studies. He remained at École Niedermeyer until 1865.

The well-structured school offered the boys instruction in classical educational subjects and a truly comprehensive musical and music history education. From Gregorian music to the organ and choral literature of the early 19th century and Viennese Classicism, the students were introduced to everything. And at the École Niedermeyer, Gabriel also met Camille Saint-Saëns, 10 years his senior, who took over as principal after Niedermeyer’s death in 1861 and took special care of Fauré, a student only 10 years his junior. Under Saint-Saëns’ direction, the curriculum was modernized, allowing students to study contemporary works by Liszt, Wagner, and Schumann. Saint-Saëns and Fauré remained lifelong friends, indeed Fauré revered his mentor with touching respect.

Without being particularly religious, Gabriel Fauré worked as an organist from an early age, first in Rennes, later in Paris (including at the Madeleine) and surrounding areas. Organ playing provided him with a living, but could not really inspire him. He also gave piano lessons and accompanied choirs. Possibly in this way his great interest in the human voice as an instrument was awakened.

Fortunately returned unharmed from the Franco-Prussian War, Fauré was one of the founding members of the Société Nationale de Musique, which was mainly concerned with contemporary instrumental music by French composers. At first, he was a frequent pianist at concerts, usually performing works by Saint-Saëns, but he soon used this forum for his own music as well.

In 1877 Fauré’s Violin Sonata in A major, op.13 was published by Breitkopf & Härtel. Saint-Saëns predicted that with this work he had made the beginning of a great career, and that sonata is still a much-played work today. Its printing in a German publishing house – rather unusual – was arranged by the wealthy engineer Camille Clerc, in the circle of whose family and in whose salon Fauré liked to stay often.

In general, the salons! Gabriel Fauré was liked as a brilliant improviser on the piano and for his pleasant, unobtrusive appearance. He was also always happy to accompany singers and introduce the children of the house to the instrument (years later he would meet 5-year-old Lili Boulanger in this way).

In the same year (1877) he accompanied Saint-Saëns to Weimar for the premiere of his opera Samson et Delila. There he met Franz Liszt, and from that time on Fauré traveled several times to German cities (including Bayreuth) to hear Wagner operas. Despite the great fascination that Wagner’s music held for him, as it did for the vast majority of composers, however, he remained true to his own style.

In 1883 Fauré married Marie Fremiet, the daughter of a famous sculptor. They were united more in a marriage of convenience, though in friendship, than in great passion. Two sons were born in the following years, one of whom will write a biography of his father. Seventeen years later, the great love was to enter Fauré’s life after all. He found her in the young pianist Marguerite Hasselmans and she officially became the wife at his side, staying with him until his death.

With large orchestral works, e.g. symphonies, Fauré was simply not to have any luck. His field of activity became the smaller instrumentation, the unusual form. Even his piano compositions were mostly nocturnes, barcarolles and impromptus. And no one could hold a candle to him in terms of orchestral and piano songs. In his works he set poems by, for example, Verlaine and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, which are among the highlights of French song art.

In 1896, Fauré then took over a composition class at the Conservatoire de Paris in Massenet’s succession, of which he would eventually become the highly revered director from 1905 to 1920. In the period between 1896 and 1905, however, in order to be financially secure, he once again had to take on additional posts that took up a great deal of his time and energy. Composing was somewhat neglected during these years.

Subsequently, however, his recognition grew both in pedagogical circles and among listeners. Fauré was a very open, tolerant teacher and tried to guide his composition students on their own paths. These students included Nadia Boulanger, Enescu, Ravel, Schmitt, Aubert, Kœchlin – in other words, the who’s who of the next generation. And as a composer he now also celebrated his first great successes abroad. In Geneva, as early as 1894, there had been an entire festival devoted solely to his works. And as director of the Conservatoire, he thoroughly cleaned up and renewed the curriculum, which of course did not only make him friends. But his goal was to let all students decide for themselves which music should serve as an example or incentive for them. And in Fauré’s opinion, Wagner or Strauss had to be included, which would have been unthinkable in France at that time.

So now he was at the head of the most prestigious educational institution in France, finally financially secure and socially recognized. In 1909 he was elected a member of the Institut de France and in 1920 even Grand Officier of the Legion of Honor.

He was now able to give up his additional posts. From 1903, his only sideline was writing regular reviews for the prestigious daily Le Figaro.

Also in 1903, something terrible for a musician happened: a progressive hearing loss was diagnosed, which was also accompanied by sound distortions in the upper and lower registers. In the years that followed, this would weigh heavily on him, not only as a composer but also as a performer and listener.

For the development of French music, the years before World War I were an extraordinarily important time. The young composers tried to break away from Wagnerism and form an independent Ars gallica. The founding of the above-mentioned Société Nationale de Musique was also very important for this. In 1909, the Société musicale indépendante split off and Fauré became its first president – another sign of his lifelong sympathy for contemporary music and its composers.

Fauré had long since come to the attention of major French publishers; both Durand and Heugel continue to publish his works to this day. And his stage music, e.g. Pelléas et Mélisande op. 80, which was written in only six weeks, and Prométhée op.82, enjoyed great success. His only opera, Pénélope, was premiered at the opening of the Theater an den Champs-Elysée and elicited an enthusiastic response.

The outbreak of war took the 69-year-old by surprise while he was taking a cure in Bad Ems. Returning to his home country then turned out to be quite difficult. Finally back in Paris, Fauré continued to compose unstoppably during the war years, although his eyesight had also deteriorated in the meantime. The last vocal cycles were written, as well as chamber music – his only string quartet – and piano works. Everything was received with great enthusiasm by the public. In his late compositions we feel nothing of his suffering. On the contrary, the works seem even fresher, more sonorous than some earlier ones.


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Gabriel Fauré can in good conscience be considered one of the pioneers of the new French music. He himself never attended the Conservatoire, but began his musical education as a boy at the École Niedermeyer. Perhaps this is one of the main reasons why he allowed himself to be influenced little or not at all by trends – his own musical language had already been formed very early on. Without even abandoning the traditional tonal language, he took it to its extreme limits. Like no other, he was able to reach distant harmonies through fast, light-footed modulations. Yet he always remained true to his quest for clear forms and classical elegance. His work is characterized by such great colorfulness, outrageously inventive melodicism and unique, enchanting simplicity that one can truly speak of a sound that is thoroughly his own. Debussy, by the way, called Fauré “the master of gracefulness.”

He died in 1924, almost deaf, at the age of 79.

We flutists have an astonishing amount of Fauré in our program, although he actually composed only two works for the instrumentation flute and piano.

The Fantasia op.79 was written in 1898 for the Concours of the Paris Conservatoire and has been played enthusiastically ever since. The beautiful, elegiac introduction is followed by a fast movement full of shimmering, songful, elegiac, exuberant and exuberant melodic cascades.  And Fauré also wrote the Morceau de lecture, also in 1898 and as its name suggests, as an examination piece for the Conservatoire. A jewel of flute literature, it is, although the piano has a purely tonal-accompanying function, and served as a sight-reading piece in examinations. As such, it demanded from the examinee a rhythmic overview and good sound control in all registers of the Boehm flute, which had just become established at that time.

But we play even more! The Sicilienne is originally the 3rd movement from the orchestral suite Pelléas et Mélisande. Probably because the orchestral flute is already very soloistic in the original version, the composer made an arrangement for flute and piano, which is unfortunately lost. Thus, many flutists have subsequently created their own version.

The Berceuse op.16 is originally a work for violin and piano. This very early piece became one of Fauré’s most popular works and was very quickly released in arrangements with a wide variety of melody instruments. Similarly, the Nocturne from the 1890 orchestral suite Shylock and the Berceuse op.56 from the piano suite Dolly.

The most amazing journey has been made by the Pavane op.50, which we also love to play, often even with the alto flute. It was originally a piano work with optional choral accompaniment. Fauré himself then created different versions for large orchestra, one of which he added a choir to shortly afterwards. All versions were extraordinarily successful. In 1917, Léonide Massine choreographed a ballet version for the Ballets russes. In this case, too, Fauré wrote an arrangement for piano and flute after the great success of the piece – and it, too, has unfortunately been lost. However, one can refer to some versions made by his students. Fauré’s pavane inspired many composers to bring this old dance form back to life.

Incidentally, it was quite common to present one’s own works in several versions – be it in different instrumentation sizes or even for different melody instruments. The reason for this lay quite simply in the respective demands of the clients, the available space or the momentary availability of musicians. The desire of many amateur musicians to play well-known melodies on their instrument was also a reason. It remains to be remembered that music could only be experienced live, either as a player or as a listener. The canned music will only come into existence in a few years. Gabriel Fauré was one of the most played and popular composers in his time.

Claude Achille Debussy was probably also a kind of piano prodigy. For his cramped parental home, without any musical or other artistic imprint, offered no stimulation whatsoever. He was born in 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a small town in Île-de-France, where his parents ran a porcelain business, which, however, turned out not to be profitable. Therefore, a few years after Claude’s birth, they moved to Paris and his father became an accountant there. At home, the mother taught the children herself, and little Claude never went to school. An aunt allowed a few piano lessons and only by chance was contact made with Antoinette Mauté, who noticed his talent. By then Debussy was already 9 years old. Up to this point, the two biographies are really very similar. Within only two years he was ready – at least in his 1st major piano – for the entrance examination at the Paris Conservatoire. The rest is history…

13 years his music studies will last, 13 years in which he went through ups and downs. He met very different teachers, who were not always favorable to this boy and young man with natural musical talent, like a whirlwind. In many subjects Debussy, unlike his fellow students, had only rudimentary knowledge. He had to catch up on a lot of theory and in one or the other exam, e.g. also in harmony, he was initially doomed to fail. However, his talent for improvisation in piano accompaniment made him stand out, and so he was admitted to study composition in addition to majoring in piano. In the course of the next few years he would neglect this piano playing more and more and accordingly achieve poorer grades than was expected of him. His mind wanted to be occupied in a different way; good grades and passing exams were not particularly important to him. He wanted to compose.

In the summer months of the early 80’s Claude Debussy accompanied Nadežda von Meck on her travels through Europe. One of his teachers had arranged for him to do so, and so he was able to earn much-needed money. Debussy was a chamber music partner, piano teacher, composer and showcase guest all in one. From Mrs. von Meck’s surviving correspondence with Tchaikovsky, one can learn much about those months filled with art and music.

In 1884 Debussy won, surprisingly for himself, the Prix de Rome, at that time the highest award for a French composer. Actually, he would have preferred to stay in Paris, but in the end he drew a satisfactory conclusion from the “Roman” period. When he returned in 1887, he began a bohemian life, making do with small compositions and no steady employment. But he took in what was happening in the musical world around him.  Twice he traveled to Bayreuth to hear Wagner, and the World’s Fair of 1889 gave him the opportunity to learn about Russian and East Asian music. He read a lot and came across Maurice Maeterlinck, Mendès and Mallarmé.

This period also marked the beginning of his work as a music critic for La Revue blanche.


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In 1894, the world premiere of his work Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune finally took place. Only about 10 minutes long, this piece, inspired by a poem by Mallarmé, shows Debussy’s unique tonal language for the first time.

When Les Nocturnes was finally finished in 1900, almost 8 years of work on this orchestral work were behind him. Audiences and critics were enthusiastic, but it made him little money.

And in 1902 the opera Pelléas et Mélisande was performed, almost simultaneously with Fauré’s incidental music of the same name. Debussy had secured the text rights for an opera at the Théȃtre des Bouffes-Parisien immediately after the theatrical premiere of Maeterlink’s play in 1893. And it became the work that had given him the longest, most agonizing creative period. But this premiere finally made Debussy a successful, celebrated composer. An outward sign of this was his appointment as Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1903.

From 1903 to 1905, he worked on La Mer, the work that was to have a difficult time with contemporary audiences. Debussy’s constant development of his own tonality often overwhelmed listeners and musicians alike. Forms dissolved, sound constellations were reevaluated. Much that had been familiar and helpful to musicians and listeners as a guide through a work no longer took place. The wave later called “impressionistic” rolled on.

In the years that followed, he would frequently conduct his own works. Fortunately, this became a new source of income and also the occasion for many trips abroad. London, Turin, Rome, Vienna, Brussels and some Russian cities were on the program. He was also frequently heard again as a pianist and was surrounded by admirers here as well.

In 1909, Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets russes, approached Debussy and offered a collaboration. Unlike Stravinsky, however, for whom the Ballets russes became the springboard to an international career, Debussy had little interest. More casually, he pursued the project Masques et bergamasques, then created Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien in 1911 and Jeux in 1913. However, the Ballets russes also danced to music not composed directly for them. And in this context, the premiere of the ballet L’après-midi d’un faune with Debussy’s music in 1912 led to an unforgettable theatrical scandal that revolutionized the ballet world of the time.

If Debussy could not really warm to the world of ballet as such, his encounter with Stravinsky impressed him all the more. He knew his work well and they had an animated correspondence. A memorable performance of Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps for four hands by Stravinsky and Debussy took place at the home of the musicologist and critic Louis Laloy. If I had a free pass for time travel – I would cash it in for that.


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In 1909, unfortunately, the disease that would cost Debussy his life made itself felt for the first time. Not only the physical problem arose, but also the financial one, caused by high costs of medical treatments.

Unfortunately, it was also at this time that he had to pay a large sum in back alimony to his first wife Lilly. He had separated from her in 1901 after less than two years of marriage. And in the meantime Debussy had also become the father of a little daughter. In 1905 Emma Bardac gave birth to Chouchou, her pet name. Children’s Corner was created for her.

1915 was the year of the last major compositions. Illness allowed Debussy to take another brief breath. His plan was to compose six sonatas in different instrumentations. In addition to the three realized for cello and piano, for violin and piano, and for flute, viola, and harp, the following were planned: a sonata for oboe, horn, harpsichord, one for trumpet, clarinet, bassoon, piano, and one for 13 different instruments, including double bass, harp, piano, string trio, and winds. These were unusual instrumentations! His publisher and friend Durand had given him the idea when Debussy enthusiastically reported on Saint-Saën’s septet with trumpet after a concert.

And so, while the First World War raged, Debussy composed works full of beauty, serenity and power of sound. Especially the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp changed the situation in chamber music comprehensively. For this instrumentation, but also for the quintet flute, string trio, harp, countless composers composed incessantly in the following years.

After a long, serious illness, Debussy died in Paris in 1918. He was only 55 years old.

Claude Achille Debussy is considered the most important French composer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He broke with tradition, turned away from the late Romantic tonal language, favored modal or whole-tone scale models, set surfaces of harmonic sounds, and dispensed with familiar modulatory resolutions. He was published exclusively by his patron Durand and, although highly respected, was financially troubled throughout his life.

His style of composition and creation would probably not have been possible without the preparatory work of Fauré and others. And yet he was the real revolutionary, the one who created something new.


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For us flutists Debussy did not leave much, but that in three completely different areas – in chamber music, orchestral literature and for flute alone.

Syrinx was originally composed as incidental music for the play “Psyché” by G.Mourey. Although only 35 measures long, it occupies a central role in the flute literature. This is because no significant work has been composed for flute alone for almost 150 years, and it was the first solo piece for the then brand new cylindrical Boehm flute. However, these are of course not the main reasons for its high status in the solo literature. No, the way Debussy managed to capture the character of the instrument and the mood in nature is simply unique.

The Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp also represents an exceptional work in the entire flute literature, as already indicated above. Difficult to play for any of the three instruments, one feels as a player, although playing only in trio, almost as if carried by an orchestra.

The Chansons de Bilitis have a very convoluted genesis. First of all, they were published in 1897 for voice and piano with a dedication to André Gide. The texts were written by Pierre Louys. In the fall of 1900, Debussy revised and lengthened the work, adapting it with the expanded instrumentation of 2 flutes, 2 harps and celesta to the wishes of F. Samuel, who was at that time artistic director of the Theatre des Variétés in Paris. Debussy himself was not enthusiastic about this instrumentation and created a piano version, which he himself then greatly appreciated. However, it is the arrangement of this last version by Ernest Ansermet for large orchestra that is most often played. There is an arrangement for flute and piano by Karl Lenski, under the name Bilitis, which includes six of the original 12 tracks.

In Debussy’s orchestral works, such as Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune or La Mer, all the winds have plenty to do, but the flute is always given special prominence, often evoking the mood of the work and being treated to extraordinarily debauched cascades of sound. Debussy also cast the alto flute.

La fille aux cheveux de lin, Clair de Lune and many of Debussy’s other piano works are available in mostly beautiful arrangements for flute and piano. In this case, everyone must decide for themselves whether this is conducive to the music.


Adorjan, Andras (Hrsg.) u.a.: Lexikon der Flöte, Laaber 2009
Mgg online
Pešek, Ursula und Željko: Flötenmusik aus drei Jahrhunderten, Kassel 1990

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