Fauré, Piano Trio in d minor, Op. 120

November 2, 2008

Gabriel Fauré, 1845-1924

Piano Trio in d minor, Op. 120, 1923

Gabriel FauréA central figure in 19th and 20th century French music, Gabriel Fauré's life spanned an astonishing timeline of musical history particularly emphasizing the innovations of his countrymen. Berlioz was still alive in Fauré's youth. He was friends with Saint-Saëns, Chabrier and d'Indy. As an influential academic reformer and professor of composition, Fauré would number Maurice Ravel, Florent Schmitt and Nadia Boulanger among his students. Outliving Debussy by several years, he completed his final works in the mid-1920's thereby bridging the rise of Romanticism and the full flowering of Modernism and, arguably, through Boulanger, influencing a whole generation of young American composers studying abroad. His musical style lay somewhere in between this imponderable range. The most advanced French composer before Debussy, Fauré would eventually be regarded as "conservative", within the tradition of tonal music albeit vastly expanded and ingeniously reconfigured in that particularly French way by the turn of the century. Fauré has consistently been highly regarded as a composer particularly for his Requiem, his catalog of unsurpassable French art songs, and his substantial chamber music. Fauré composed chamber music throughout his life where an affinity for intimate ensemble remained central to his aesthetic. His works include the magnificent piano quartets and quintets and a number of excellent duo sonatas. Fauré's final years yielded the single Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 120 and the very last composition, his only string quartet, both unquestionable master works in a late style of considerable formal freedom, graceful lyricism and an unmistakable, personal language.

The first movement follows the contours of a sonata form with rich and constant variation eluding such simple ideas as development and recapitulation. Like a flowing river in which one can never step twice, ideas recur but always in fresh treatments. The notion of water is more than mere metaphor: the music begins with a gently rippled piano figuration and a long, swaying melody from the cello that immediately evokes the Venetian gondolier's barcarolle that Fauré frequently used. A signature of Fauré's musical technique, the melodies build seamlessly from small rhythmic motifs that form chains, sequences and long lines as well as producing a mosaic of tiny fragments echoed throughout the ensemble in fluid imitation, the overlapping counterpoint of rich dialog. While the strings predominate the first theme, the piano calmly introduces the second. In what might be formally regarded as a repeat of the exposition, the instrumentation is reversed infusing each of these themes with a whole new sense of color. The long, practically unbroken line of development throughout gives a wonderful taste of Fauré's progressive harmonies as the imitative dialog of simple melodic fragments becomes more and more far-reaching through supple adjustments to the basic intervals and a constant process of searching modulation. Comparing the opening with analogous musical rhymes toward the end, one sees just how far the music has evolved though a process of steady permutation. Fauré's gift for melody is evident throughout the trio but especially charming in the gentle repose of the central Andantino. A particularly French character pervades this tender, singing duet for violin and cello with piano eavesdropper, an indescribable mood one might attempt to describe as wistful nostalgia or sad joy. But the mood intensifies as the music gives way to a darker hued introspection that stretches into the longest movement of the trio. It is here that Fauré deploys an unusual texture at length: the violin and cello in octave doublings for a single, thick line of melody to a piano accompaniment like an art song. Once habituated to this somewhat spare and haunting sound, the ear is especially prepared for the eventual departure of the unison lines into divergent counterpoint, a graceful and precious flowering. The gentle song momentarily returns followed by a second episode further deepened by greater contrapuntal contrast between the strings and a conclusion of great repose. Here again is the distinctive slow process of meditative transformation of minimal material found in the first movement and throughout much of Fauré's music. At times, the subtlety borders on austerity.

The finale is a marvel of color, energy and contrast. It begins with the same peculiar octave doublings of the strings found throughout the trio (and also, curiously, in the chamber music of Debussy and especially Ravel) in a slow articulated melody that seems like an overflow from the previous movement. This is immediately interrupted by a dazzling flourish from the piano announcing the energetic rhythm that, despite attempts to foil it, will animate this Allegro vivo. Fauré seems to interleave and ultimately superimpose two different conceptions of time in this movement, each with its own recurring theme. The strings throttle the momentum with a dramatic declamation in slow motion while the piano races forward with an almost frantic drive. The dazzling finesse cannot fail to recall Ravel's single piano trio of a decade earlier. Despite the spirited playfulness and the luminous, exotic modalities throughout the trio, the predominating key of d minor lends the music a certain dark cast. One of his very last works, the trio was written in 1924 when Fauré was 78 and most likely completely deaf.

© Kai Christiansen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.