Tuesday, December 02, 2014

When Edward met Gabriel

I spent a very pleasant evening yesterday addressing the London branch of the Elgar Society - a remarkable collection of knowledgeable enthusiasts who meet regularly in Harley Street for lectures and studies of their chosen composer. Membership is highly recommended! People from all walks of life, many with fascinating backgrounds, are drawn together by their love of the great man's music, and I was invited to come along and give the Christmas talk as "something a little different". I went down memory lane a little way, exploring Elgar's impact on my life for, sort of, ever.

One matter we revisited was that of "Windflower" and the Violin Concerto; and it was also a fine opportunity to draw attention to the closer-than-expected links between Elgar and Fauré. Interesting to think that had the publisher's series elected to count Elgar as a 20th-century composer, I might have ended up writing about him instead of, or as well as, his fabulous French colleague, who lived through a decade less of the century. Here is a brief taster from last night.


Fauré and Elgar had the same British patron, the banker Leo Frank Schuster, who was responsible for Fauré having a strong reputation in certain educated circles of Britain, rather to the composer’s own astonishment - though nevertheless not to the full extent that he deserved, as Elgar recognised. On one occasion in 1908 Fauré came to England to hear the rehearsal for the London premiere of Elgar’s First Symphony and Schuster held a dinner party for both composers together, which must have been a fine moustache-fest. 

They had much in common besides those moustaches, silver hair and dark eyes: an elegant sensibility, an unfailing instinct for songful melody, an intimacy of expression and a very rich, flexible harmonic language, which Fauré took considerably further; and each enjoyed an unexpected "Indian summer" of composition in which they produced some of their finest works. They also both had a great fondness for younger women, but thereby hangs many other tales: notably a Vera for Elgar and a Marguerite for Fauré...
Elgar held Fauré in very considerable esteem. After the French composer died, Elgar wrote to Schuster: “He was such a real gentleman – the highest type of Frenchman and I admire him greatly. His chamber music never had a chance here…I feel that it was held up, to our loss. As far as I resent anything – which is not far – I resent such neglect.” There’s no record, unfortunately, of what Fauré had thought of Elgar. But there are passages of Faure in which one can detect a real convergence of style.
I think that what the two shared in musical terms was actually the influence of Schumann. If you take this slow movement from Fauré’s Piano Quintet No.1, written in 1905, you can detect very Schumannesque qualities in the off-beat rhythms and the kind of textures and polyphonies he employs; it’s as if he’s passed Schumann through a prism and turned him inside out.
Or the beginning of the Piano Quintet No.2, written in 1921 during his "Indian summer", features the kind of long-breathed melodies with plunging sighs that we find so often in Elgar but that can be traced straight back to Schumann. First, think of the slow movement of Schumann's Symphony No.2.

Then try the Fauré quintet...
Now, here’s the beginning of Elgar’s string quartet, written just three years earlier in 1918 – a very different piece, but it is nevertheless fascinating to hear the two composers back to back, which doesn’t happen very often. You can detect some of the same kinds of gestures and the underlying harmonic instability that both are evoking, as if the ground under their feet is no longer so solid.


If you want to explore the other artistic relationship here in more depth - that between the music of Schumann and Fauré - do try to come to the Aspect Foundation's concert at the 20th Century Theatre, 291 Westbourne Grove, London W11 2QA,  on Thursday. This intriguing organisation - which puts on lecture-recitals with knobs on, featuring top-quality artists - has an evening devoted to the idea of 'Schumann and Fauré: Kindred Spirits', starring our violinist colleague Philippe Graffin, pianist Alasdair Beatson, violist David Adams and cellist David Waterman. More info & booking here.