Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Gabriel Fauré: Piano Quartet No. 1

Gabriel Fauré in 1864
Fauré (1845-1924) in 1864, as a student at the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse

Every one of us is, to some extent, the product and the victim of our education. The product, obviously, because we are all shaped by what we were taught, and (presumably) we use some of what we were taught to help us navigate our lives. Perhaps less obviously, we are also the victims of our education because it’s almost impossible for any teacher to impart any information without somehow coloring it/skewing it with his/her own opinions, prejudices and worldviews. It seems to me that in most cases this is inadvertent, though in some cases it is quite overt.

An example of the latter. In the spring of 1973, I took a course in symbolic logic in order to fulfill my university’s math requirement (despite the fact that the course was offered by the philosophy department!). Nothing should have been more Gobi-dry and devoid of opportunity for imparting personal opinion than symbolic logic. But my professor – whose name, sadly, I’ve long forgotten – hated then-President Richard Nixon so passionately that every example of negation was linked, somehow, to Tricky Dick’s personality and/or actions. It was all very entertaining and memorable, though I do believe I learned more that semester about Richard Nixon than I did about symbolic logic. 

Another, more far-reaching and frankly destructive example of using the bully-pulpit of the classroom to impart prejudice can be found in many of America’s college/university-level departments of music. These departments of music – which came into being during the late nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth centuries – were founded by German musicians or American musicians who had trained in Germany. There was, and there remains, an innate preference in such departments for music by German-speaking composers. Conversely, in my experience, there was (and might very well remain) an aversion to (most) French music that might very well be called pathological. The only French composer deemed worthy of discussion in my academic experience was Claude Debussy, though he was most certainly not deemed “worthy” by all of my teachers. 

But truly, the greatest academic contempt was reserved for the late-nineteenth-century French composers who made up the membership of the Société Nationale de Musique. 

The Société Nationale de Musique was founded on February 25, 1871. Its founding was a direct response to the just-concluded Franco-Prussian War, which saw the newly united states of “Germany” under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck utterly annihilate the French military under the command of Emperor Napoleon III. The avowed mission of the Société Nationale de Musique was to end the pervasive influence of German music on French music and, in turn, to cultivate a distinctly “French” musical tradition. In the words of the French musicologist and Fauré biographer Léon Vallas:

“They [the members of the Société] were determined to unite in their efforts to spread the gospel of French music and to make known the works of living French composers. According to their statutes, their intention was to act ‘in brotherly unity [with one another], with an absolute forgetfulness of self.’”

Well, of course the Germanophiles teaching in the American academy disparaged the music of the members of the Société, as those French composers were dedicated – in some cases radically so – to rejecting Germanic approaches to musical form, motivic development, and expressive content in favor of a music that took its inspiration from the suppleness and nuance of the French language. The French composers who belonged to the Société included Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), Henri Duparc (1848-1933), the Belgian-born César Franck (1822-1890), Jules Massenet (1848-1912), Ernest Chausson (1855-1899), Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931), and later, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). 

For his part, Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) was a founding member of the Société Nationale de Musique. ……… continue reading about Fauré, and learn about the prescribed work and recording, only on Patreon!

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