Fauré’s Requiem, a favorite of choruses everywhere, is unusual in that it omits the Dies irae, that terrifying centerpiece of the Requiem masses of Mozart, Berlioz, and Verdi.Rather, the imagery is of untroubled slumber: that Faure lingers again and again on the word “requiem,” Latin for rest, is no coincidence nor is the predominance of movements with serene texts (Sanctus, Pie Jesu, Agnus Dei, In Paradisum).About half the words come from less familiar passages in the Latin services for the dead, though in this and other respects, Faure’s Requiem is squarely in line with the traditions ofFrench funeral music. You should indeed endeavor to picture the Paris church of the Madeleine when you hear this work, for it was within that imposing though anachronistic edifice that Faure spent much of his career, where the work was first performed, and where it served as the music for Faure’s own funeral.
The composer’s view of death is conveyed in the prevailing homophonic textures and by the muted colours of the orchestration, which relies strongly on the sonorities of subdivided violas, cellos, bassoons, French horns, and the quieter ranks of the organ. The organ, supporting the structure, walks along in neo-Baroque fashion but for occasional eruptions of grander material. For the rest of the orchestra, it’s largely a matter of counting rests. The two trumpets are used, sparingly, merely to enrich the French horn textures; flutes and clarinets appear only in the Pie Jesu, with trombones and timpani in the Libera me alone. Moreover, though harp-like arpeggios abound in the accompaniment figurations, the harps are to be hard only in the Sanctus, Pie Jesu, and In Paradisum. (The explanation for this lopsided orchestration lies partly in the long genesis of the work over three distinct version, of which you need be concerned only with the third.)
Faure’s Requiem is, then, a soothing, almost passive composition. Note how often, for example, material is presented boy the tenor section in unison of striking naivete. The movements tend to be simple rounded structures. In the second, for instance, the solo baritone has, in the middle, a splendid Hostias intoned over pulsating strings, with on either side the imitative Domine Jesus Christe. The great movements are the Libera me -likewise for the baritone soloist, a stirring, noble march of reassurance in the face of reckoning -and just before it the Agnus Dei, a lullaby for tenors with a recollection of the opening Requiem toward the end.
The celestial movements (Santus, Pie Jesu with the single appearance of the soprano soloist, and In Paradisum) are a little syrupy, with the high violins, angelic sopranos, and harps all but inevitable in music of this sort. The French tend to think of paradise in pastel hues; there’s always a harp and an organ to be heard, and women and children. Either you like this kind of thing or you don’t; Faure manages it about as well as any.
There’s something private and quietly personal about Faure’s Requiem, perhaps the result of his having undertaken to compose it during the period when he lost both parents. Not all of us are heroes enough to merit the heroic Requiems of Berlioz or Verdi anyway: this tender work is a Requiem for everyman.