Fauré wasn’t a composer I’d heard much about before I discovered “Agnus Dei” (lamb of God) from his Requiem. I was impressed by the stately procession of mini-movements within the piece; the unexpected transitions in mood and the way the melody twists through major and minor crescendos, making the choir of singers appear to be on a perilous journey with a major key resolution just out of reach. The more famous movements are the “In Paridisum” and “Pie Jesu,” but the “Agnus Dei” is the one that harnesses the ‘menace’ of choirs to interesting effect. In a religious setting, choirs have a reputation for conveying two things: the piousness of the blessed and the collective terror of the damned; one way or another, the choir can be an overbearing influence. Fauré left out some of the harsher elements of the requiem mass – including the “Dies Irae” (wrath of God) sequence. In fact his requiem was often said to resemble more of a ‘lullaby’ than a funeral mass. His lifelong professional relationship with the church is one of the most interesting contexts of the piece. He was an organist who played only for money and was fired for turning up to work hungover in party clothes. It seems that his faith – if he had any - was uncommitted and secular. He even dedicated a “Salve Regina” to his mistress.
The more I found out about Fauré, the more I realized what a pervasive influence he was on the last musical movements before modernism. His French songs were hits that became legends – so much so that Proust weaves a song inspired by Fauré throughout his character’s whole life.
Even when I didn’t know anything about the piece’s context, the “Agnus Dei” surprised me for being romantic church music that was actually likeable. It seemed that the power of voices was harnessed in a spirit of discovery as much as a religious narrative sense. Fauré’s admission that he wrote the traditionally serious requiem initially for ‘fun’ was considered eccentric, but it’s not so odd if we recall that he had been through this rehearsal many times at work and wanted to try a new approach. Fauré apparently found the organ tedious, and was known for his unusual approach to harmony. Listening to the Requiem is not like listening to a serious farewell; it’s more like a colorful painting of harmonic/melodic possibilities. I’m no classical music scholar, but from the first time I heard “Agnus Dei” I sensed that I was hearing something traditional in a way I’d never heard it before.