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The Faure-Viardot Connection
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) began writing songs for voice and piano as a teenager, and he went on to establish a style of song writing that marked a significant departure from the songs of his predecessors, Schubert and Schumann. Now, we
think of Fauré not merely as the inventor of French song, or “mélodie,” but as its indisputed master. He wrote over 100 songs for voice and piano during his lifetime. His influence on the form, shape, and style of the genre was revolutionary, and is still felt keenly today.
While Fauré’s solutions to the musical questions of the mid-19th century were unique, it is impossible to separate his distinctive French compositional voice from his contemporary influences.
Fauré’s musical language was shaped by the private tutoring of his composition teacher, Camille Saint-Saëns. But Saint-Saëns was also careful to shepherd his young friend and pupil toward an ever wider musical circle. Fauré was introduced to the music of Chopin, Bizet, and Wagner, and spent time poring over scores, debating, and considering these influences. These composers were not all ‘French’, but were experimental, innovative, and popular. The widening of musical influences had a profound impact on Fauré’s developing sound.
Chief among the influential connections Saint-Saëns’ offered the young Fauré was his introduction to the pianist, singer, and composer Pauline Viardot (1821-1910). Herself one of the most famous musicians in France at the time, Viardot held two weekly salons at her home on the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris. Here, influential artists and public figures would gather to exchange ideas, debate world developments, and hear performances of the latest music. For the young Fauré, as both man and musician, it was to be an especially fateful introduction.
The Viardot Circle
Fauré became a regular visitor to the convivial Viardot gatherings, where he met many writers, painters, and musicians, and where he was able to premiere many of his pieces, including his songs for voice & piano. An excellent pianist as well as singer, Viardot could both play and sing Fauré’s songs, and often did so on evenings when she was also playing and singing songs of her own.
It was during these salons that Fauré fell deeply in love
with Viardot’s daughter, Marianne, and became an intimate member of the Viardot family. Unable to manage his intense feelings, he was forced to end their tempestuous engagement in 1877.
It was against this musically stimulating, intensely public, and emotionally devastating background that Fauré conceived the pieces that form one side of the repertoire on the French Song Project: his first published volume of songs.
How did Fauré’s music evolve at the Viardot salon? And what echoes, if any, of Viardot’s own song writing can be heard in the “unique” Fauré sound?
Echoes of Viardot
Fauré’s troubled relationship with Marianne no doubt influenced the sentiment in a number of the pieces in his first published volume of French melodies. But it was Pauline Viardot herself, and as composer rather than lost mother-in-law, who had the most lasting influence on the development of French song.
Throughout Fauré’s volume we hear the clear echoes of Viardot’s genius for dramatic sentiment, her expanded and expressive pianism, and her unique approach to the innovation of musical form.
An origin in singing
Born in Paris in 1821, Pauline Viardot was one of the most famous musicians in Europe by the time she met Fauré in the 1870s. A member of the well-known García family, she was sister to the celebrated soprano Maria Malibran, and daughter of Spanish baritone Manuel García (senior), for whom many of Rossini’s baritone roles were written. It was Viardot’s father who sailed the Atlantic to sing the title role in Don Giovanni at its New York première.
Viardot was also sister to Manuel García (younger), inventor of the larygoscope, and one of the leading vocal teachers of the 19th century. His pupils included Jenny Lind, Julius Stockhausen, and Henry Wood. His influential treatise on singing is still in use at conservatoires around the world.
A Complete Musician
But if these achievements might have seemed intimidating to a potential fiancé of Viardot’s daughter, it was Pauline herself who was arguably the family’s most exceptional member.
The plainer of the two sisters, she was trained initially as a pianist under Franz Liszt, but took to the stage at her mother’s suggestion after her sister’s sudden death in a riding accident.
A hugely successful dramatic mezzo-soprano, she created the roles of Fides in Meyerbeer’s Le prophete, the title role in Gounod’s Sapho, and gave the first performance of Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody. Her interpretations of Rossini so inspired the writer Turgenev that he followed her to Paris, installed himself in her apartments, and remained loyal to her until he died.
Upon retiring, Viardot became a singing teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, where she published her own treatise on singing and developed a reputation to rival that of her brother
An experimenter and promoter, she introduced Schubert’s music to French circles through her re-compositions of his Lieder. She also undertook clever cross-over projects, such as her re-casting, complete with sung texts, of Chopin’s complete Mazurkas in the form of domestic song.