String Quartet (Fauré)

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Faure in 1922 Gabriel Faure, 1922.jpg
Fauré in 1922

The String Quartet in E minor, Op. 121, is the only string quartet by Gabriel Fauré. Completed in 1924 shortly before his death at the age of 79, it is his last composition. His pupil Maurice Ravel had dedicated his String Quartet to Fauré in 1903, and he and others urged Fauré to compose one of his own; he declined, on the grounds that it was too difficult. When he finally decided to write it, he did so in trepidation.

E minor tonality

E minor is a minor scale based on E, consisting of the pitches E, F, G, A, B, C, and D. Its key signature has one sharp. Its relative major is G major and its parallel major is E major.

In musical composition, the opus number is the "work number" that is assigned to a composition, or to a set of compositions, to indicate the chronological order of the composer's production. Opus numbers are used to distinguish among compositions with similar titles; the word is abbreviated as "Op." for a single work, or "Opp." when referring to more than one work.

String quartet Musical ensemble of four string players

A string quartet refers to (a) a musical ensemble consisting of four string players – two violin players, a viola player and a cellist – or (b) a piece written to be performed by such a group. The string quartet is one of the most prominent chamber ensembles in classical music, with most major composers, from the mid 18th century onwards, writing string quartets.


The quartet is in three movements, the last movement combining the functions of scherzo and finale. The work has been described as an intimate meditation on the last things, [1] and "an extraordinary work by any standards, ethereal and other-worldly with themes that seem constantly to be drawn skywards." [2]

A scherzo, in western classical music, is a short composition – sometimes a movement from a larger work such as a symphony or a sonata. The precise definition has varied over the years, but scherzo often refers to a movement that replaces the minuet as the third movement in a four-movement work, such as a symphony, sonata, or string quartet. The term can also refer to a fast-moving humorous composition that may or may not be part of a larger work.


When Fauré was director of the Paris Conservatoire (from 1905 to 1920) he customarily left Paris for several weeks at the end of the academic year to compose in peace in quiet resorts. After his retirement he continued to retreat from Paris for bouts of sustained composition. The quartet was composed at Annecy-le-Vieux, and in Paris and Divonne-les-Bains between September 1923 and September 1924. [3]

Annecy-le-Vieux Part of Annecy in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, France

Annecy-le-Vieux is a former commune in the Haute-Savoie department in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region in southeastern France. On 1 January 2017, it was merged into the commune Annecy.

Divonne-les-Bains Commune in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, France

Divonne-les-Bains is a commune in the department of Ain in eastern France.

Throughout his career Fauré had composed for chamber forces. His works by 1923 included two piano quartets, two piano quintets, a piano trio, two violin sonatas, two cello sonatas and numerous smaller-scale chamber pieces. [4] He had, however, always declined to attempt a string quartet. His pupil Maurice Ravel had dedicated his 1903 String Quartet to Fauré, and he and others urged Fauré to compose one of his own; Fauré refused, calling the task too difficult for him. [5] On 9 September 1923 he wrote from Annecy to his wife, who remained in Paris, "I've started a Quartet for strings, without piano. This is a genre which Beethoven in particular made famous, and causes all those who are not Beethoven to be terrified of it." [6] He worked on the piece, on and off for a year, finishing it on 11 September 1924, working long hours towards the end to complete it. [7]

Maurice Ravel French composer

Joseph Maurice Ravel was a French composer, pianist and conductor. He is often associated with impressionism along with his elder contemporary Claude Debussy, although both composers rejected the term. In the 1920s and 1930s Ravel was internationally regarded as France's greatest living composer.

Maurice Ravel completed his String Quartet in F major in early April 1903 at the age of 28. It was premiered in Paris in March the following year. The work follows a four-movement classical structure: the opening movement, in sonata form, presents two themes that occur again later in the work; a playful scherzo second movement is followed by a lyrical slow movement. The finale reintroduces themes from the earlier movements and ends the work vigorously.

The first movement of the quartet to be completed was the central andante, [8] which he wrote at Annecy between 9 and 13 September 1923. [9] The music critic Roger Nichols comments that the sober, meditative tone of the andante is reflected in the two other movements that Fauré wrote later. [10] After returning to Paris, Fauré began work on the first movement, for which he reused two themes from an unfinished violin concerto that he had begun and abandoned in 1878. [11] He resumed work on the piece in the summer of the following year, first at Divonne-les-Bains and finally at Annecy, where he had begun work on it a year earlier. [3] When the three movements were finished, he contemplated adding a separate scherzo, but decided against it, telling his wife, "The quartet is completed, unless I decide to have a little fourth movement which might have a place between the first and the second. But since it is in no way a necessity I shall not tire myself by searching for it, at least not at the moment." [12]

The quartet was premiered after Fauré's death; [13] he declined an offer to have it performed privately for him in his last days, as his hearing had deteriorated to the point where musical sounds were horribly distorted in his ear. [14]


1. Allegro moderato

The first movement, in 2/2 time, is in sonata form. [7] The opening theme, played by the viola, is answered by the first violin. The normal sonata pattern follows, with the viola's original theme omitted from the recapitulation.

2. Andante

The second movement, in 4/4 time, is in no discernible traditional form. [10] The opening theme is reprised half-way through the movement, but otherwise the andante winds a contemplative course through meandering scales and occasional octave jumps. [10] The dynamics constantly change, with crescendos or diminuendos in the majority of bars. [10] The Fauré scholar Jean-Michel Nectoux said of the movement, "The Andante is one of the finest pieces of string quartet writing. From start to finish it bathes in a supernatural light. There is nothing that is not beautiful in this movement with its subtle variations of light-play, a sort of white upon white. ... The sublime music sinks out of sight, where it carries on, rather than seeming to come to an end". [15]

3. Allegro

Like the opening movement, the finale is in sonata form, and like the andante it is in 4/4 time. [7] It combines the function of scherzo as well as finale. The cello introduces and develops the scherzo theme over a pizzicato accompaniment. The central development section, unusually long in relation to the rest of the movement, combines the themes heard at the beginning of the movement. The work ends in a jubilant E major conclusion. [10]


In performance, string quartets have varied widely in their tempi for the work. Of recordings in the CD catalogues in 2011, an example of a swift performance is that by the Amati Quartet, a 1993 performance on the Divox label, which plays for a total of 22 minutes and 18 seconds. Among the slower versions is that by the Medici Quartet (Nimbus, 1989) which is nearly seven minutes longer, at 29:10. [n 1]

Notes and references

  1. Comparative timings of selected recordings:
    • Ad Libitum Quartet (Naxos, 2000): 6:09; 9:39; and 9:19 (total 25:07)
    • Amati Quartet (Divox, 1993): 5:56; 8:33; and 7:49 (total 22:18)
    • Dante Quartet (Hyperion, 2008): 6:03; 8:34; and 8:19 (total 22:55)
    • Medici Quartet (Nimbus, 1989): 7:30; 12:03; and 9:37 (29:10)
    • Quatuor Ebene (Virgin, 2008): 6:32; 10:06; and 7:46 (24:24)
    • Ysaÿe Quartet (Wigmore Hall Live, 2006): 6:19; 10:42; and 8:34 (25:35)
  1. Nichols, Roger. "Fauré and Ravel", Archived 2011-02-24 at the Wayback Machine Gramophone , August 2000, p. 69
  2. Cowan, Rob. "Debussy, Fauré, Ravel", Gramophone, December 2008, p. 97
  3. 1 2 Jones, pp. 202–205
  4. Jones, pp. 32, 60, 112, 190, 200, 32, 164, 164 and 191
  5. Nectoux, p. 86
  6. Jones, p.202
  7. 1 2 3 Perreau, p. 3
  8. Nectoux, p. 466
  9. Jones, pp. 202–203
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 Nichols, p. 4
  11. Nectoux, p. 253
  12. Jones, p. 205
  13. Jones, p. 192
  14. Nectoux, p. 292
  15. Nectoux, quoted by Stéphan Perreau


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