For much of his life, Gabriel Fauré enjoyed a workmanlike career as a church organist, choirmaster, and private music teacher, composing mostly on the side and during summer breaks. In 1871 he helped found the Société Nationale de Musique, which offered a forum for French composers to share their new works, often in a salon setting. Compared to his older Société colleagues such as Saint-Saëns and Franck, Fauré was seen as working at the cutting edge of modern music, and his work appealed mostly to a select circle of artists and aesthetes. In 1877 he was appointed choirmaster at Paris’s Madeleine Church, and became chief organist there in 1896. In 1905 he became director of the Paris Conservatory—the very pinnacle of the French musical establishment—and his late compositions were widely performed and warmly esteemed. His expressively intuitive and decidedly non-academic voice influenced the next generation of French composers, including Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, whom he encouraged from his perch at the Conservatory.
Fauré’s first piano quartet, however, comes from the time before he was much of a public figure. It was written between 1876–79 and premiered the following year at the Société Nationale, with a new finale added in an 1883 revision (the original finale was lost or destroyed). Today’s audience might wonder what made this lyrical, dreamy music sound so different and new at the time. It might also be something of a breakup song, as the piece was written during Fauré’s engagement to—and then sudden un-engagement from—Marianne Viardot (the daughter of Pauline Viardot, a composer, mezzo-soprano, and salon host in Fauré’s circle). The mournful Adagio might be a reflection on their brief relationship.
All four movements are inventively scored, with the strings often working together on top of a constant piano tapestry. The clever Scherzo begins with pizzicato strings, a technique that became something of a second-movement tradition in the chamber music of Debussy and Ravel. The restless finale, Allegro molto, amalgamates opposites: angles and curves, liquids and solids, dark and light.