Foraging around Fauré

I’ve just been in Paris for two days with the team from Radio 3’s Composer of the Week series, recording five programmes about my best beloved Gabriel Fauré. Yesterday, happily, was his birthday – indeed, his 165th – and we toasted him in some very fine soupe à l’oignon, which is the best way to keep warm in temperatures that resembled November rather than mid May. I love Paris in the springtime, but this wasn’t it.

It’s ten years since my Fauré book came out (how time flies), but revisiting the sites in Paris associated with him to talk about his life and work for the airwaves was more than a trip down memory boulevard. After tracking down what used to be the Ecole Niedermeyer and, not far from there, Pauline Viardot’s house, passing Nadia Boulanger’s house en route – how excellent that there are plaques – we made for the old Paris Conservatoire in the rue Madrid, where the superb pianist Billy Eidi talked to us about Fauré’s songs and more in the aptly-named Salle Fauré. The Conservatoire National has of course moved to the Cité de la Musique, but the old building is now the chief city conservatoire (imagine that every suburb has its own Purcell School and every city a Yehudi Menuhin School…).

The Salle Fauré is one of the few spaces that remains as was, though it’s been done up, and beside it is a little space known as the salle du trac – literally, the Stage Fright Room. You can have a good old panic in there before you venture onto the platform to play your exam recital. Interesting to see that there is a door out into the garden, so you also have the option to run for your life.

By evening the weather had begun to resemble the depths of winter and we were so cold and damp that we headed to Le Coup-Choux, a restaurant close to the Sorbonne in a carvernous 13th-century building full of beams, in the hope that they might have lit some of their open fires (they hadn’t, but the food was great).

Yesterday morning we visited the Madeleine, where Fauré was choirmaster for many years and later chief organist. It’s one of the darkest, snottiest churches I’ve ever seen, ostentatious without a hint of spiritual atmosphere. One could almost imagine that he wrote the Requiem as an antidote. Here are presenter Donald MacLeod and producer Michael Surcombe recording the link on the way up the steps.

Donald & Michael at Madeleine

Next, to Passy Cemetery to find our subject’s grave, which took some doing: it’s sandwiched between two mini-mausoleums and he doesn’t get top billing since the tomb is shared with his in-laws, his wife and one of their sons plus daughter-in-law (see pic at top). The two faded white roses are a touching tribute, but I regretted not having brought him some fresh ones.

And finally, the best of all: the salon of the Princesse de Polignac, now the Fondation Polignac, in her palace on the Avenue George Mandel. The Princesse, born in America as Winaretta Singer – daughter of the sewing-machine mogul – was one of the most important patrons in the history of music and it was astonishing to sit in her wood-panelled atelier thinking of the cavalcade of great composers and performers who had played there the premieres of some of the great works of the 20th century. Fauré, Debussy, Chausson, Ravel, Poulenc and his colleagues of Les Six, Stravinsky and many more…

Here we were joined by none other than Jean-Michel Nectoux, the world’s leading authority on Monsieur Gabriel, who talked into the microphone about Proust, Winaretta, the songs, the style of performance that Fauré preferred and the history of the glorious space around us.

The series will be broadcast in July and there’ll be more pictures on the R3 site in due course.

The whole exercise was a wonderful ‘last fling’ for me, as I am being sliced tomorrow morning and will then be off for a couple of weeks at least. Back to blogging sooner, I hope, as it’s something one can do in bed. Meanwhile, here’s Veronique Gens singing one of my favourite Fauré songs, Clair de lune, with Roger Vignoles at the piano. It’s a setting of Verlaine’s ‘Ton ame est un paysage choisi…’ Enjoy. See you soon.

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