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At-A-Glance

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About this Piece

When Gabriel Fauré sat down to write what he at first called his Petit Requiem in 1887, he could not have helped but think of settings by three of the nineteenth century’s most illustrious composers: Hector Berlioz (1837), Giuseppe Verdi (1874), and Johannes Brahms (1868). Two of these – by Berlioz and Verdi – are on an enormous scale and pack overwhelming dramatic punch. The kinder, gentler Deutsches Requiem by Brahms, composed following the death of his mother, is an outlier, avoiding altogether the Latin liturgical texts with its images of hell and eternal damnation and focusing more on the notions of release from suffering and eternal life.

Fauré’s approach is something of a hybrid, freely excerpting texts from the Requiem Mass and other liturgies according to his own aesthetic. In a 1902 interview, Fauré, who spent his career as an organist, said his goal was “to stray from the established path after all those years accompanying funerals! I’d had them up to here. I wanted to do something different.”

First performed in Paris’s Madeleine Church at the 1888 funeral of architect Joseph Lesoufaché, Fauré’s Petit Requiem initially used only the tender closing section, Pie Jesu, from the predominantly “fire and brimstone” Sequence (Dies irae, dies illa…) which evokes the “day of wrath, day of doom,” the “righteous Judge of vengeance” and “all of nature quaking” at the blast of the trumpet.

“Everything I managed to entertain by way of religious illusion I put into my Requiem, which moreover is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest,” Faure said, shortly after completing the first of several versions he would write over a fifteen-year period.

Fauré’s original version, from 1888, was scored for a choir of about 40, accompanied by a small orchestra of solo violin, divided violas, divided cellos and basses, harp, timpani and organ. The use of lower strings with no brass was clearly intended to emphasize the gentle, comforting nature of the piece. When Fauré got around to preparing the score for publication in 1893, he made several revisions, adding portions from the liturgical Offertoire and the Libera me, which had begun life several years earlier as a separate work for baritone solo. He also added parts for two bassoons, four horns and two trumpets.

In the late 1890s Fauré’s publisher convinced the composer to expand the orchestration further to include full symphony orchestra. Although it seems to have rubbed against the grain, Fauré agreed and issued a third version, published in 1901, that was popular for much of the 20th century. However, in the 1970s and 1980s several Fauré scholars along with the English composer/conductor John Rutter worked to reconstruct Fauré’s original 1893 orchestration. This version is considered by many to be closest to Fauré’s original intent, although Fauré himself never renounced the larger version for full orchestra, stating that it was appropriate for certain “concert” situations.