Gabriel Fauré: Dolly Suite
Gabriel Fauré’s set of piano duets, also known as the Dolly Suite, were composed between 1893-96. Each duet marks the birthdays, anniversaries and other occasions in the life of the daughter of Fauré’s mistress, Emma Bardac. The daughter, Régina-Hélène Bardac, was known as Dolly to her family. Fauré had a long time affair with Emma Bardac, and this suite was a small gesture to her and her family.
Fauré often went back and tinkered with this suit, and in 1906 Henri Rabaud created an orchestra version of the suite. However, Fauré’s original piano duets stayed more popular and have received a number of recordings and performances. The suite is in six short movements, with Fauré giving them descriptive and rather whimsical names. The first public performance of the Dolly Suite was given by Alfred Cortot and Édouard Risler in 1898. Fauré was known to often play these duets both on the concert stage and at home with the family.
Movement I – Berceuse
The opening movement of the suite, Berceuse, is the most famous of the six. The piece was used as the closing theme to the BBC radio programme Listen with Mother. This movement marks Dolly’s first birthday. This movement was actually written a long time before the suite back in 1864. Originally composed for Suzanne Garnier, Fauré went back to this piece, made some amendments and renamed it from La Chanson dans le jardin to Berceuse. This gentle cradle song presents a sparkling lullaby theme that is softly developed by both pianists.
Movement II – Mi-a-ou
Composed for Dolly’s second birthday in June 1894, Mi-a-ou is often mistaken for representing a cat. In actual fact the title refers to Dolly’s attempts at pronouncing her brother Raoul’s name. Dolly would call her brother ‘Messieu Aoul’, and from here Fauré found this quirky title. This quick ditty is high in energy and the peppy melody is shared across the piano, covering a wide range on the instrument.
Movement III – Le jardin de Dolly
The slow third movement was composed as a gift for New Year’s Day 1895. The gentle rolling melodies and the ever-moving harmonies create a colourful palette in this movement. Here, Fauré plays with counterpoint between the pianists, which interlocks the melodies and creates a rich soundscape.
Movement IV – Kitty Valse
Just as the second movement was not a reference to cats, neither is the fourth movement. The Bardac family dog was called Ketty, with the original working title being Ketty-Valse. The waltz atmosphere in this movement is accentuated by a strong oom-pah bass line. The quick scalic runs add to the colour and excitement of the movement. This movement has been described as “a kind of whirling portrait of Ketty the dog.”
Movement V – Tendresse
Composed in 1896, Tendresse is another elegiac movement that shows Fauré’s gentle melodic style. Dedicated to Adela Maddison, a musician and friend of the family, this slow movement shows off Fauré’s colourful and creative use of chromaticism. This movement was later used in his set of Nocturnes.
Movement VI – Le pas espagnol
The final movement, a lively Spanish dance, is the most exciting of the suite. The fast-moving passages between the hands offer an authentic Spanish scene for the listener. The movement comes to a rousing finish after the hands unite to play in unison on an ascending scale before the final two bold chords.
Through the six very different movements of Gabriel Fauré’s Dolly Suite, the composer takes you on a rather personal journey through love, family, travelling and dancing.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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