Gabriel Fauré: Cantique de Jean Racine


Gabriel Fauré was born in 1845 in the south of France, and was the fifth son of six children. Out of his siblings, Gabriel was the only to pursue a career in music, as his four brothers went into journalism, and his sister became a public servant. In the last year of his life, Fauré recalled a chapel, which was attached to the school her attended:


“I grew up, a rather quiet well-behaved child, in an area of great beauty. The only thing I clearly remember is the harmonium in that little chapel. Every time I could get away I ran there, and I regaled myself. I played atrociously, no method at all, quite without technique, but I do remember that I was happy.”


After boarding to the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse (School of Classical and Religious Music) for a total of eleven years, Fauré received top quality tutelage from Louis Niedermeyer (who founded the school), Xavier Wackenthaler and Clément Loret. After Niedermeyer died in 1861, Camille Saint-Saëns took over the piano studies strand of the course, and began offering a contemporary view of classical music to Fauré. The two became close friends for life, until Saint-Saëns’ death some sixty years later. Whilst at school, Fauré won many prizes, including a premier prix in composition for none other than Cantique de Jean Racine. 

Throughout his whole life, Fauré was involved with music. Whether that was being choirmaster at the Église Saint-Sulpice, being a founding member of the Société Nationale de Musique, or being Head at Paris Conservatoire. When appointed Head at Paris Conservatoire, it secured him financially, however, this left him little to no time to keep composing, which was something he was becoming more well-known for. However, in these later years, Fauré’s hearing began to fade, but also distort. Lower notes, due to painful distortion, made many things seem out of tune. It was until 1924 that Fauré died, and it was due to pneumonia.

Fauré’s legacy can be seen from many different angles. From his ‘radical’ running of the conservatory (which means he was open to new music trends, however this was abolished after his death and the conservatory became resilient to new music saying that “modernism is the enemy”).


The Text

Cantique de Jean Racine is a composition for mixed choir and organ, and was composed in 1865. The work is also dedicated to César Franck. This work shows a very similar style to that of his Requiem, and today they are usually performed together. First performed on 4th August 1866, many arrangements of this work have been published (although the most sought after now is mixed choir and organ).

The text derives from Jean Racine, a leading French dramatist in the 17th Century. He often wrote spiritual poems for the theatre after his retirement. Verbe égal au Trés-Haut (Word, one with the Highest), was written in 1688:


Verbe, égal au Trés-Haut, notre unique espérance

Jour éternel de la terre et des cieux,

De la paisible nuit nous rompons le silence.

Divin Sauveur, jette sur nous les yeux.

Répands sur nous le feu de la grâce puissante

Que tout l’enfer fuie au son de ta voix.

Dissipe le sommeil d’une âme languissante

Qui la conduit á l’oubli de tes lois.

O Christ, sois favorable á ce peiple fidéle

Pour te bénir maintenant rassemblé.

Reçois les chants qu’il offre á ta gloire immortelle

Et de tes dons qu’il reourne comblé.


The Music

Although written technically in his ‘early period’, Cantique de Jean Racine offers both sides of the coin. From the long, luscious melodic lines, resonant of the late Romantic period, to the atonal nature (at times) and the complex harmonic progressions, which were resonant of the new music trends of the time.

Marked Andante, Cantique de Jean Racine is set in Db major. To emphasise the long melodic lines, Fauré often directs lines to be played ‘Legato’ or ‘sempre legato’ – adding richness to the music. There are many modulations during this work, however by the end, Fauré has modulated back to Db major and ended the work with a simple V-I cadence.

There are trends in these modulations, with them moving up in thirds. The step motion of the notes also highlight the consistent passing of phrases. Many have commented on this work, saying that one comes away with more than a melody in their heads, but a real sense of the depth of the work, and how the harmony changes and affects the text. Its accuracy in terms of being like a hymn is very close, and Fauré emphasises the yearning seen in the text, by corresponding the yearning, as it were, of the harmony.


Final Thoughts

Fauré’s use of harmony is extensive and impressive, and there’s no wonder as to why it won the Premier Prix Award. His use of traditional choral techniques such as staggered entries, singing in unison and not to emphasise text, and of course his use of word-painting, and portraying this text in the best light possible.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Gabriel Fauré: Pavane 


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