The complex harmonies of a classical triad

The lives of Fauré, Saint-Saëns andRavel were heavily intertwined and interdependent. Jessica Duchen reveals how the three composers were key to each other's success

It's a musical chain-reaction: three composers whose lives, fates and music depended on one another to an extraordinary degree. Not immediately obvious, perhaps, when you hear works as different as Camille Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals, Gabriel Fauré's Requiem and Maurice Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé. But without Saint-Saëns's encouragement, Fauré might never have composed a note; nor might he have won the post in which he taught Ravel, who in turn never failed to credit the vital nature of his influence and support.

Saint-Saëns, Fauré and Ravel's interlinked histories are about to be celebrated in style at London's Wigmore Hall, where the cellist Steven Isserlis is assembling a dazzling team to present three concerts featuring the chamber music of these French geniuses.

It all began in 1854 when the nine-year-old Gabriel Fauré arrived in Paris after a three-day coach journey from his home in the south. He was being sent to boarding school at the Ecole Niedermeyer, an establishment that trained musicians for the church. Although little Gabriel was shy, quiet and scared, his southern good looks and charm quickly made him popular, despite his melancholy streak.

In 1861 Saint-Saëns arrived at the school to be its new piano professor. He was a former child prodigy; by the age of ten he had been able to play from memory any one of the 32 Beethoven sonatas. Mercurial and hyper-intelligent, if sometimes cantankerous, he had superb connections, his precocious childhood success having brought him into contact with all the luminaries of Parisian musical life and beyond. He took great delight in introducing them to key figures like Wagner and Liszt, though such dangerous new music was, technically, banned from the school. And he exhorted them to begin composing pieces of their own.

That was why, sitting in the school canteen, Fauré ventured to pen his first song: a setting of Victor Hugo entitled "Le papillon et la fleur". Saint-Saëns, amused by its allegorical story, drew a cartoon of a smug insect and weeping bloom on Fauré's manuscript.

Saint-Saëns was only ten years older than Fauré; they became fast friends and would remain so all their lives. Sometimes Saint-Saëns would take Fauré home with him to the top-floor apartment he shared with his mother and great-aunt. One of his prize possessions was a telescope; the two young composers would go up to the roof and watch the stars through it.

These formative years set a pattern that persisted through all Fauré's professional life: he had Saint-Saëns to thanks for virtually every job he ever won, including the composition professorship at the Paris Conservatoire that brought him so many gifted pupils, Ravel included.

Saint-Saëns's music, too, was among Fauré's vital influences: in the latter's early works, the focused melodies, sweeping élan and imaginative textures are often just a step away from the older composer's style. And Saint-Saëns was not above borrowing from his pupil. Once, when the teenage Fauré left unfinished a setting of the "Tantum Ergo", Fauré's draft became nothing less than the main theme in the first movement of Saint-Saëns's Second Piano Concerto.

When Fauré, after Saint-Saëns's machinations, began to teach at the Paris Conservatoire, he did so often by example. One of Ravel's fellow students, René Kerdyk, recalled: "Fauré used to arrive at the class three quarters of an hour late... His state of reverie was, curiously enough, respected by his pupils, but eventually he would emerge from it and say, in his veiled tone of voice... 'Ravel, play us your Jeux d'eau'... With the final note hanging in the atmosphere like a star, Fauré was uninhibited in his enthusiasm for his young pupil. A few moments went by... The lesson was over. And Enescu, recalling those lightning sessions, added firmly: 'Those were the days when we really made some progress.'"

Despite his absent-minded aspect, Fauré had the rare pedagogic ability to draw out his students' individual "voices". His pupils were composers as different as George Enescu, Florent Schmitt and Nadia Boulanger; each developed a personal, distinctive language – none more so than Ravel. And it was Ravel who accidentally propelled Fauré up from his professorship to the post of the Conservatoire's director. First he was expelled from the Conservatoire for failing to write an acceptable fugue. Then he tried three times, and failed, to win the Prix de Rome, France's most sought-after award. By his third attempt in 1905, Ravel was widely recognised as an important new composer, and, his rejection caused a scandal, during which high-level corruption on the competition jury came to light. Resignations followed, including that of the head of the Paris Conservatoire. As one of the few figures to emerge from the brouhaha looking whiter than white, Fauré – Ravel's mentor, supported by Saint-Saëns's advocacy – was elevated. There he revolutionised the teaching of music, dragging that desperately conservative institution into the 20th century.

Ravel learned vital qualities from Fauré's music: among them balance, control, concision and a sinewy, pure-sounding variety of sensuality. And there is a direct line from Saint-Saëns's scribbled sardonic butterfly adorning Fauré's first song down to the tongue-in-cheek blues in Ravel's Violin Sonata: these composers shared not only artistic sensitivity, but tremendous energy, joy and humour.

Their destinies were intertwined and their music, along with Debussy's, formed the heart of a French school of composition that is essentially still alive, influencing contemporary composers such as Henri Dutilleux. And their music sounds as fresh and vital as it did the day it was written. It is a story well worth celebrating.

Steven Isserlis's Saint-Saëns, Fauré and Ravel concerts are at the Wigmore Hall, London W1 (020 7935 2141) tonight, 15 and 19 November. Jessica Duchen's biography of Gabriel Fauré is published by Phaidon

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus brought her Bangerz tour to London's O2 Arena last night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams' life story will be told in a biography written by a New York Times reporter

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
    Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

    From strung out to playing strings

    Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
    The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
    Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

    Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

    The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
    On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

    On the road to nowhere

    A Routemaster trip to remember
    Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

    Hotel India

    Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
    10 best pencil cases

    Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

    Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
    Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

    Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

    Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
    Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

    Pete Jenson: A Different League

    Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
    This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

    The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

    Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis