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The Correspondence of Camille Saint-Saëns and Gabriel Fauré. Sixty Years of Friendship.

Edited by Jean-Michel Nectoux

Translated from the French and with an Introduction by J. Barrie Jones

Ashgate 2004, 143pp and indices

ISBN 0-7546-3280-6


The friendship between Fauré and Saint-Saëns lasted sixty years; probably unique in terms of duration between musicians and rare in artists of any kind. The relationship began as one of pupil and master, though Saint-Saëns was only ten years older than the younger man and it ended as a relationship between compositional equals, though one invariably tinged by the element of the pedagogic which remained a part of Saint-Saënsís epistolary armoury.

They met at the École Niedermeyer in 1861 when Fauré was sixteen and the first letters date from 1862. These early letters are jesting, bantering, with plenty of gallantry regarding the ladies. Saint-Saëns calls his favourite pupil "my fat cat" and "fat wolf." Gradually, as Fauré rises in eminence topics broaden and deepen. They wonder when they can meet up, meetings often destined to be thwarted by circumstance; invitations to dine are accepted or postponed; concert tickets are offered for performances; conservatoire politics looms large. Both had difficult marriages and in the few surviving letters from Fauréís wife reading between the lines is not difficult; editorial expansion serves only to make clearer what is implicit. Saint-Saënsís letters to her were unfailingly kind and he offered the family a telescope Ė he was a keen stargazer and once went to Spain just to see an eclipse.

A temporary falling out came over the foundation of the Société Musicale Indépendante in 1909. By this time Fauré had risen to the position of Director of the Conservatoire in Paris, and a Member of the Institut, and accepted the Presidency of the SMI which had been founded by three of his advanced pupils, Ravel, Schmitt and Koechlin. Saint-Saëns railed against these "little anarchists" and urged Fauré to sever links. The exchange comes via Émile Vuillermoz; the letters the two wrote on the subject seem not to have survived. But friendly relations were soon resumed, in spite of the older manís known objections.

They argued about composers, naturally. They fell out over Berlioz. Fauré castigated the "stupid admiration" people felt for anything Berliozian. Saint-Saëns admitted his faults ("flabbergasting") but was more generous. Saint-Saëns was resolutely anti- Franck and anti-Debussy. By 1915 he was calling En blanc et noir an atrocity. Saint-Saëns was also ambivalent about his pupilís later music and was clearly vexed by its modernity; for all Saint-Saënsí humility toward Fauré, and it was clearly genuine, he was too honest to dissemble and yet too subtle to admit the truth straight out. So he praised those aspects of Pénélope (dedicated to him) that he could (staging, performances) whilst refraining from comment on much to do with strictly musical matters. To others he told the truth.

He remained, though, a model teacher and a perceptive, thoughtful friend. He was assiduous in ensuring Fauréís scores were accurate - Fauré was a lax proof reader - and it shouldnít be forgotten that the older man frequently performed Fauréís music in public, sometimes giving premieres. He was solicitous towards the younger manís progress, helping him find his feet socially and professionally in Paris and helping to secure commissions. In all respects then the two managed the transition from teacher to friend with exemplary ease.

The English edition of the Letters, translated by J Barrie Jones, to whom Fauréans owe such a debt, carries with it the editing of Jean-Michel Nectoux to whom admirers are similarly beholden. Both translator and editor contribute important introductions and there are numerous footnotes; some have been amended slightly or expanded by Jones for English readers. Excellently clear reproduction allows some of the letters to be presented in the plates and there are a number of postcard portraits of the leading figures in the correspondence. The only false note in the translation is in a letter Saint-Saëns wrote to Camille Bellaigue, which is quoted in the Editorís introduction. "Over the top" is a rather infelicitous phrase.

This is an important addition to Fauré studies and its appearance in an English edition is a significant event. Itís been carried through, as Saint-Saëns himself wrote in a 1915 farewell to his pupil, Toto corde tibi [With all my heart].

Jonathan Woolf



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