Q&A with Betsy Cook Weber: Fauré’s Requiem

Q&A with Betsy Cook Weber: Fauré’s Requiem

The altar of the Church of La Madeleine in Paris, where Fauré worked as an organist and where the first version of his Requiem was premiered in 1888.
The altar of the Church of La Madeleine in Paris, where Fauré worked as an organist and where the first version of his Requiem was premiered in 1888.

“As to my Requiem, perhaps I have also instinctively sought to escape from what is thought right and proper, after all the years of accompanying burial services on the organ! I know it all by heart. I wanted to write something different.” —Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem is one of the treasures of the choral repertoire. Composed between 1887 and 1890, it has often been seen as a response to the grand, dramatic and even operatic requiems that were popular at the time. In contrast with the expected fire and brimstone, Fauré’s Requiem is suffused with tenderness and heavenly light, reflecting his view of death as “as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above…”

On April 28, 30 and May 1, renowned conductor David Zinman returns to Houston to conduct guest soloists, the Houston Symphony Chorus and the orchestra in this masterpiece. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Houston Symphony Chorus Director Betsy Cook Weber a few questions about this piece.

Betsy Cook Weber, Houston Symphony Chorus Director
Betsy Cook Weber, Houston Symphony Chorus Director

Calvin Dotsey: How would you describe Fauré’s Requiem to someone who has never heard it before? How is it different from other famous requiems?

Betsy Cook Weber: The Fauré Requiem is serenely, sublimely, seamlessly beautiful from beginning to end. It doesn’t contain the over-the-top drama of the Requiems by Mozart or Verdi, but is, instead, quietly and deeply reverent throughout.

CD: Fauré wrote relatively little music for large ensembles, preferring to focus on chamber music, solo piano works and songs. Do you find that this sensibility is reflected in the way he wrote this piece?

BCW: The premiere of this piece used large forces, and we are doing the same, but the entire piece feels intimate. It is as though those onstage are performing for themselves instead of to an audience.

CD: What are you thinking about as you prepare the chorus to perform this piece?

BCW: Maestro Zinman has asked us to sing Gallic or French-influenced Latin for this performance. In the past year-and-a-half, we have sung Italianate Latin for the Verdi Requiem and Austro-Germanic Latin for the Mozart Requiem and Carmina Burana. The differences are sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle; it’s easy to forget what is what!

In addition, I believe that the tonal quality for Fauré’s Requiem needs to be very different from that of Beethoven’s Ninth and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, the last two pieces the chorus performed. In the Beethoven and parts of the Bernstein, we worked for a big sound, with rich, full vibrato. The Fauré (as was true in certain passages of the Bernstein) requires a sound that seems effortless (although that is certainly not the case!) with minimal vibrato.  If the audience senses that we are working hard during these performances, we have failed.

Gabriel Fauré and his wife, Marie, in 1889.
Gabriel Fauré and his wife, Marie, in 1889.

CD: Do you have any favorite passages you would like to highlight for the audience? What do you personally love about this piece?

BCW: That’s a bit like asking which bite of chocolate cake was my favorite, but to offer just a few favorite moments:

I love the very opening measures. The chorus intones “Requiem aeternam” (Rest eternal), and, if we do it right, it should sound muffled, somber, and almost inaudible, as though we are sitting in a cathedral whispering to ourselves.

In the Agnus Dei, (Lamb of God) I love the single, shimmering pitch sung by the sopranos above a C Major chord on the words “Lux aeterna” (Light eternal). The rest of the chorus then enters on an A-flat Major chord. The individual melodic and harmonic ingredients of these measures are not at all remarkable, but Fauré’s treatment is magical; it “gets” me every single time.

In Paradisum (In Paradise) begins with a beautiful, arpeggiated figure in the organ. I am not the first person to describe this passage as the moment when a soul floats to heaven. The sopranos then enter with a very linear motif, intertwined by that beautiful organ part. It is fiendishly difficult for the sopranos (don’t tell them I said that!), but when it works, it is one of the most beautiful moments in all of classical music.

Don’t miss the Houston Symphony Chorus in Fauré’s Requiem April 28, 30 and May 1! Click here for tickets and more information.

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