When Gabriel Fauré was a boy, Berlioz had just written La damnation de Faust and Henry David Thoreau was writing Walden. By the time of his death, Stravinsky had written The Rite of Spring and World War I had ended in the devastation of Europe. In this dramatic period in history, Fauré strove to bring together the best of traditional and progressive music and, in the process, created some of the most exquisite works in the French repertoire. He was one of the most advanced figures in French musical circles and influenced a generation of composers world-wide.
Fauré was the youngest child of a school headmaster and spent many hours playing the harmonium in the chapel next to his father's school. Fauré's father enrolled the 9-year-old as a boarder at the École Niedermeyer in Paris, where he remained for 11 years, learning church music, organ, piano, harmony, counterpoint, and literature. In 1861, Saint-Saëns joined the school and introduced Fauré and other students to the works of more contemporary composers such as Schumann, Liszt, and Wagner. Fauré's earliest songs and piano pieces date from this period, just before his graduation in 1865, which he achieved with awards in almost every subject. For the next several years, he took on various organist positions, served for a time in the Imperial Guard, and taught. In 1871 he and his friends — d'Indy, Lalo, Duparc, and Chabrier — formed the Société Nationale de Musique, and soon after, Saint-Saëns introduced him to the salon of Pauline Viardot and Parisian musical high society. Fauré wrote his first important chamber works (the Violin Sonata No. 1 and Piano Quartet No. 1), then set out on a series of musical expeditions to meet Liszt and Wagner. Throughout the 1880s, he held various positions and continued to write songs and piano pieces, but felt unsure enough of his compositional talents to attempt anything much larger than incidental music. Fauré's pieces began to show a complexity of musical line and harmony which were to become the hallmarks of his music. He began to develop a highly original approach to tonality, in which modal harmony and altered scales figured largely. The next decade, however, is when Fauré came into his own. His music, although considered too advanced by most, gained recognition amongst his musical friends. This was his first truly productive phase, seeing the completion of his Requiem, the Cinq Mélodies, and the Dolly Suite, among other works. Using an economy of expression and boldness of harmony, he built the musical bridge over which his students — such as Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger — would cross on their journey into the 20th century. He was named composition professor at the Paris Conservatoire in 1896. In 1905, he became director of the conservatory and made several significant reforms. Ironically, this position gave his works more exposure, but it reduced his time for composition and came when he was increasingly bothered by hearing problems. Fauré's works of this period show the last, most sophisticated stages of his writing, streamlined and elegant in form. During World War I, Fauré essentially remained in Paris and had another extremely productive phase, producing, among other things, Le Jardin clos and the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra, Op. 111, which show a force and violence that make them among the most powerful pieces in French music. In 1920 he retired from the school, and the following year gave up his music critic position with Le Figaro, which he had held since 1903. Between then and his death in 1924, he would produce his great, last works: several chamber works and the song cycle L'horizon chimérique.