Listen to the opening of Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quintet No. 1 in D minor, Op. 89 and you might get the sensation of floating. It’s the musical equivalent of an out-of-body experience. This is a piece which seems to start somewhere up in the clouds, with sparkling, lighter-than-air piano arpeggios ushering in an expansive but intimate melody. You might be reminded of the childlike innocence of the In Paradisum from Fauré’s Requiem, which was written around the same time in the 1890s. This searching opening melody begins with the second violin. Gradually, the other voices enter, flowing in unison through the glassy sonic expanse.
The music which follows has an amazing way of continuously flirting with new keys without ever completely settling down. For example, listen to this passage later in the first movement. Or listen to this lushly beautiful section of the second movement which modulates with the freedom of a contemporary pop song. At the end of the second movement, the first violin tries to initiate one more modulatory adventure before getting pulled back into the movement’s final resolution.
Fauré, a student of Camille Saint-Saëns and the teacher of Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger, occupies an interesting and sometimes neglected place in music history. The First Piano Quintet, dedicated to violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, was premiered in 1906, around the time Fauré became director of the Paris Conservatory.
Here is a great concert performance by the Ébène String Quartet with pianist Eric le Sage: