Fauré’s String Quartet in E Minor: A Mystical Farewell

The String Quartet in E minor, Op. 121 was the final work of Gabriel Fauré.

Completed in September of 1924, a month before the composer’s death at age 79, it is a quiet musical farewell, solemn, intimate, and lamenting. It unfolds in three movements, all of which return to the same mystical space. In contrast with Fauré’s earlier works, this music is hazy, austere, and less firmly rooted in its tonal center. Each movement arrives and dissipates with the ephemeral quality of a dream. Commentator Rob Cowan called it “an extraordinary work by any standards, ethereal and other-worldly with themes that seem constantly to be drawn skywards.” (Gramophone, December 2008)

Fauré was a composer of numerous chamber works, but only here did he write for strings exclusively, without piano. Feeling the anxiety of influence, he had long avoided writing a string quartet. As he worked at the lakeside summer retreat of Annecy-le-Vieux in the French Alps, Fauré wrote to his wife,

I’ve started a quartet for strings, without piano. It’s a medium in which Beethoven was particularly active, which is enough to give all those people who are not Beethoven the jitters!

As with Beethoven, Fauré continued to compose after succumbing to near total hearing loss. Echoes of Beethoven’s strange, cosmic Late Quartets can be heard throughout the work. Ultimately, it was completed after “many hours and little sleep,” and premiered seven months after the composer’s death.

In the opening of the first movement (Allegro moderato), the solitary voice of the viola opens the door to a musical conversation which is both passionate and wistful.

Regarding the second movement, biographer Jean-Michel Nectoux writes,

The Andante is one of the finest pieces of string quartet writing. From start to finish, it bathes in a supernatural light…There is nothing that is not beautiful in this movement with its subtle variations of light-play, a sort of white upon white. [At the ending,] the sublime music sinks out of sight, where it carries on, rather than seeming to come to an end.

The final movement (Allegro) is a combination of scherzo and finale. Its first theme is introduced by the cello and taken up in other voices, accompanied by buoyant, dancing pizzicati. As a vibrant instrumental conversation unfolds, three themes are passed among the instruments and developed and expanded continuously. Propelled forward with graceful, effortless motion, it concludes with a joyful upward surge to a final cadence in sunny E major.

I. Allegro moderato:

II. Andante:

III. Allegro:


  • Fauré: String Quartet in E minor, Op. 121, Quatuor Ébène Amazon

Featured Image: “Above the Oustalet: View over Grimand” (1920), Henri Manguin

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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