Faure's Requiem is one of the most popular choral works ever composed and is sung all around the world by hundreds of choirs every year.
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Faure's Requiem is a strange and unconventional version of this commonly-set text. While not straying as far as Brahms or Britten from the norm, Faure does take the Requiem down new routes that give it a different emphasis. It is worth comparing the work with what might be called the "traditional" settings, ie those using the text of the conventional Latin Requiem Mass (of which the finest is surely Mozart's) and the aforementioned radical reinvention by Brahms. Faure's Requiem might be said to lie somewhere inbetween the two, using the Requiem's text but with certain important parts of it removed. Gone is the long passage dealing with the fearful imagery of fiery judgement, the "Dies Irae" that drew from Verdi some of his most terrifyingly dramatic music. This immediately makes Faure's a much calmer, more settled work. Theologically speaking, while Brahms essentially (and controversially) edited Jesus out of the picture entirely, Faure made no such break with orthodox belief. Indeed he retained the final two lines of the Dies Irae, a prayer to Jesus entitled "Pie Jesu", turning them into one of the most sublime (and justifiably popular) pieces of vocal music ever written. Its pure, simple melody (usually sung by either a treble or a soprano, and definitely not suited to a dramatic, operatic voice) is instantly recognisable.
While he does not go so far as Brahms, Faure can certainly be said to have his own agenda in writing the Requiem. A professional organist for most of his life, he referred to the tedium of playing for numerous burial services and expressed his desire to write something that broke away from the conventional music for such services:
"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."
This is not to say that the Requiem is inappropriately jolly - far from it - but rather than being an outpouring of grief (as for example one might find in Mozart's Lacrymosa), it is emotionally restrained and dignified, relying for its impact on subtlety rather than wearing its heart on its sleeve. Indeed it was criticised at the time as showing insufficient "fear" of death, which Faure rebutted with an explanation of his own optimistic view of mortality that did not see the terror of judgement that so often makes an appearance in Requiems as relevant. (One might even suggest that the enthusiastic portrayal of the Dies Irae sequence by composers owes as much to a desire for musical drama as it does to theological convictions.) Faure made the relationship of his beliefs to his music clear:
"Everything I managed to entertain by way of religious illusion I put into my Requiem, which moreover is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest."
Interestingly, in the "Offertorium", the plea for the souls of the faithful departed is changed by Faure to refer merely to the departed - arguably a fairly crucial theological change, reflecting a humanistic interpretation of Catholicism which, while in most ways compatible with the the mainstream, perhaps did not share some of the faith's more exclusionary tenets.
Many musical works exist in several different versions (sometimes representing different stages in the composer's thought, or even changes of heart), and the Faure Requiem is no exception. The original version lacks the "Libera Me" movement and has a shorter version of the "Offertorium"; it was expanded by the composer into what is now known as the chamber orchestra version, for organ and a small orchestral ensemble. This version was lost until the 1980s, when it was rediscovered and championed by John Rutter. Prior to this, the third arrangement was used; it is a fuller arrangement for a complete orchestra, and is reportedly the version Faure himself used. Rutter's research presents a convincing case for this full version being a response by Faure to a suggestion that a concert work with a full orchestra would be a better commercial prospect - though the composer, burdened down with teaching work, was known to be in the habit of delegating tasks such as orchestration to assistants.
The work can also be performed with only an organ accompaniment, in situations where space or funds or both are at a premium.