The Impressionist period began around 1880 and continued into the early 20th century. It began in France as a reaction against the large, bombastic works of the German Romantics. The Impressionist movement in music was inspired by the Impressionist movement in painting and poetry. The goal of Impressionist artists was to create a mood or impression as opposed to being representational. In music, this was reflected in an increased emphasis on dynamic shadings, a goal of seamless rhythm, and the use of short motifs as opposed to a representational melody.
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) was a French composer. He studied at the New Niedemeyer School of Religious Music in Paris. In addition to composing, over the course of his life he was the organist at many churches in France.
As a composer, Fauré was very good at capturing poetry in his works. The piece in the segment, “Cantique de Jean Racine” was written in 1965, when Fauré was just 22 years old. It sets to music words by 17th century poet and dramatist Jean Racine. (“Cantique” is French for the word canticle, or hymn.)
Faure’s best-known work is his Requiem, begun in 1877 and completed in 1890. In performances of his work today, Requiem and the “Cantique de Jean Racine” are often performed together.
Here are the French words and the English translation of “Cantique de Jean Racine”:
Verbe égal au Très-Haut, notre unique espérance, Jour éternel de la terre et des cieux; De la paisible nuit nous rompons le silence, Divin Sauveur, jette sur nous les yeux!
Répands sur nous le feu de ta grâce puissante, Que tout l'enfer fuie au son de ta voix; Dissipe le sommeil d'une âme languissante, Qui la conduit à l'oubli de tes lois!
O Christ, sois favorable à ce peuple fidèle Pour te bénir maintenant rassemblé. Reçois les chants qu'il offre à ta gloire immortelle, Et de tes dons qu'il retourne comblé!
Hymn of Jean Racine
Word of God, one with the Most High, in Whom alone we have our hope, Eternal Day of heaven and earth, We break the silence of the peaceful night; Saviour Divine, cast your eyes upon us!
Pour on us the fire of your powerful grace, That all hell may flee at the sound of your voice; Banish the slumber of a weary soul, That brings forgetfulness of your laws!
O Christ, look with favour upon your faithful people Now gathered here to praise you; Receive their hymns offered to your immortal glory; May they go forth filled with your gifts.
1. What type of musical composition is this? What do think its purpose was?
2. What is the mood of the piece? How does it compare to Gregorian chant or other choral music you may have heard?
3. What characteristics of Impressionism do you notice in the piece?
4. This piece is sung in French. What kind of challenges might there be in learning a song in a language you don’t speak proficiently. (If there are chorus members in the class who have done this, ask them to describe the experience. And if there are any French speakers, ask them to help translate the song for their classmates.)