Meet the Composers of La Belle Époque

The golden age of French artistic creativity, ‘la belle époque’, is the setting for the first concert of the 2017 season for the Sydney University Graduate Choir on the 21st May 2017. In this first instalment in a two part series, we’ll travel back in time to meet the composers, delving into the period when music, literature and painting flourished, leaving a lasting legacy of beauty for future generations to enjoy.

La Belle Ėpoque, the first Sydney University Graduate Choir concert for 2017 offers a French themed program referencing the time between the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Marked by optimism, prosperity and technological, scientific and cultural innovation, this period came to be regarded as a Golden Age when artistic pursuits flourished.

There were great achievements in French music during ‘la belle époque’,including those by the composers on our program – Saint-Saëns, Faure and Franck.

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was the most influential figure in French music in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His active musical life spanned almost the entire Romantic era and ended early in the period of musical modernism.  In his long composing career, he was a great organist, pianist, as well as a masterful composer.  Saint-Saëns wrote major works across the gamut of forms – opera, symphony, concerto, symphonic poems, sacred music, chamber music, and song.

Saint-Saëns’s Requiem Op. 54, which will be performed by the Choir, was composed in 1878. Requiem is written on an imposing scale, combining grandeur with moments of tenderness and poignancy. The composer’s mastery shines throughout the work, so much so that we can describe it as a masterpiece, albeit unfortunately a neglected one.  The Requiem deserves to be heard more frequently and the Choir is delighted to be performing it.

One of the greatest contributions of Saint-Saëns to music and posterity was his lifelong friendship and support for Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), the composer of two works on the La Belle Epoque concert program, the Pavane Op 50 and the Cantique de Jean Racine Op. 11.

They met when Fauré, a young man from a provincial family in the far south west of France, was a student at a music school in Paris for those contemplating a career in religious music. In 1861, Saint-Saëns arrived to teach piano and composition, and introduced Fauré to contemporary music outside the school syllabus, notably that of Liszt, Schumann and Wagner. Fauré graduated in 1865 with the first prize in composition for the famous Cantique de Jean Racine Op. 11, a piece still very popular with choirs around the world, which will be reprised by the Grads’ Chamber Choir at the La Belle Epoque concert.

Fauré remained close to Saint-Saëns, through whom he made contact with all sections of Parisian musical society.  The Société Nationale de Musique provided a platform for the first performances of a number of his works, including the one we perform today, the  choral version of the famous Pavane  Op. 50, which dates from 1887.

Fauré went on to become teacher of composition, and  later head of the Paris Conservatoire, where he positively influenced the careers of a number of important composers, including Maurice Ravel. During the 1890s, Fauré’s music started to become known and he won the support of important private patrons, including Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the international Olympic movement.  In 1896, he became chief organist at the Madeleine Church, following in Saint-Saëns’s  footsteps (Olivier Messiaen was a subsequent holder of this post, as was Naji Hakim, teacher of the Sydney University organist, Amy Johansen).  Later the same year, Fauré succeeded Massenet as the composition teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, where his pupils included Nadia Boulanger, Georges Enescu and Ravel. In 1905, he became the Conservatoire’s Director, where he made important reforms and opened the institution to new ideas and new music. In the 1890s, he continued to revise his most famous work, the superb Requiem Op. 48, originally composed in 1887.

Fauré retired from the Conservatoire in 1920, a revered figure but with a cloud of impending deafness and declining health. To the end Fauré, who was born when Chopin and Mendelssohn were alive, continued to encourage younger musicians such as Arthur Honegger and other leading figures of French twentieth century music.

Fauré’s music is marked by melodic and harmonic originality, tempered by restraint and exquisite sensibility. There is a recognisable Fauréan musical language, subtle, refined and distinct.  One of his particular gifts is a mastery of the art of unfolding long melodies, which retain a sense of organic logic and naturalness, despite taking unexpected turns.

These qualities are present in the Pavane, which, like the Requiem, also dates from 1887.  Fauré originally composed it as a purely orchestral work, in which guise it remains quite famous.  He subsequently dedicated it to a noble patron, Elizabeth, comtesse Greffulhe, and to set it to the words of her cousin, Robert, comte de Montesquiou (model for the decadent des Esseintes in J-K. Huysmans’s novel, A Rebours, and for the sinister Baron de  Charlus in Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu).

Faurés Racine Canticle was dedicated to another composer on our program, César Franck. In the next post we’ll meet Franck, and explore the most controversial piece of the concert programme, a modern setting of the hair-raising prose poem written in the 19th century, Démocratie, one of the constituent parts of Les Illuminations, the major work of the teenage evil genius, Arthur Rimbaud. Composed by the Choir’s Music Director, Christopher Bowen, and premiered by the Choir in 2002, this exciting composition is sure to pique interest, given its uncanny reflections of the tensions and drama of our current world politics.

Enjoy La Belle Époque with the Sydney University Graduate Choir!

WHEN:  3:00pm, Sunday, 21 May 2017

WHERE:  The Great Hall, Sydney University

Music Director:

Christopher Bowen OAM


Elke Hook (Soprano)

Barbara Jin (Alto)

Andrew Goodwin (Tenor)

Simon Lobelson (Bass)


Peter Kneeshaw


Démocratie – Christopher Bowen

Requiem – Camille Saint-Saëns

Psalm 150 – César Franck

Pavane – Gabriel Fauré



$50 Adults

$45 Full Pensioners (Not seniors cards)

$25 Full time students and children under 16 years.

TICKETS: Seymour Centre Box Office – ph 02 9351 7950 or online



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