Fame came late to Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). Probably the most advanced French composer of his generation, he was able to write music only during summer vacations while toiling principally as a choirmaster and teacher. The great master of French song, Fauré sold his songs to his publisher outright for only 50 francs apiece.
Fortunately, Fauré lived long enough to see ultimate success. At the age of 60 he became director of the Paris Conservatory, a post that made him suddenly famous, although again leaving him with little time to compose. He was also troubled by an increasing deafness and a hearing impairment which distorted pitches at the high and low ends of the range.
Nonetheless, he retained his creative gifts to the end of his life – indeed, it is the later works that inspired the fervent admiration of younger composers such as Aaron Copland and Arthur Honegger. Fauré composed his First Cello Sonata, a violent, tragic work in D minor, during World War I. Although it is also cast in a three-movement form and set in a closely related minor key, the Second Cello Sonata (from 1921) is little like the First in spirit. Despite the prevailing minor modes, its turbulent energies are more ecstatic than angry. The agitation of the Brahmsian opening movement comes from the off-the-beat piano part, its syncopations restlessly extended over long passages against an ardent, noble cello line. The austere slow movement, with its serene resolution in major mode, is based on a Chant funéraire originally written a year earlier for the centenary of Napoleon’s death, while the finale is a dramatic whirlwind of a piece, filled with athletic exuberance.