Gabriel Fauré was born in 1845 in the Ariège district of the south of France, the son of a village schoolteacher. He showed early talent, and was sent to Paris to receive a musical education from the Swiss composer Louis Niedermeyer, who specialised in church music. Fauré held various posts as organist in Rennes and back in the capital and followed Saint-Saëns at the church of the Madeleine. He became closely associated with a group of composer friends including Lalo, Duparc and Chabrier. In 1905, after an unproductive period of depression, he was appointed professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire. Increasing deafness eventually forced his retirement, though he kept composing music of high quality despite this handicap until his death in 1924.
The pavane, a slow, stately sixteenth-century processional court dance (probably from Italy, the name a corruption of padovana, a dance from Padua), was performed by pairs of dancers arranged in formal patterns. Fauré’s Pavane dates from 1886, the year before the much-loved Requiem. It is dedicated to the Countess Greffulhe, a patron of Parisian society of the time. Originally written for orchestra alone, choral parts were added, probably to please the patron, whose cousin Robert Montesquiou had penned some accompanying words. Today, however, it is rarely performed with the chorus, which adds rather too much formality and weight to what is essentially a light essay in nostalgia.
Fauré has sometimes been criticised for allowing a rhythm to become monotonous while concentrating on melodic invention, but in this piece he turns a potential weakness into a positive strength. The Pavane should flow delicately and gracefully: the couples repeatedly take two single steps and a hopping double-step. This is the pulse which, though never explicitly played, beats gently and constantly beneath the softly swaying music, which moves in a series of elegant harmonic shifts and turns, to its tranquil conclusion, with only the briefest of dramatic episodes along the way.