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A Royal Adaptation

05 June 2018

Gabriel Fauré, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy

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Photo credit: Lars Borges

Tens of millions tuned in to watch the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle the other week. I did. I was transfixed by the vibrant American Gospel choir rocking the staid royal gathering inside St George’s Chapel, Windsor. But what induced me to switch on was the starry young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who was performing three pieces including an adaptation for cello and orchestra of Gabriel Fauré’s song Après un rêve.

Before you could say “Duchess of Sussex”, the shock and horror began on social media. How could they play Après un rêve at a wedding? It’s a song about disappointed love! To the US music critic Greg Sandow, this seemed to indicate that classical music has lost all its meaning.

I beg, very gently, to disagree.

OK, it isn’t ideal. The protagonist awakes from a dream about his beloved, in which her eyes were sweeter, her voice pure and sonorous, and she was shining like the dawn. Now, disillusioned, he longs for his dream to return. The melody is exquisite. The poem apparently is by an obscure Italian writer, translated into French by a friend of the composer’s – but I sometimes wonder whether perhaps Fauré wrote it himself. After all, the song dates from when he had just been dumped by the girl he loved after a four-year courtship and brief engagement.

But if you don’t know the words (or don’t care about them), they’re not being sung in any case, and you have the world’s most sought-after young cellist to play it for you, does it really matter so much? No words, no knowledge, no problem.

It’s good to be adaptable. In daily life we praise people who are equally at home in different social situations or working roles. And I can promise you that as a freelance writer, if you’re not adaptable, you’re basically doomed.

So why shouldn’t music be adaptable? Why are hands raised in horror if we dare play Bach on the piano – “It’s the wrong instrument! You will be struck by lightning!”. And why should we not hear a song without its words?

Purity in music simply doesn’t exist. Every single performance is a different experience. Every moment of every piece every time it is played is affected by the people who play it, the surroundings, the acoustic, the time of day, the instruments, even the weather and its impact on the instruments, and much more. Moreover, your perception as a listener may depend on what mood you’re in, what you’ve eaten, whether you’re stressed out, and what associations, if any, the sound conjures up for you.

A piece of music might appear to exist in pure-ish form on the page, but for most of us it doesn’t become fully real until it is heard. Every performance is an adaptation: a giant team effort extending across the centuries, from composer via publisher to performers and finally to our own ears.

So let Meghan and Harry enjoy that beautiful song. Goodness knows when they – and the wider UK public – would ever bump into such a piece by Fauré again. And having heard this one, perhaps they will now want to seek out some more for themselves.

Stream more Fauré songs, and Mendelssohn's 'Songs without Words' on Primephonic.

Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen’s music journalism has appeared in The Independent, The Guardian and The Sunday Times. She is the author of a number of novels (most recently Ghost Variations, published in 2016), biographies and plays. A recent project included an opera libretto for composer Roxanna Panufnik (for Garsington Opera 2017). Her popular blog JDCMB has run since 2004.

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