In 1920, Gabriel Fauré gave up his post as director of the Paris Conservatory. Years of part-time composing, deteriorating health, and the stress of negotiating the politics of solidifying musical factions that had been dividing the French musical world left him tired but looking forward to a final burst of creativity. He pined to collaborate on another opera but remained frustrated at his inability to attend the theater, due to his hearing loss. Fortunately, there was a growing interest in Europe and America in publishing new works by him. He turned to chamber music. In three years he produced two cello sonatas, a violin sonata, two piano quintets, a string quartet, and the Piano Trio, op.120.

In many ways the trio is a work most reflective of Fauré's art. The melodic tunes and easily flowing rhythms that begin each movement look back nostalgically. "The tunes took me back to the joyful days of the beginnings of the National Society," wrote Vincent D'Indy in a letter to Fauré about the cello sonata of the same period. In the trio, however, there is a bareness to the wistful writing. The opening, for instance, is extremely spare—a cello tune accompanied by two oscillating keys on the piano. In no time, though, as if with seventy-five years of experience comes incisiveness, the themes that open the first movement are treated to Fauré's capacity for pure compositional invention, a fascination that involved the use of tonalities and modes spanning four hundred years. The musical material is viewed as if through a prism that sharply sifts and divides the melodies, so concisely at times as to sound kaleidescopically pointillistic. Indeed, there are moments where each pulse of the music is a window on a new tonality. In this way the piano trio looks challengingly toward the future—a future already being charted by such students as Ravel and Koechlin—while poignantly looking back. It was also at this time that the great pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger became so enamored with Fauré's art that his music became the core of her harmony classes. Because virtually every important American musician at that time came into contact with Madame Boulanger's teachings, one can argue that there is a link between Fauré and the evolution of American music after 1920.

As an art song writer with a desire to create opera in the late nineteenth century, Fauré was awed and burdened by the Wagnerian products which held the imagination of audiences throughout Europe. As a master composer, theorist, and pianist, whose craft was rooted in French renaissance polyphony and sixteenth-century modal counterpoint, the late romantic large-scale dramas held Fauré in captive sway but did not flow easily from him. His letters reveal a fascination and diligent devotion to setting a libretto throughout his career but a reticence to forego the personal nature of his art for the bold forms that were as much the product of other theatrical forces beyond his control. Indeed, he completed just one opera, Pénélopé at age 68. The story, about the destined though separated couple Pénélopé and Ulysses, may have more tenaciously resonated with an inner longing in Fauré, whose first love Marianne Viardot broke off their engagement. In the Prelude to Pénélopé, Pénélopé and Ulysses' themes are distinct. Hers is heard at the onset, a rich but simply scored falling major third, a melancholy sigh. His is a triumphant ascending octave, accompanied at first appearance by shimmering tremolos. The piano transcription was set by Fauré and reveals clearly the intimate and complex interweaving of these themes.

Fauré found more permanent sustenance in two nineteenth-century musical settings, the barcarolle and the nocturne, of which he cast thirteen each. Barcarolle #5 magnifies the notion of the barcarolle, a gondolier's song cast in a lilting 6/8 meter. Here the shifting subdivisions of the meter and dramatic F sharp minor key propel the motion of the piece as undulating waves might carry a boat out to open sea and back again. The Nocturne has a similarly simple presumption: that nighttime is the quietest moment to set forth a long-lined melody of personal intimacy. As in Fauré's song settings of text, in which succeeding verses deepen the meaning of a singer's intent and reveal what is subconscious, Nocturne #6 has two sections between statements of the initial tune, which reveal a dream within a dream within the song.