In the 1870s and 1880s Gabriel Fauré was an ardent fan of Wagner, traveling to Cologne, Munich, and London to hear the monumental operas of the Ring Cycle. In 1883, he even traveled to Bayreuth with fellow French composer (and future director of the Opéra de Paris) André Messager to experience the Ring in its entirety. When not witnessing Wagner's Gesamtkuntwerks firsthand, however, Fauré and Messagerwere known to indulge in a popular pastime among French Wagnerites -- performing piano versions of Wagner's operas arranged for four or eight hands. In fact, Fauré was well-known in such circles for his clever skill at improvising on well-known themes, and it is in this spirit that he and Messager composed their Souvenirs de Bayreuth.
Listening to the opening bars of the work, however, it is apparent that the composers' tribute to their German elder is not entirely devotional -- or at least their flattery takes the form of satire. As the lengthy subtitle of the work indicates, the piece is not an arrangement but a "Fantasy" realized in the form of a popular dance: "Fantasie en forme de quadrille, sur les themes favoris de 'L'Anneau du Nibelung' de Richard Wagner." Fauré and Messager forgo the somber, almost religious reverence Wagner hoped to instill in his devotees, choosing instead to transform his broad, arching melodies and bold fanfares into danceable ditties and overripe rhapsodies that sometimes border on the maudlin. A strident sounding of the Valkyrie motto begins the piece (and serves as a kind of refrain), followed by a lighthearted version of the Ride of the Walküre over a jaunty stride bass. Several other themes are treated, as well, including the leitmotif of the magic helmet, the Walsungs theme, Siegfried's love theme, and the familiar Magic Fire Music (a solo piano version of which was widely popular among pianists of the day). While the heroic pose of Wagner's themes is undercut by the syncopations and oompas of Fauré's and Messager's arrangement, there is no tone of derision in the piece, but rather a shared, winking appreciation among knowing friends. Still, for whatever reason, the two did not see fit to publish the work after its composition (presumably sometime in the late 1880s); it appeared in print posthumously in 1930.