Charles Francois Gounod - Encyclopedia

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CHARLES FRANCOIS GOUNOD (1818--1893), French composer, was born in Paris on the 17th of June 1818, the son of F. L. Gounod, a talented painter. He entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1836, studied under Reicha, Halevy and Lesueur, and won the "Grand Prix de Rome" in 1839. While residing in the Eternal City he devoted much of his time to the study of sacred music, notably to the works of Palestrina and Bach. In 1843 he went to Vienna, where a "requiem" of his composition was performed. On his return to Paris he tried in vain to find a publisher for some songs he had written in Rome. Having become organist to the chapel of the "Missions Etrangeres," he turned his thoughts and mind to religious music. At that time he even contemplated the idea of entering into holy orders. His thoughts were, however, turned to more mundane matters when, through the intervention of Madame Viardot, the celebrated singer, he received a commission to compose an opera on a text by Emile Augier for the Academie Nationale de Musique. Sapho, the work in question, was produced in 1851, and if its success was not very great, it at least sufficed to bring the composer 's name to the fore. Some critics appeared to consider this work as evidence of a fresh departure in the style of dramatic music, and Adolphe Adam, the composer, who was also a musical critic, attributed to Gounod the wish to revive the system of musical declamation invented by Gluck. The fact was that Sapho differed in some respects from the operatic works of the period, and was to a certain extent in advance of the times. When it was revived at the Paris Opera in 1884, several additions were made by the composer to the original score, not altogether to its advantage, and Sapho once more failed to attract the public. Gounod's second dramatic attempt was again in connexion with a classical subject, and consisted in some choruses written for Ulysse, a tragedy by Ponsard, played at the Theatre Francais in 1852, when the orchestra was conducted by Offenbach. The composer's next opera, La Nonne sanglante, given at the Paris Opera in 1854, was a failure.

Goethe's Faust had for years exercised a strong fascination over Gounod, and he at last determined to turn it to operatic account. The performance at a Paris theatre of a drama on the same subject delayed the production of his opera for a time. In the meanwhile he wrote in a few months the music for an operatic version of Moliere's comedy, Le Medecin malgre lui, which was produced at the Theatre Lyrique in 1858. Berlioz well described this charming little work when he wrote of it, "Everything is pretty, piquant, fluent, in this ` opera comique '; there is nothing superfluous and nothing wanting." The first performance of Faust took place at the Theatre Lyrique on the 19th of March 1859. Goethe's masterpiece had already been utilized for operatic purposes by various composers, the most celebrated of whom was Spohr. The subject had also inspired Schumann, Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, to mention only a few, and the enormous success of Gounod's opera did not deter Boito from writing his Mefistofele. Faust is without doubt the most popular French opera of the second half of the 19th century. Its success has been universal, and nowhere has it achieved greater vogue than in the land of Goethe. For years it remained the recognized type of modern French opera. At the time of its production in Paris it was scarcely appreciated according to its merits. Its style was too novel, and its luscious harmonies did not altogether suit the palates of those dilettanti who still looked upon Rossini as the incarnation of music. Times have indeed changed, and French composers have followed the road opened by Gounod, and have further developed the form of the lyrical drama, adopting the theories of Wagner in a manner suitable to their national temperament. Although in its original version Faust contained spoken dialogue, and was divided into set pieces according to custom, yet it differed greatly from the operas of the past. Gounod had not studied the works of German masters such as Mendelssohn and Schumann in vain, and although his own style is eminently Gallic, yet it cannot be denied that much of its charm emanates from a certain poetic sentimentality which seems to have a Teutonic origin. Certainly no music such as his had previously been produced by any French composer. Auber was a gay trifler, scattering his bright effusions with absolute insouciance, teeming with melodious ideas, but lacking depth. Berlioz, a musical Titan, wrestled against fate with a superhuman energy, and, Jove-like, subjugated his hearers with his thunderbolts. It was, however, reserved for Gounod to introduce la note tendre, to sing the tender passion in accents soft and languorous. The musical language employed in Faust was new and fascinating, and it was soon to be adopted by many other French composers, certain of its idioms thereby becoming hackneyed. Gounod's opera was given in London in 1863, when its success, at first doubtful, became enormous, and it was heard concurrently at Covent Garden and Her Majesty's theatres. Since then it has never lost its popularity.

Although the success of Faust in Paris was at first not so great as might have been expected, yet it gradually increased and set the seal on Gounod's fame. The fortunate composer now experienced no difficulty in finding an outlet for his works, and the succeeding decade is a specially important one in his career. The opera from his pen which came after Faust was Philemon et Baucis, a setting of the mythological tale in which the composer followed the traditions of the Opera Comique, employing spoken dialogue, while not abdicating the individuality of his own style. This work was produced at the Theatre Lyrique in 1860. It has repeatedly been heard in London. La Reine de Saba, a four-act opera, produced at the Grand Opera on the 28th of February 1862, was altogether a far more ambitious work. For some reason it did not meet with success, although the score contains some of Gounod's choicest inspirations, notably the well-known air, "Lend me your aid." La Reine de Saba was adapted for the English stage under the name of Irene. The non-success of this work proved a great disappointment to Gounod, who, however, set to work again, and this time with better results, Mireille, the fruit of his labours, being given for the first time at the Theatre Lyrique on the 19th of March 1864. Founded upon the Mireio of the Provencal poet Mistral, Mireille contains much charming and characteristic music. The libretto seems to have militated against its success, and although several revivals have taken place and various modifications and alterations have been made in the score, yet Mireille has never enjoyed a very great vogue. Certain portions of this opera have, however, been popularized in the concert-room. La Colombe, a little opera in two acts without pretension, deserves mention here. It was originally heard at Baden in 1860, and subsequently at the Opera Comique. A suavely melodious entr'acte from this little work has survived and been repeatedly performed.

Animated with the desire to give a pendant to his Faust, Gounod now sought for inspiration from Shakespeare, and turned his attention to Romeo and Juliet. Here, indeed, was a subject particularly well calculated to appeal to a composer who had so eminently qualified himself to be considered the musician of the tender passion. The operatic version of the Shakespearean tragedy was produced at the Theatre Lyrique on the 27th of April 1867. It is generally considered as being the composer's second best opera. Some people have even placed it on the same level as Faust, but this verdict has not found general acceptance. Gounod himself is stated to have expressed his opinion of the relative value of the two operas enigmatically by saying, "Faust is the oldest, but I was younger; Romeo is the youngest, but I was older." The luscious strains wedded to the love scenes, if at times somewhat cloying, are generally in accord with the situations, often irresistibly fascinating, while always absolutely individual. The success of Romeo in Paris was great from the outset, and eventually this work was transferred to the Grand Opera, after having for some time formed part of the repertoire of the Opera Comique. In London it was not until the part of Romeo was sung by Jean de Reszke that this opera obtained any real hold upon the English public.

After having so successfully sought for inspiration from Moliere, Goethe and Shakespeare, Gounod now turned to another famous dramatist, and selected Pierre Corneille's Polyeucte as the subject of his next opera. Some years were, however, to elapse before this work was given to the public. The FrancoGerman War had broken out, and Gounod was compelled to take refuge in London, where he composed the "biblical elegy" Gallia for the inauguration of the Royal Albert Hall. During his stay in London Gounod composed a great deal and wrote a number of songs to English words, many of which have attained an enduring popularity, such as "Maid of Athens," "There is a green hill far away," "Oh that we two were maying," "The fountain mingles with the river." His sojourn in London was not altogether pleasant, as he was embroiled in lawsuits with publishers. On Gounod's return to Paris he hurriedly set to music an operatic version of Alfred de Vigny's Cinq-Mars, which was given at the Opera Comique on the 5th of April 1877 (and in London in 1900), without obtaining much success. Polyeucte, his much-cherished work, appeared at the Grand Opera the following year on the 7th of October, and did not meet with a better fate. Neither was Gounod more fortunate with Le Tribut de Zamora, his last opera, which, given on the same stage in 1881, speedily vanished, never to reappear. In his later dramatic works he had, unfortunately, made no attempt to keep up with the times, preferring to revert to old-fashioned methods.

The genius of the great composer was, however, destined to assert itself in another field - that of sacred music. His friend Camille Saint-Sans, in a volume entitled Portraits et Souvenirs, writes: Gounod did not cease all his life to write for the church, to accumulate masses and motetts; but it was at the commencement of his career, in the Messe de Sainte Cecile, and at the end, in the oratorios The Redemption and Mors et vita, that he rose highest.

Saint-Sans, indeed, has formulated the opinion that the three above-mentioned works will survive all the master's operas. Among the many masses composed by Gounod at the outset of his career, the best is the Messe de Sainte Cecile, written in 1855. He also wrote the Messe du Sacre Cour (1876) and the Messe a la memoire de Jeanne d'Arc (1887). This last work offers certain peculiarities, being written for solos, chorus, organ, eight trumpets, three trombones, and harps. In style it has a certain affinity with Palestrina. The Redemption, which seems to have acquired a permanent footing in Great Britain, was produced at the Birmingham Festival of 1882. It was styled a sacred trilogy, and was dedicated to Queen Victoria. The score is prefixed by a commentary written by the composer, in which the scope of the oratorio is explained. It cannot be said that Gounod has altogether risen to the magnitude of his task. The music of The Redemption bears the unmistakable imprint of the composer's hand, and contains many beautiful thoughts, but the work in its entirety is not exempt from monotony. Mors et vita, a sacred trilogy dedicated to Pope Leo XIII., was also produced for the first time in Birmingham at the Festival of 1885. This work is divided into three parts, "Mors," "Judicium," "Vita." The first consists of a Requiem, the second depicts the Judgment, the third Eternal Life. Although quite equal, if not superior to The Redemption, Mors et vita has not obtained similar success.

Gounod was a great worker, an indefatigable writer, and it would occupy too much space to attempt even an incomplete catalogue of his compositions. Besides the works already mentioned may be named two symphonies which were played during the 'fifties, but have long since fallen into neglect. Symphonic music was not Gounod's forte, and the French master evidently recognized the fact, for he made no further attempts in this style. The incidental music he wrote to the dramas Les Deux Reines and Jeanne d'Arc must not be forgotten. He also attempted to set Moliere's comedy, Georges Dandin, to music, keeping to the original prose. This work has never been brought out. Gounod composed a large number of songs, many of which are very beautiful. One of the vocal pieces that have contributed most to his popularity is the celebrated Meditation on the First Prelude of Bach, more widely known as the Ave Maria. The idea of fitting a melody to the Prelude of Bach was original, and it must be admitted that in this case the experiment was successful.

Gounod died at St Cloud on the 18th of October 1893. His influence on French music was immense, though during the last years of the 19th century it was rather counterbalanced by that of Wagner. Whatever may be the verdict of posterity, it is unlikely that the quality of individuality will be denied to Gounod. To be the composer of Faust is alone a sufficient title to lasting fame. (A. HE.)

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