A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Gounod, Charles François
GOUNOD, Charles François, born in Paris June 17, 1818. He received his early musical education from his mother, a distinguished pianist, and having finished his classical studies at the Lycée St. Louis, and taken his degree as Bachelier-ès-lettres, in 1836 entered the Conservatoire, where he was in Halévy's class for counterpoint, and learned composition from Paër and Lesueur. In 1837 his cantata 'Marie Stuart et Rizzio' obtained the second 'prix de Rome,' which he shared with the pianist Louis Chollet; and in 1839 he won the 'Grand prix' for his cantata 'Fernand.' No artist or literary man can tread the soil of Italy with indifference, and Gounod's residence in Rome exercised an influence on his ardent imagination, of which his whole career bears traces. The years he spent at the Villa Medici as a pensioner of the Académie de France, were chiefly occupied with the study of the music of the old masters, especially Palestrina; and his first important compositions were a mass for 3 equal voices and full orchestra, performed May 1, 1841, at the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi (the unpublished MS. is in the Library of the Paris Conservatoire), and a mass for 3 voices without accompaniment, produced in Vienna in 1843. It was while visiting Austria and Germany on his way back to Paris, that he first heard the compositions of Robert Schumann, of which he knew nothing previously; the effect they must have had on the impressionable mind of the young composer may be imagined. The ideas imbibed in Rome however prevailed, he remained faithful to Palestrina, and on reaching Paris became organist and maître de chapelle of the 'Missions étrangéres.' It was at this period that he attended for two years a course of theology; in 1846 he even became an out-pupil at the 'Séminaire,' and it was generally expected that he would take orders. Fortunately he perceived the mistake in time, and renounced the idea of the priesthood; but these years of theological study had given him a love of reading, and literary attainments of a kind rarely possessed by modern musicians. M. Gounod still delights to quote not only St. Augustine and other Fathers, but passages from the Latin sermons of St. Léon and St. Bernard—indeed he would almost seem to have appropriated the words of the latter, 'ardere et lucere,' as the motto of his life.
How he passed the years 1845–50, he will himself perhaps inform us, if he writes the history of his life, as he is said to intend doing. We may believe that he employed these five years of silence in studying the works of Schumann and Berlioz—the former then almost unknown in France; the latter encountering nothing but opposition and unmerited abuse. With his keen intellect, refined taste, and aptitude for subtle analysis, M. Gounod would have no difficulty in appreciating both the leading characteristics and the defects of these two original composers; he would doubtless next endeavour to discover the best method of creating an individual style for himself, profiting by the study of models so dangerous if followed too closely. It was probably during this time that he wrote his 'Messe solennelle' in G, for solos, chorus, orchestra, and organ, and which gave him his first appearance before the world—strangely enough in London! Four numbers from that work, included by Mr. Hullah in a Concert at S. Martin's Hall, Jan. 15, 1851, formed the text of various articles in the English papers, and especially of one in the 'Athenæum' (Jan. 18) which was reprinted in Paris and elsewhere, and caused much discussion. 'Whatever the ultimate result, here at any rate was a poet and musician of a very high order.'
But the theatre was destined mainly to occupy M. Gounod for many years. His first opera, 'Sapho,' in 3 acts, was given at the Académie April 16, 1851, with Mme. Viardot in the principal part. It contains many passages rich in colour, though scarcely dramatic; the grand scena of Sapho, 'Hero sur la tour,' and the herdsman's air, have alone survived. In writing the numerous choruses for Ponsard's tragedy of 'Ulysse' (1852), M. Gounod again attempted to produce an antique colouring by means of rhythmical effects and modulations of an obsolete character; but the music—though betraying a master hand, was stigmatised as monotonous, and the charming chorus of the 'Servantes infidèles' was the only piece received with real enthusiasm. In 1852 he became conductor of the Orphéon in Paris; and the eight years he was there engaged in teaching choral singing gave him much valuable experience both of the human voice in itself, and of the various effects to be obtained from large bodies of voices. For the Orphéonistes he composed several choruses, and 2 Masses for 4 men's voices; but such works as these were not calculated to satisfy the ambition of so exceptionally gifted an artist. Anxious to try his strength in all branches of music, he wrote several symphonies (one in D, a second in E♭), which were performed with success at the concerts of the 'Association des jeunes Artistes,' but are of no importance. In France however the stage is the sole avenue to fame and fortune, and accordingly his main efforts were made in that direction. The 'Nonne Sanglante' (Oct. 18, 1854) a 5-act opera founded on a weird legend in Lewises 'Monk,' was only given 11 times; although it contains a 2nd act of a high order of merit as music, and a very striking duet—that of the legend. After this second failure at the Académie Gounod was compelled to seek success elsewhere, and accordingly produced 'Le Medécin malgré lui,' an opéra comique arranged by Carré and Barbier from Molière's comedy, at the Théâtre Lyrique (Jan. 15, 1858). The music is refined, but not in the least comic. The most successful number was the septet of the consultation; as for the charming couplets sung by Sganarelle when in liquor, they are delightful from a musical point of view, and essentially lyric, but contain not a particle of the vis comica. Under the title of the 'Mock Doctor' the piece has had fair success in London. 'Faust' however, also produced at the Theatre Lyrique, March 19, 1859, with Mme. Miolan-Carvalho as Marguerite, placed Gounod at once in the first rank of living composers. The fantastic part of Faust may not be quite satisfactory, and the stronger dramatic situations are perhaps handled with less skill than those which are more elegiac, picturesque, or purely lyric, but in spite of such objections the work must be classed among those which reflect high honour on the French school. The Kermesse and the garden-scene would alone be sufficient to immortalise their author. 'Philémon et Baucis,' a one-act opera composed for the theatre at Baden, was re-written in three acts for the Théâtre Lyrique, and performed Feb. 18, 1860. The score contains some charming passages, and much ingenuity and elegance of detail; but unfortunately the libretto has neither interest, movement, nor point, and belongs to no well-defined species of drama. After the immense success of 'Faust,' the doors of the Académie were naturally again opened to Gounod, but the 'Reine de Saba' (Feb. 28, 1862) did not rise to the general expectation. The libretto, written by Gérard de Nerval, embodies ideas more suitable for a political or a psychological exposition, than for a lyric tragedy. Of this great work nothing has survived but the dialogue and chorus between the Jewesses and Sabeans, in the 2nd act, the air of the Queen in the 4th act (afterwards inserted in Faust), the choral march, the choral dance, and above all the elegant and picturesque airs de ballet. Under the name of 'Irene' an English version of the opera was occasionally performed in London. The success of 'Mireille' (Théâtre Lyrique, March 19, 1864), a 5-act opera founded on the Provençal poem of F. Mistral, was secured by the cast, especially by the splendid performance of Mme. Miolan-Carvalho, whose part contains one of the most remarkable airs of modern times ('Mon cœur'). Mme. Faure-Lefebvre—as Andreloun—and the other artists combined to make an excellent ensemble. Still 'Mireille' is descriptive and lyric rather than dramatic; accordingly by Dec. 15, 1864, it was reduced to 3 acts, in which abridged form it was revived in 1876. Its overture is admirable, and a great favourite in English concert rooms. This charming pastoral was succeeded by 'La Colombe' (June 7, 1866) originally written for the theatre at Baden, and known in England as the 'Pet Dove,' and by 'Roméo et Juliette' (April 27, 1867), a 5-act opera, of which the principal part was again taken by Mme. Miolan. The song of Queen Mab, the duet in the garden, a short chorus in the 2nd act, the page's song, and the duel scene in the 3rd act, are the favourite pieces in this opera. Since these Gounod has written incidental music for Legouvé's tragedy 'Les deux Reines,' and for Jules Barbier's 'Jeanne d'Arc' (Nov. 8, 1873).
He has also published much church music, besides the 'Messe Solennelle' already mentioned, and the 2nde Messe des Orphéonistes; a 'Stabat Mater' with orchestra; the oratorio 'Tobie'; 'Gallia,' a lamentation, produced at the Albert Hall, London (May 1, 1871), a De Profundis; an Ave Verum; Sicut cervus; and various other hymns and motets, two collections of songs, and many single songs and pieces, such as 'Nazareth,' and 'There is a green hill.' For orchestra a Saltarello in A, and the Funeral march of a marionette. A jeu de plume, on the propriety of which we will not decide, but which is unquestionably extremely popular, is his 'Meditation' for soprano solo and orchestra on the 1st Prelude of Bach's 48.
After a stay of some years in England, during which he appeared in public at the Philharmonic, the Crystal Palace, and Mrs. Weldon's concerts, Gounod recollected that he had been elected a member of the 'Institut de France' on the death of Clapisson (1866); and returning to Paris, resumed the position to which his genius entitled him. On the 5th of April, 1877, he produced 'Cinq Mars' at the Théâtre de l'Opéra Comique, a work which bears traces of the haste in which it was designed and executed. His last opera, Polyeucte, produced at the Grand Opera, Oct. 7, 1878, though containing some fine music will hardly add to the fame of the author of Faust.To sum up, Gounod is a great musician and a thorough master of the orchestra. Of too refined a nature to write really comic music, his dramatic compositions seem the work of one hovering between mysticism and voluptuousness. This contrast between two opposing principles may be traced in all his works, sacred or dramatic; and gives them an immense interest both from a musical and psychological point of view. In the chords of his orchestra, majestic as those of a cathedral organ, we recognise the mystic—in his soft and original melodies, the man of pleasure. In a word, the lyric element predominates in his work, too often at the expense of variety and dramatic truth.
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- The second of these was played by the Philharmonic, 1866, and both have been repeatedly heard at Sydenham.