Editor, McLerran Journal
Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX
This month marks the two hundredth birthday of Charles Gounod (GOH-NOH), born in Paris in 1818. Because both of his parents were skilled in the fine arts, he was encouraged from an early age to pursue music and enrolled in the Lycée Saint-Louis on scholarship at only eleven years old. In 1835, when his immense musical talent became apparent to both his mother and boarding school teachers, Gounod began taking private lessons with Bohemian composer Anton Reicha, the Professor of Composition at the Paris Conservatoire. About Gounod, Reicha said, "Nothing disheartens him [...] he finds pleasure and interest in everything; and what I like best about him is, he always wants to know the reason why." With the passing of Reicha in 1836, Gounod enrolled in the Paris Conservatory where he took lessons with Fromental Halévy and Jean-François Lesueur. It was during this time period that Gounod became good friends with the famous composer Hector Berlioz and was first introduced to the joy of live opera. Gounod shares, "I will never forget my first sight of the great theatre, the curtain and the brilliant lights. I felt as if I were in some temple, as if heavenly vision must shortly rise upon my sight." He was most inspired by Rossini (Othello) and Mozart (Don Giovanni) referring to tickets to the latter as "the most treasured New Year's gift my childhood ever knew."
In 1839, his cantata Fernand won the Prix de Rome, a prestigious musical honor that also included a three-year sabbatical in Rome at the famous Villa Medici. Gounod left home for the first time in December of that year, determined to make a name for himself and earn enough to support his mother, whom he worshipped. "If I have worked any good," he writes, "by word or by deed, during my life, I owe it to my mother, and to her I give the praise." While in Italy, Gounod was most influenced by the works of Renaissance composer, Giovanni da Palestrina (1525-1594), whose more than one-hundred masses changed the standard for church music in the 16th century (Stevens). Gounod described Palestrina as a musical deity capable of writing with such elevated technique that his works appeared effortless. During this time period, Gounod passed his idle time reading (and re-reading) Goethe's "Faust," composed primarily sacred works for voice and piano, and completed one mass. In 1843, at the age of twenty-five, he returned to Paris and accepted a position as choirmaster of the Church of the Missions Étrangères, a job he would soon resign from (in 1848) due to his overwhelming boredom. He described working as a church musician as "vegetating in a corner" and decided that the "one road for a composer who desires to make a real name" was the operatic stage.
In the 1850’s, Gounod began experimenting with operas and, through this process, achieved international recognition with his work Faust (1859). The five-act opera, based on J.W. von Goethe’s tragedy, tells the story of Faust, a grizzled old man who makes a bargain with the devil in order to relive his youth. He immediately sets out to win the heart of the fair Marguerite but, because of his selfishness, ends up causing the woman more suffering than happiness. The work was first performed in the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris, conducted by Adolphe Deloffre (IMSLP). A decade later, Gounod composed additional instrumental movements to be used for ballet interludes at the request of the Paris Opera (Shwarm). The most enduring songs from the work include Il était un roi de Thulé (The King of Thule), Ah! je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir (the Jewel Song), and Salut! demeure chaste et pure (Faust’s aria). According to Betsy Schwarm of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, several German people were insulted by Gounod’s appropriation of what was widely considered a “national masterpiece” as well as his decision to focus the plot primarily on the leading lady, Marguerite, instead of Faust.
Despite the influence of his widely talented and adventurous contemporaries (like Hector Berlioz), people hoping for unconventional instrumentation or ground-breaking compositional techniques would have spent an awfully long time waiting for Gounod to change his style. From 1850-1870, his career was comprised primarily of works either for voice (particularly for the Orphéon Choral Society in Paris, of which Gounod was the conductor) and the theater. In 1870, he helped to establish the Royal Choral Society in London and dedicated his time almost entirely to writing oratorios. This intentional stability, which could be mistaken for a lack of talent or imagination, was likely the result of his deeply embedded desire to support his mother financially. About her, Gounod shared that she was not only the reason for his love of music, but also had spent the majority of her life working multiple jobs in order to provide for him and his brother. Every success that Gounod enjoyed and every position that he accepted, he dedicated wholly to his mother.
Gounod passed away in 1893 at the age of seventy-five in a small town near Paris. Scholars agree that, although Gounod “cannot be referred to as a trailblazer,” he is remembered for the pleasantness and consistency of his pieces (Cummings). His most recognizable works include Ave Maria (1853), Messe de Sainte-Cécile (1855), Roméo et Juliette (1867), and the Petite Symphonie (1885).
Goldbeck, Frederick. (2016). Charles Gounod. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia
Britannica, Inc. Web. 17 March, 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-
Cummings, Robert. (2018). Charles Gounod. All Music. Rhythm One Group. Web. 20 March, 2018.
IMSLP Petrucci Music Library. Faust (Gounod, Charles). N.d. Web. 20 March, 2018.
Vienna State Opera. (2009). The Deal of a Lifetime: Gounod’s Faust. National Public Radio Music.
Web. 20 March, 2018. <https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=98732782>
Schwarm, Betsy. (2016). Faust. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. Web. 17,
March, 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Faust-opera>
Stevens, Denis William. (2016). Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. Web. 29 April, 2018.
Gounod, Charles. (2018) Charles Gounod. Translated by Walter Hely Hutchinson. CreateSpace
Independent Publishing Platform.