La Belle Epoque (1) – Gounod

CHARLES GOUNOD 1818 – 1893

Charles Gounod should perhaps be given a special mention to start this Matthew Taylor series if only because he could be said to be one of us. He was for a time a Blackheathen of the Early Cator Age having lived from 1870 to 1874 at 17 Morden Road, Blackheath following the Franco Prussian war. A blue plaque is to be seen on the house where he lived close by the Plantation. But for the time difference which separates us Charles could have been a member of our group! Of the composers that Matthew is likely to deal with he would be the earliest. Too early perhaps for our study as his best was passed him by 1870.

 So what do we know about him? One American website summarizes him thus:-

Born: 17 June 1818

Birthplace: Paris, France

Died: 18 October 1893

Location of death: Saint Cloud, France

Cause of death: unspecified

Remains: Buried, Cimetière d’Auteuil, Paris, France

Gender: Male

Race or Ethnicity: White

Sexual orientation: Straight

Occupation: Composer

Born at St Cloud in 1818 he is only 15 years younger than Berlioz and less than 10 years younger than Mendelssohn and Schumann. Wagner was born but five years earlier. Gounod père was a painter and architect of some distinction who himself had won the Prix de Rome in his own field. Charles’ mother was his first piano teacher. His first great musical impression was when he was taken at the age of thirteen to hear Rossini’s opera “Otello”. Mozart had a greater effect and after hearing Don Giovanni it was Mozart who remained Gounod’s ideal throughout his career. Other works which he heard at this period and which left lasting effects upon him were Beethoven’s Pastoral and Ninth Symphonies. Today we take for granted whole cycles of Beethoven symphonies being played and recorded that we cannot recall the rare treat of just savouring the opportunity to hear two or three such symphonies as and when the opportunity arose. After the Lycée, he was sent to the Conservatoire, where he entered the theory classes of Reicha and Lesueur both previous teachers of Berlioz

In 1839, he won the Prix de Rome which took him to the Villa Medici in Rome for four years followed by a year in Vienna. During his stay in Italy, Gounod studied the music of Palestrina and other sacred works of the sixteenth century and had a pronounced leaning towards religion and religious works. In 1842 he returned to Paris and was soon appointed choirmaster at the church of the Missions Etrangères, a position which he held for almost five years. He, like many of the other composers of this period, advanced through his ability at the organ. In 1845 he actually decided to take up the priesthood and entered a seminary for two terms. He would eventually reject this plan and marry, but he did remain religious throughout his life and wrote many sacred works, including masses, his launching pad as a composer of note being the popular 1855 St. Cecilia Mass. In that year Gounod also composed his two symphonies, which got some attention but no lasting success and hardly get a performance these days. His Symphony No. 1 in D major is said to have been the inspiration for the Symphony in C composed later that same year by the 17 year old Bizet who was then Gounod’s student.

 It was Fanny Mendelssohn,  sister of the composer, who introduced Gounod to the keyboard music of J. S. Bach. He came to revere Bach and was later inspired to devise an improvisation of a melody over the C major Prelude from the collection’s first book. Effectively, by converting each arpeggio into a chord he produced a melody. To this melody Gounod fitted the words of the Ave Maria resulting in a setting that became world-famous.

However, bearing in mind Gounod’s religious devotion, the route he chose to achieve popular success was a volte face, excuse my French. In his autobiography he confided.

 “For a composer, there is but one road to follow in order to make a name, and that is the operatic stage. Opera is the place where one finds the opportunity and the way to speak every day to the public; it is a daily and permanent display opened to the musician. Religious music and the symphony are certainly of a higher order, abstractly considered, than dramatic music, but the opportunities and the means of making one’s self known along those lines are rare and appeal only to an intermittent public rather than to a regular public like that of the opera”.

 His first opera, Sapho in 1851, was a commercial failure. He had no great operatic success until Faust his fourth opera, in 1859. This remains the composition for which he is best known although it took some time to achieve popularity and was revised in 1869. In fact it was often performed in Italian in some opera houses, like New York as mentioned by Edith Wharton in “The Age of Innocence”. Gounod’s Faust owes little to La Damnation de Faust by Berlioz which was written as a musical legend to be performed in the concert hall although to all intents and purposes an opera all the same. The Berlioz is more dramatic and spine chilling. The Gounod captured its audience with its own particular sentimental brand and has become one of the most frequently staged operas of all time.

 His Romeo and Juliet from 1867, is revived now and then but has never come close to matching Faust’s in popularity. Mireille is another admired by connoisseurs but hardly performed. The other Gounod operas – there were 13 in all – have fallen into oblivion.

 1870 was a significant a year in French history, like 1914 or 1939. The emperor, Napoleon III, wishing to see himself as a chip off the avuncular block, decided he would give a lesson to Germany and personally lead his troops into battle at Sedan. There he was defeated and ignominiously taken prisoner. Thus did the Second Empire fall. The Franco Prussian war was a humbling event for France and a number of artists, writers and composers left France for the better comfort of London. Monet came to London as did Pissaro who was technically Danish by nationality. Victor Hugo on the other hand was not one of this group. He had gone into exile much earlier in 1855 settling first in Jersey and later in Guernsey, his opposition being with the Empire. The events following 1870 allowed him to take the return trip to France. Gounod came to Mordern Road to avoid financial exigency and spent five years in Blackheath.

On 28th March 1871, the Royal Albert Hall was officially opened. The event was marked by an inaugural concert given by, among others, the Sacred Harmonic Society. Three months later, the RAH was the setting for yet another concert to mark the beginning of an international exhibition. This largely choral event was conducted by Charles Gounod and was the occasion of the foundation of the choir, first known as the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society but later to become The Royal Choral Society. Its first conductor was therefore none other than Charles Gounod. It was a well-received performance heard by a distinguished audience led by Queen Victoria. A reviewer for the Musical Times questioned M. Gounod’s appointment as director of an English choir!

Now up till then it seems that Gounod had led a pretty respectable life with no evidence of his playing away or keeping the odd mistress. But in respectable England, opportunity knocked for Gounod as it had previously done for Haydn, may be something to do with the air in Greenwich and Blackheath. We will never know whether Gounod cashed in on his luck or not. Following his Albert Hall success Gounod got himself entangled with an amateur English singer Georgina Weldon a relationship, probably platonic, was struck up and ended in great acrimony and embittered litigation. Forgive me now for going off at a tangent but this story is too good not to be told and I have therefore added a postlude on Georgina. What you read there could well have been the basis of a plot for an opera but Offenbach may be more likely to come to mind than Gounod.

Let us now return to the conventional world of Charles Gounod, safe within the bosom of his family in France. He now returned to his early religious impulses, writing much sacred music. He had written his Marche Pontificale in 1869 and which eventually, in 1949, was to become the official national anthem of the Vatican City. I cannot say that I know it, not having heard it played at any medal ceremony in any Olympic Games.

From 1882 there followed numerous oratorios and liturgical works including his oratorio, “The Redemption”, his “Messe de Pâques”, “Messe du Sacré Cœur” and “Messe des Orphéonistes. The Redemption was dedicated to Queen Victoria and went down well in England. The production of large scale liturgical works was a feature of the nineteenth century from Germany to England, from Mendelssohn to Elgar and Gounod was a child of his time and of the France of the mid to late nineteenth century.

 In 1887 in his religious zeal he stated that he wanted to compose his Messe à la mémoire de Jeanne d’Arc whilst kneeling on the stone on which Joan of Arc knelt at the coronation of Charles VII. This work offers certain peculiarities, being written for soloists, chorus, organ, eight trumpets, three trombones, and harps. A devout Catholic, he had on his piano a music-rack in which was carved an image of the face of Jesus. In 1893 he died in Saint-Cloud of a stroke.

 Though his reputation began to fade even before he died, he is still generally regarded as a major figure in nineteenth century French music. Stylistically, he was a conservative whose influence nevertheless extended to Bizet, Saint-Saëns and Massenet. He could not be called a trailblazer or the founder of any movement or school. His works are tuneful, his vocal writing imaginative, and orchestral scoring masterly.

 Apart from Faust may I suggest finally you sample from among his more compelling and imaginative late works the 1885 Petite Symphonie Concertante of1885. Scored for nine wind instruments it has the influence and charm of a Mozart wind serenade. One other work of Gounod’s which you will almost certainly know even if you do not recognize it from its title, “Funeral March of the Marionette”. This work received a new and unexpected lease of life from 1955 when it was first used as the theme for the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Just think of the silhouette and Hitchcock moving into the outline of his own profile! Remember? Now you can start humming.