Charles Gounod (1818-1893), from Church to opera

On the occasion of the bicentenary
of the composer’s birth, the Palazzetto
Bru Zane offers a chance to become
better acquainted with the man
who was not only the creator
of 'Faust' and 'Roméo et Juliette' . . .

Gounod is rightly viewed as the apostle of a lyrical, sensual and seductive Romanticism. From the wonder of Marguerite admiring herself in the ‘Jewel Song’ from Faust to the pastoral ingenuousness of Mireille, by way of the voluptuous delight of the Garden Scene from Roméo et Juliette, the composer exhibited his ability to grasp and transcribe the palpitations of the human heart when it falls victim to love, overwhelming or frustrated. But he was not only the eulogist of desire, and the objective of the cycle devoted to him by the Palazzetto Bru Zane is precisely to show the artist in all his facets. That is why rare and specialist repertory (the Concerto for pedal piano, the transcription of Mozart for a cappella chorus) will appear side by side with genuine events (the modern premiere of his last opera, Le Tribut de Zamora), while new light will be shed on better-known pieces, notably the first version of Faust (with spoken dialogue), performed on period instruments.

‘His music is as divine
as his person is noble
and distinguished.
Gounod has an immense
future ahead of him.’ (Pauline Viardot)

The man in brief

Charles Gounod’s painter father died when he was five years old, and he was raised by his mother, who gave him his initial musical training before handing him over to the famous Antoine Reicha. After pursuing a literary education culminating in a baccalauréat de philosophie, he entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1836 to study with Halévy (counterpoint) and Le Sueur and Paer (composition) until he won the Premier Prix de Rome in 1839. Although he envisaged taking holy orders at one time, displaying genuine devotion which was to result in an imposing corpus of sacred music, his passion for the theatre finally gained the upper hand. His first attempt at an opera, Sapho (1851), was admittedly no more than a qualified success, but it did lead to his receiving, the following year, a commission to write incidental music for the Comédie-Française: Ulysse. This was soon followed by La Nonne sanglante (1855), Le Médecin malgré lui (1858) and above all Faust (1859), an undisputed masterpiece of French art. None of his other works, except perhaps Roméo et Juliette (1867), was subsequently to match the success and the posterity of this opera inspired by Goethe’s play. He nevertheless produced a succession of stage works which met with varying fortunes: La Colombe and Philémon et Baucis (1860), La Reine de Saba (1862), Mireille (1864), Cinq-Mars (1877), Polyeucte (1878) and Le Tribut de Zamora (1881). Celebrated as an authentic national treasure, elected to the Institut de France in 1866, Gounod left his mark on his era with his highly individual sensibility and his impressive catalogue of works, predominantly vocal, despite significant incursions into the domains of orchestral and chamber music.

Key dates

Paris / Rome / Vienna / London

Unlike such artists as Liszt or Saint-Saëns, Gounod was no intrepid traveller, and his rather sedentary nature inclined him to settle for long periods in just a few European capitals. It was never on his own initiative that he embarked on the journeys that stood out as milestones in his life. For example, the period of residence in Italy was the result of his winning the Prix de Rome competition in 1839: during the long months he stayed at the Villa Medici, he had the good fortune of frequenting the painter Ingres, the institution’s director at the time, who nurtured him on his classical doctrines. Gounod later remarked of Ingres, in his Mémoires d’un artiste: ‘I have never seen anyone admire more things than he did, precisely because he could see better than anyone else in which respect and why something is admirable. But he was prudent; he knew to what extent the impulses of the young lead them, without discernment and without method, to be enamoured of, infatuated with, the personal traits of such and such a master.’ From Rome, the young composer moved on to Vienna, where he was to stay only a short time. But it was there that he wrote several works that laid the foundations for his mature style, notably two pieces of considerable value: the Requiem in D minor and the Messe vocale for a cappella choir, which bears witness to his first contact with the style of Palestrina. If Gounod settled in London for a lengthy sojourn in the 1870s, he was once again prompted by circumstances: the Franco-Prussian War left him feeling insecure within the borders of France. This period saw the birth of such large-scale works as Mors et Vita, one of the most ambitious oratorios of the French Romantic repertory, the opera Polyeucte and the cantata Gallia. Yet it was in Paris that Gounod lived most of his life. His works were the jewels in its operatic crown, the symbols of a Romanticism at its zenith, which all Europe came to applaud.

The sacred music: key dates

The mystic

Gounod’s tastes did not run solely to music. His dream of an ideal very nearly made him choose the path of religion. It was a close-run thing, and it is probably his mother we have to thank for his final orientation. While he was living at the Villa Medici, she regularly worried over the appearance of mystic impulses in a son she knew very well, delicately asking him: ‘I don’t know where you would like to live when you come back. Will it be near the Missions or near the Opéra?’ Gounod later attended theology lectures wearing clerical dress, but finally wrote: ‘I was strangely mistaken as to my own nature and my true vocation.’ This attraction to religion left its mark in a catalogue of sacred pieces as significant in number as they are in quality. The most famous of them, the Messe de sainte Cécile, has unjustly overshadowed other, more ambitious conceptions: several requiems, oratorios including Rédemption and Mors et Vita, and numerous motets in varied styles, ranging from the neo-Palestrinian to the most modern Romanticism. Among the composer’s final works, the short oratorio Saint François d’Assise was fortunately rediscovered not long ago. Saint-Saëns considered that the sacred music was the portion of Gounod’s output most deserving of passing the test of time, even if posterity has preferred Faust and Roméo et Juliette. Some commentators have criticised this religious music for adopting the tone of profane love more often than that of biblical adoration. This is because Gounod sings of both with the same sincerity, that of a simple human creature confronted with the mysteries of existence.

‘God created three beautiful things:
music, flowers and women.
It is of them that I have always sung.’ Charles Gounod, «Mémoires d’un artiste»

The eternal feminine

Like Massenet after him, Gounod exalted woman and her passions. The composer himself was deeply affected by a number of encounters that punctuated his existence over nearly fifty years: Maria Malibran, Pauline Viardot, Fanny Mendelssohn, Georgina Weldon, Adèle d’Affry, Anna Zimmerman, among others. All of them were confidantes or inspiratory muses to him. Gounod’s impetuous temperament accounts for the impassioned letters that are today the surviving evidence of these relationships, and sometimes strain at the limits of propriety. But the first woman on the list was none other than his own mother, Victoire Gounod, who watched over his musical education with indefatigable, sometimes even obsessional zeal. Though one perceives regularly that he was annoyed by this omnipresence, Gounod nevertheless paid telling tribute to the woman who did so much for him, writing to his fiancée: ‘She has loved me so much that the two of us will not be too many to repay her.’ This firmament of inspiring muses is magnified in the composer’s operas, none of which neglects the feminine countenance. Over and above the three rebellious matrons of Le Médecin malgré lui, his most emblematic female figures are Sapho the poetess, Marguerite the defenceless young girl, Juliette and the fragility of profane love, Pauline and the grandeur of sacred love, Balkis – Queen of Sheba – and the weakness of the senses, and finally Mireille, the most innocent of all. In this year of 2018 the last women in Gounod’s pantheon who had not yet returned to the spotlight will spring back to life: Xaïma and Hermosa, the heroines of his final opera, Le Tribut de Zamora.

The man of the theatre

Gounod’s mother had had the discernment to place Gérard de Nerval’s translation of Goethe’s Faust in the luggage of the young man as he set out for Rome. Later on, Le Médecin malgré lui, his opéra-comique of 1858, responded to a concern she had expressed as soon as her son came home from the Villa Medici: that he should not restrict himself to the serious genre. We see that, in the domain of opera as in so many others, Gounod once again owed a great deal to his mother. Although it was accused of academicism by the champions of unbridled modernity, his operatic output testifies to two qualities essential in a great composer: the unity of a personal stylistic signature and the variety of a man who understood the specificities of each of his librettos. If his melodic and harmonic hallmarks are present in abundance, the way Gounod lays out his arias, ensembles and finales surprises us every time. Generous with reprises and ambitious developments in his grands opéras, he is economical and parsimonious in the demi-caractère genre (as in Cinq-Mars and Philémon et Baucis), with a fondness for introducing salon romances (Siebel’s ‘Si le bonheur’ in Faust) and orchestrated mélodies (Sapho’s ‘Ô ma lyre immortelle’ or Marie de Gonzague’s ‘Nuit resplendissante’). He wrote gratefully for all voice types, but always favoured the ‘fort ténor’ of opéra-comique (Roméo, Vincent, Faust, Cinq-Mars) and the affecting tones of the lyric soprano (Mireille, Marguerite, Juliette), the latter type of role being conceived for the divine Caroline Miolan-Carvalho, wife of the director of the Théâtre-Lyrique.

‘France possesses an immensely
valuable repertory of dramatic music,
which it is very far from appreciating
at its true worth.’ Hector Berlioz

Le Tribut de Zamora

Opera in four acts on a libretto by Adolphe d’Ennery, premiered at the Opéra de Paris on 1 April 1881. First modern performance of the work, given in concert. World premiere recording. After Cinq-Mars (1877) and Polyeucte (1878), Gounod tackled the operatic genre once more in 1881 with what is probably his most ambitious work: Le Tribut de Zamora. Here he was confronted for the first time with an exotic subject that was also, in certain respects, ‘pre-Naturalist’. The action takes place in tenth-century Spain – from Act Two onwards, on ‘a picturesque site on the banks of the Oued al Kebir before Córdoba’. Here Gounod – finally noted more for his neoclassical pastiches (Le Médecin malgré lui and Cinq-Mars) and his ardent Romanticism (Faust and Roméo et Juliette) – was given an opportunity to display his talents as an orchestrator and colourist. He produced an epic in the tradition of French grand opéra, though not without adding the original touch of a mentally deranged character (the Spanish girl Hermosa) who regains her reason after numerous adventures and plot twists. Despite an unequivocal success on its first run, Le Tribut de Zamora quickly sank into oblivion. It thoroughly deserves its resurrection, if only for a chance to hear the stirring national anthem ‘Debout! Enfants de l’Ibérie’. We can now appreciate in this opera precisely what certain detractors complained of at the time: the fact that we meet here once again the irresistible lyricism of Faust and Roméo et Juliette.