Gounod, Charles François

The next year Gounod married a Miss Zimmermann, the daughter of a well-known teacher in the Paris Conservatory. Shortly after this event Ulysse was produced, a drama by Ponsard, to which Gounod wrote the choruses. It was during this year that he became director of the Orpheon, an organized union of the numerous choral societies of the city, a position bringing with it the superintendency of vocal instruction in the public schools. Gounod filled this with honor until 1860, producing works of Palestrina and Bach, and considerable choral music of his own; and in the meantime he was steadily working toward the goal of a dramatic composer. He did not, indeed, reach fame at a single bound; beside the works mentioned, and some vocal and instrumental compositions, which were successfully performed at the Association des Jeunes Artistes, he brought out La Nonne Sanglante (The Bleeding Nun) in 1854. This proved a failure, due in great part to the ineffective libretto. In 1855 one of his most important compositions, the Mass to St. Cecilia, was produced at the Church of St. Eustache, in Paris, and in 1858 a comic opera, Le Medecin Malgre Lui, founded on Moliere's play of the same name. The next year saw the production of the work which has made this composer world-famous in a degree that no other single opera has ever done for its author. Yet, at the time   that Faust was first performed, it made no especial stir, unless one excepts the attitude of the conservative German critics, who were shocked at the daring of a Frenchman in using their immortal Goethe's poem as a stage subject. Three years before its initial performance at the Theatre Lyrique the libretto of Faust had been commenced by Jules Barbier and Michel Carre in collaboration. For no less than eighteen years, however, the project had been in Gounod's mind. Considering the other drawbacks attending its production, he was fortunate in having the part of Marguerite created by a popular singer, the wife of his manager, Carvalho, who was   considered in her time an unrivaled interpreter of light lyric roles. The manager himself exacted many changes from the composer, ending with a demand for the omission of the garden scene, on the ground that it was not showy enough. This Gounod firmly refused, saying he would omit the whole opera first; and time has endorsed his judgment. Gounod's setting of the Faust story is today conceded to be superior to all others of the same subject, of which there exist a dozen or more. It has been produced on German, Italian and  French stages, from Great Britain and St. Petersburg to Spain, Spanish America, and the chief cities of the United States. Yet it brought the composer only about $400, while Mireille later secured him nearly $7000 for the English rights alone: a striking proof of the financial value of established reputation. The first performance of Faust in Germany was at Darmstadt, and in spite of the critics' denunciations, it spread over the country in a short time. By the year 1892 it had reached its 600th performance. It received its warmest welcome at first from Italy, and more strangely from Germany, even in Munich and Dresden, the strongholds of national prejudice. The wide variety of scenes and emotions depicted in Faust seems most obviously responsible for its great popularity; it appeals to almost every class of humanity. The various scenes present such contrasts that the opera has been criticized as lacking proper development; yet there is a subtle spiritual and emotional unity underlying the whole that constitutes its truest claim to a place among the masterpieces of musical drama. It has been well said that Faust contains the very essence of Gounod's genius. The next work brought out, Philemon and Baucis, called his first lyrical venture, was based on a subject undramatic itself, and appearing as it did, the year after Faust, attracted little attention, although several performances were given at Covent Garden. La Reine de Saba (The Queen of Sheba), given at the Academic in Paris, 1862, was a work of considerable scenic pretension, but on the whole a disappointment both to the composer and the public; here also the libretto was at fault. It met with more success, however, in Darmstadt and Brussels than in Paris. Mireille, 1864, based on a pastoral poem by Mistral, is said to have possessed much original beauty, but to have suffered damaging alterations in adapting it to the stage. SaintSaens, to whom the first score was submitted, has deplored these changes, and says that the composer just missed a great success with it. La Colombe, 1866, was less noticed than Mireille, but the next year brought Romeo and Juliet, considered the best of the many operatic settings of Shakespeare's tragedy. It won immediate success, which later proved second only to that of Faust, in the year 1870 Gounod removed to London to escape the confusion of war in France, and there resided for about five years, when he returned to Paris. Already his earlier tendency toward the church was reasserting itself, and the operas which followed, CinqMars, 1877, Polyeucte, 1878, and Le Tribut de Zamora, 1881, all failed. Gounod had centered many hopes in Polyeucte, and spoke of the baptismal scene as the finest thing he had ever written; but he could not find a tenor really capable of creating the title role. The work contains some excellent passages and is permeated with the deep religious fervor so characteristic of Gounod's strongest moments. According to Saint-Saens, who was an intimate friend of the composer, the failure was due largely to the superiority of the singers assigned to the pagan roles, which overshadowed the Christians in a contrast planned to be effective, but short of the composer's purpose.