Gounod, Charles François


Heredity did much for this eminent French composer. Gounod's father, François Louis Gounod, a talented and highly esteemed painter, transmitted to him a love of color and a sensitiveness to artistic form that expressed itself at one time in a desire to follow the same calling, but was diverted into another channel, more familiar through early training; for the elder Gounod died when Charles was a small boy, leaving the support of two sons to the highly gifted and cultivated mother, an accomplished musician, who continued to teach her husband's pupils in drawing, and also began giving music lessons.

The generally accepted date of Gounod's birth, 1818, has been disputed by an old friend and pupil of his mother, who states it must have been as early as 1811 or 1812. At the early age of two he exhibited a keen musical ear, and at eleven he was sent to the Lycee St. Louis to enter upon a course of general study. Here the chapelmaster, Monpou, discovered that the child had a good voice and could read at sight, and at once appointed him soprano soloist among the choir-boys; but at the age when his voice was  changing and needed rest, this unwise musician kept him singing, and ruined his voice for the future.   Meanwhile, an intense love of music, coupled with secret ambition, was growing in the child's mind, and distracting his attention from his studies at school. An opera was a rare treat, but gave him enough to think and dream about for days. The boy now began to " scribble " music during school hours, which when discovered, drew down punishment upon him. This only strengthened his resolve to continue musical work in addition to his studies, and to this end he wrote to his  mother a formal announcement of his determination to follow music as a profession, which was a source of great disturbance to her, knowing as she did, from bitter experience, the varying fortunes of an artist's life. She consulted the principal of the school, who sought to dissuade Gounod from his purpose, but to no effect. The teacher then gave him a few stanzas to set to music, with which Gounod succeeded so well that he won over the enemy, and a compromise was effected by which he began lessons in musical theory under Anton Reicha. The boy made rapid progress; but before long Reicha died, and he then obtained admission to the Paris Conservatory, continuing his study of counterpoint and fugue under Halevy and composition under Lesueur, whose strong bent toward religious music was an influence to which this gifted and susceptible pupil fully responded. About this time the first hearing of Mozart's Don Giovanni and two of Beethoven's symphonies made a lifelong impression upon Gounod, and he resolved to make a complete triumph of this period of probation, and secure his mother's final consent to his purpose, by winning the Prize of Rome, which would exempt him from the term of military service, looming up in the near future as a barrier to his plans. In 1837 Gounod obtained the second prize for his cantata, Marie Stuart et Rizzio, which was performed in public that year. This was not sufficient to gain the longed-for freedom, but it gave him another year's grace, and on the third competition he won the grand prize with his cantata, Fernand. Before he left for Rome, however, he composed, at the request of the chapelmaster of St. Eustache, an orchestral mass for that church, which was directed by the young composer, and won cheering encouragement just before his departure. The three years of study that followed made many and varied impressions upon Gounod's keen artistic sensibilities; the paintings of the old Italian masters, and the music of Palestrina, whom he ever afterward connected in thought with Michelangelo, alike quickened his religious instincts  but the degenerate Italian theatres jarred upon him, and instead of studying dramatic music by hearing operas, he had recourse to the scores of his favorite composers in that line, Gluck, Lully, Mozart, and Rossini. A product of this period was a mediaeval mass without accompaniment, given at the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, 1841, for which he was given the title of Honorary Chapelmaster for life.

During the winter of 1840 and 1841 the composer met and played an accompaniment for Pauline Viardot, who was to be so influential later in the beginning of his public career. He also made the acquaintance of Fanny Mendelssohn Henzel, and was deeply impressed with her musical gifts. Mme. Henzel, on the other hand, writes of Gounod thus: "Gounod has a passion for music; it is a pleasure to have such a listener. His nature is passionate and romantic to excess. Our German music produces upon him the effect of a bomb bursting inside a house." From Italy, where the germ of Faust was conceived, he went to Austria and Germany, and in Vienna, in 1842, his Requiem Mass was performed. As he had but six weeks in which to complete this work, he kept at it night and day, according to his own account, and brought on a severe illness, which fortunately proved brief. In Berlin he renewed his acquaintance with the Henzels, and through them was admitted to the favor of Mendelssohn, who showed him every possible courtesy. During his sojourn in Germany, Gounod heard for the first time the compositions of Robert Schumann. Refreshed, encouraged, and inspired by these years of travel and study, he set about finding a publisher in Paris for his works, but the time had not yet come. He became organist and musical director of the chapel of the Seminary of Foreign Missions, and there remained in seclusion for nearly five years; during this time he studied theology, and was so near the point of taking orders that he was referred to in an 1846 issue of a musical periodical, as the Abbe Gounod, a name which clung to him persistently. In February, 1848, he left his post at the chapel, which had allowed him much leisure to employ in composition, chiefly of religious music, and in study of the scores of Schumann and Berlioz. The composer's thoughts were turning toward the stage as the best available medium for becoming known; but several years elapsed before he could fulfill this desire. In 1851 an article appeared in the London Athenaeum calling attention to Gounod as a "poet and musician of a very high order;" his Messe Solennelfe, first given in Paris two years before, having just been produced in the British capital. This article, attributed to Louis Viardot, did for Gounod in France what his own efforts had hitherto failed to accomplish  It was copied by various journals in Paris and other cities. Through the kind offices of Mme. Viardot he secured a celebrated librettist for his first opera, Sapho, for the principal part in which the singer, then in her prime, had offered her services. Sapho was produced at the Grand Opera in 1851, and while it did not create a sensation, it won the praise of Berlioz and the recognition of other discriminating musicians and critics.

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.

From this time Gounod renounced the world and paganism as sources of inspiration, and devoted his energies to sacred music. While his Mass to St. Cecilia is estimated by Pagnerre as holding the same position among the remainder of his sacred works that Faust does among his operas, The Redemption, 1882, and Mors et Vita (Life and Death), 1885, are the fruits of his ripened genius in this direction. Gounod wrote the librettos of both oratorios, which were in the form of trilogies. The former work was dedicated to Queen Victoria, who greatly admired the composer, and was performed first at Birmingham, where he himself conducted it, and in 1884 at Paris. Mors et Vita forms a sequel to The Redemption, and is said to be more melodious, although, owing to the Latin libretto, it has not attained the same general favor. Of The Redemption the composer is quoted as saying, " I did not set myself to create a musical symbol of the Christian religion, but to depict the treasures of love, of unspeakable tenderness . . . which the Son of God carried in his heart. I aimed at affecting the world with the sight of a human drama, the most pathetic, most magnificent of all."

Gounod left two posthumous operas that were never performed, Maitre Pierre, and Georges Dandin, the latter having a prose libretto, after Moliere, verbatim. Beside the works mentioned are the following: Incidental music to Legouve's drama, Les Deux Reines de France, and to Barbier's Jeanne d'Arc; a Mass for St. Peter's (posthumous); an oratorio, Tobie; a mass to the Sacred Heart of Jesus; Gallia, a "biblical elegy; " a Stabat Mater; and an O Salutaris. Among his less important works are a Missa brevis; a Paternoster; a De Profundis; an Ave verum; a Te Deum; a Magnificat, Jesus sur de lac de Tiberiade, and a cantata, A la frontiere. His songs, as  one writer says, are minor works in quantity, not in quality. Some of the best known are O That We Two Were Maying, Maid of Athens, the serenade, Sing, Smile, Slumber; all secular; There is a Green Hill, Nazareth, and Repentance, representative of his sacred songs. His instrumental music includes two symphonies; a march pontifica]e;a march Romaine; waltzes; songs without words; and other small pieces for piano; but this was not Gounod's natural vein. A few orchestral works are left: A Saltarello in A; an arrangement of a Bach prelude; and the popular Funeral March of a Marionette, a unique humorous sketch, which has also been arranged for piano and for organ. The famous Ave Maria was written originally for Wely, and the part now used for organ was composed for the humbler harmonium. Gounod's essays on works by Saint-Saens have already been mentioned; there are also autobiographical memoirs, which have been translated into English, but are incomplete, as they extend only to the time of Faust's production. There is also a "rhapsodical effusion" on Don Giovanni, which has been slurringly criticized as probably insincere. From Gounod's intense admiration of Mozart, however, we can hardly believe this; it was simply his way of recording an overpowering impression. This was translated and published in English in 1895. Gounod also wrote a method for the cornet a pistons.

Wilhelm Heinrich states that "Gounod is almost the only French composer who possessed a deep religious nature and gave vent to it in many beautiful sacred melodies." Of these the one best known is the Ave Maria, in which he superimposed a melody for the voice to Bach's First Prelude.

Notwithstanding the fact that musical expression took precedence of form in Gounod's work, he composed with care, and the effects he produced are no more the result of emotional inspiration than they are of close analysis and refined perception. He is a master of the beautiful, the poetic, the tender, rather than of the tragic or the sublime. Every one who writes of him calls attention to the presence of two widely opposite characteristics in his compositions, sensuousness and mysticism. His sense of color in painting was evident in his writing for the orchestra; in this he is said to have produced his most effective results with the minimum of means. Unlike Wagner, he identified characters in his operatic music, not by certain set phrases, but by the intrinsic fitness of the musical expression at the moment.

Gounod was not addicted to the use of counterpoint, even in his larger church works; but there are several noteworthy instances in them which show that this was not due to lack of ability in that line. He has been called an eclectic, a French genius grafted on a German trunk; and his chief models were avowedly the great German composers. The deterioration of his later operatic works has been regretted, but the transfer of his most intense interest to sacred composition offsets th charge of a decline in power toward the latter part of his life. No one denies him real genius, but his exact place among the immortals is not so definitely named as that of some others of the Nineteenth Century. The fact that for more than twentyfive years a large number of young French musicians tried to imitate him is evidence of a strong individuality; only the really great exercise such an influence In 1880 Gounod was made a grand officer of the Legion of Honor. His last years were prosperous and his residence in the Place Malesherbes, Paris, was famed for its beauty and magnificence Here m he reserved a regular part of his time for writing and composing, although permitting himself more social relaxation than he had enjoyed in middle life. He recognized and openly expressed appreciation of many contemporary works that had evoked harsh criticism from the majority of listeners and critics; among these were Wagner's Tannhauser and Bizet's Carmen, both so universally popular in later years, as Gounod had predicted. In time, however, Wagner's music affected him differently, and he kept silence in regard to what he could not sincerely praise. He is said to have exclaimed, "Heaven preserve us from 'interesting' music! If it is not beautiful, it is not music."

Gounod's death took place at his house in St. Cloud, 1893, after a period of declining health following a paralytic stroke. At the time he was in the act of putting away a requiem to which he had just added some finishing touches, and which was to be performed that winter in Paris. In this respect his end has been compared to that of his adored Mozart. All France paid the highest tribute to his remains, and Queen Victoria telegraphed a message of sorrow and sympathy to the composer's wife. In June, 1907, a bronze bust of Gounod was unveiled at St.  Cloud with appropriate speeches, including one by Saint-Saens, and also music selected from the composer's works, given by various singers from the Grand Opera.

As a man, Gounod was warmly affectionate, winning many friends; enthusiastic rather than critical, fond of admiration and not entirely exempt from vanity, although his suavity and diplomacy prevented the foible from becoming obtrusive. He was a brilliant conversationalist, especially in his own tongue, although well versed in other languages, in literature, and many subjects beside music. In personal appearance his strong, compact figure and light hair resembled a German type, but his dark, keen eyes were unmistakably French. The portraits most frequently seen of him show a large, broad forehead, strongly marked features, softened by a kindly and intelligent expression, and a full white beard. Though nothing in his appearance would suggest a nervous organization, he was sensitive to an extreme, with a certain proportion of the feminine that is often found in men with the finest artistic natures. Hermann Klein says,   Gounod was one of the most fascinating men I have ever met His manner had a charm that was irresistible, and his kindly eyes would light up with a smile now tender, now humorous, that fixed itself ineffaceably upon the memory."