The Life You Give: Charles Gounod *1818

Charles Gounod, born Charles-françois Gounod, June 17, 1818, in Paris, France, is a composer noted particularly for his operas, of which the most famous is Faust.

Gounod’s father was a painter, and his mother was a capable pianist who gave Gounod his early training in music. He was educated at the Lycée Saint-Louis, where he remained until 1835. After taking his degree in philosophy, he began to study music with the Bohemian composer Anton Reicha. On Reicha’s death Gounod entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied under Fromental Halévy and Jean-François Lesueur. Three years later his cantata Fernand won him the Prix de Rome for music, an award that entailed a three-year stay in Rome at the Villa Medici.

In Italy Gounod devoted a considerable amount of his attention to the works of Giovanni da Palestrina, an Italian Renaissance composer. From Rome he proceeded to Vienna, where a mass and requiem, composed in Italy, were performed in 1842 and 1843. Returning to Paris, he passed through Prague, Dresden, and Berlin and met Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig.

Opera, Blood, and Tears
The Life You Give: Charles Gounod
in celebration of his life in music
June 17 at 1pm EST
on Clubhouse

In Paris, Gounod became organist and choirmaster at the Church of the Missions Étrangères, and for two years he mainly studied theology. In 1846 he entered the seminary of Saint-Sulpice but in 1847 decided against taking holy orders. A requiem and a Te Deum that he had started writing the previous year remained unfinished, and he turned to composing for the operatic stage.

The reception of his earliest operas, Sapho (1851) and La Nonne sanglante (1854; “The Bloody Nun”), was not very enthusiastic, despite favourable reviews by the composer Hector Berlioz. In his Messe de Sainte-Cécile (1855) he attempted to blend the sacred with a more secular style of composition. An excursion into comic opera followed with Le Médecin malgré lui (1858; The Mock Doctor), based on Molière’s comedy. From 1852 Gounod worked on Faust, using a libretto by M. Carré and J. Barbier based on J.W. von Goethe’s tragedy. The production of Faust on March 19, 1859, marked a new phase in the development of French opera. This work has continued to overshadow all of Gounod’s subsequent stage works, including Philémon et Baucis (1860), La Colombe (1860; “The Dove”), the fairly successful Mireille (1864), based on a Provençal poem by Frédéric Mistral, and Roméo et Juliette (1867).

In 1852 Gounod had become conductor of the Orphéon Choral Society in Paris, for which he wrote a number of choral works, including two masses. From 1870 he spent five years in London, formed a choir to which he gave his name (and which later became the Royal Choral Society), and devoted himself almost entirely to the writing of oratorios. Gallia, a lamentation for solo soprano, chorus, and orchestra, inspired by the French military defeat of 1870, was first performed in 1871 and was followed by the oratorios La Rédemption and Mors et Vita (Life and Death) in 1882 and 1885. He was made a grand officier of the Legion of Honour in 1888.

Gounod’s melodic vein is unmistakably original, though often oversentimental. He knew how to write for the voice and was also a skillful orchestrator; but in his operas his sense of musical characterization, though rarely devoid of charm, is often excessively facile, and the religiosity displayed in his sacred music is too often superficial. His Meditation (Ave Maria) superimposed on Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude in C Major (from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I) illustrates both his inventiveness and ease as a melodist and his naïveté in matters of style. The operas Faust, Mireille, and Le Médecin malgré lui show his melodic talents at their best.

Frederick Goldbeck / Source: Britannica

La Colombe / operetta by Charles Gounod

Act 1. A small thatched cottage.
Mazet, servant of Horace who lost his fortune, sings stanzae to his master's dove he is feeding (romance: " Apaisez blanche colombe "). Mister Jean, butler of countess Sylvie, arrives meaning to buy the bird for her. Mazet explains that the dove cannot be used as a messenger but that he will try to convince his master to sell it. In spite of the poverty in which he lives - and to mister Jean's surprise - Horace cannot abandon his favorite animal (romance and trio: " Qu'il garde son argent"). Mister Jean learns however that Horace is in love with Sylvie and hurries to tell her. He suggests that Sylvie tries to buy the dove herself; she hesitates, but, thinking jealously about the magnificent parrot of her rival in society, Amynte, she finally accepts mister Jean's idea. Once alone, Sylvie expresses her confidence in the power of love which will bring Horace to leave her the bird (air: " Je veus interroger ce jeune homme "). The fact of receiving Sylvie puts Horace at the height of enjoyment; she announces right away that she will remain for dinner (quartet: " O douce joie ").

Acte II. Same set.
Mister Jean has volunteered to prepare the meal and sings the art of cooking (air: " Le grand art de cuisine "). Mazet returns from the market with empty hands, because the suppliers refuse to give credit to Horace. After a long discussion with mister Jean, on the best way of serving different plates, which are obviously impossible to prepare in such circumstances, Horace and Mazet set the table and decide to kill the dove to offer a meal (duet: "Il faut d'abord dresser la table "). In the meantime, Sylvie is overcome with tender thoughts for Horace (romance: " Que de rêves charmants ". They sit down to have dinner and, as Sylvie is about to ask for the dove, Horace reveals to her that it was killed. Mazet appears with a roasted bird; however, to everybody's reassurance, it's not the dove, but Amynte's parrot that had escaped a little earlier. Sylvie is delighted to learn that Horace's dove is still alive, because it will always remind her of his love. 

Source: Charles Gounod - La Colombe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.