Thursday, June 17, 2010

Charles Gounod

The French composer Charles Gounod (June 17, 1818 - October 18, 1893) was born today in Paris. His mother was his first piano teacher but eventually he enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire and later studied the sacred choral music of Palestrina and others in Italy. It was reportedly Fanny Mendelssohn (sister to Felix and a composer herself) who introduced Gounod to the piano music of J.S. Bach. For two years he considered entering the priesthood but returned to composing, and though he wrote music in many forms, sacred music was always a part of the mix.

Gounod's first major work to gain success was a Messe solenelle (solemn mass) which was first sung on Saint Cecilia's Day in 1855 (and is now known as the St. Cecilia Mass). He was also writing symphonies around this time, and had produced his first opera, Sapho (1851), which was a failure. He eventually wrote twelve operas, the most successful of which was Faust (1859), which was for many years the most-performed opera in the world. It was the first work performed at New York's Metropolitan Opera House in 1883, and most people today think of Gounod as solely an opera composer.

For a time during and after the Franco-Prussian War, Gounod went to live in London, where he concentrated more specifically on sacred music. He formed a choral group (still singing today as the Royal Choral Society) which performed new pieces of his beginning with the cantata Gallia (1871). Even after his return to France in 1876 he continued to write large-scale choral works such as La rédemption (1882) for the major British choral festivals.

Many of his sacred vocal and choral pieces were smaller, such as his Ave Maria, adapted from a keyboard piece of Bach (which I well remember singing at my sister's wedding 20 years ago). His years in England coincided with the huge growth in hymnals published (following the popularity of Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861), so it is not surprising that he wrote a few hymn tunes as well while he was there, such as this one which still appears in some hymnals today.

Christ, whose glory fills the skies,
Christ, the true, the only Light,
Sun of Righteousness, arise,
Triumph o’er the shades of night;
Dayspring from on high, be near;
Day-star, in my heart appear.

Cold and cheerless is the morn
Unaccompanied by thee;
Joyless is the day’s return
Till thy mercy’s beams I see;
Till they inward light impart,
Glad my eyes, and warm my heart.

Visit then this soul of mine,
Pierce the gloom of sin and grief;
Fill me, Radiancy divine,
Scatter all my unbelief;
More and more thyself display,
Shining to the perfect day.

Charles Wesley, 1740; alt.
Charles Gounod, 1872

I would be in trouble in some quarters if I did not mention the other tune to which this hymn is frequently matched, a German tune later harmonized by William Henry Havergal called RATISBON. I don't really have a preference between the two, but some people do.

Some of Gounod's other hymn tunes are adapted from his choral works, and I would not be surprised if, hidden away in some nineteenth-century hymnals, there are also some tunes taken from melodies in his operas.

Though Gounod is no longer as acclaimed in this century as he once was, he is far from unknown. His descendants, however, are not quite satisfied with his current reputation and have built their own website to spread the word about the glories of Charles Gounod.

Two Years Ago: Helen Maria Williams

1 comment:

AuntE said...

It's hard to imagine as a pianist today that someone was introduced to the keyboard music of Bach after so many years of study. Thank goodness for the Mendelssohns!