Charles Gounod

People associate the name of Charles Gounod (1818-1893) with the popular opera Faust and the Ave Maria motet in all sorts of arrangements (written on the basis of the Prelude in C major from Volume I of J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Piano). Throughout the French composer’s life, his creative interests were divided between sacred music and opera. Born in Paris into an artistic family (his father was a painter, his mother was a pianist), Charles was a soloist in a church choir from an early age, playing the piano and composing short piano pieces. A graduate of the Paris Conservatoire, he entered the Prix de Rome in 1839 with the Fernand cantata and spent the next two years in Italy, travelling to Vienna and Germany. But disillusioned with modern Italian opera, he began to study the ancient cult music. And in his early sacred works he wove his fascination with the art of Palestrina.

After his return to Paris, he worked as organist and conductor at the Church of the Missions étrangères (1843-1848). He even thought of taking a clerical ministry, of devoting himself to the Church. Still, after a long hesitation he returned to art, to his beloved opera, a genre particularly revered at the time in France. His first stage works “Sappho” and “The Bloody Nun” were not a success. It came to the 40-year-old composer only with the premiere of his comic opera “Involuntary Doctor” (after Molière) and his masterpiece “Faust”. After Gounod’s significant revision for the opera’s production at the Paris Grand Opera (replacing the original dialogues with recitatives and adding ballet scenes), Faust achieved an unheard-of record. By the end of his life, it numbered 1,000 performances! The “hit” Ave Maria followed, as did several other operas – the most famous of these being Romeo and Juliet. And a radical turn to sacred music. The composer retired from public activities and composed 9 Masses, a Requiem, the “Redemption”, “Death and Life” oratorios, etc.

If Gounod is Faust for opera fans, the symphonic Gounod brings an unexpected experience. In the years 1854-55 he wrote two symphonies (there are also sketches for a third, which was never completed). In fact, the first movement of Symphony No. 1 in C major was composed in Rome, a decade earlier, and not surprisingly it is sunny, carefree. It’s unofficially referred to as “Haydn-esque”. It embodies his endless homage to the classical Viennese tradition. It is a curious fact how the 17-year-old Georges Bizet’s acquaintance with this opus gave birth to the keyboard transcription he made of the work for two pianos and the courage to write his Symphony in C major.

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