Published on December 14, 2018
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Gounod (1818-1893), the most celebrated French composer in his time, known today for his opera Faust (1859) and the prayer in song Ave Maria (1853), adapted from the first prelude in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Faust was the most popular opera of the 19th century, and the Ave Maria, which Gounod deprecated as an espièglerie, a fluffy bit of mischief, added the luster of sanctity to his secular fame, though its earwig success, while works of his that he thought superior flopped, perplexed and annoyed him.
In America Gounod’s 200th birthday has been overshadowed by Leonard Bernstein’s 100th, but here and elsewhere musicians have not forgotten Gounod, sometimes reviving works that the modern public never heard of to begin with. The Palazetto Bru Zane in Paris, the Center for French Romantic Music, presented a birthday gala featuring scenes and arias from eight operas, most of them unfamiliar to any but the learned. Odyssey Opera in Boston is putting on La Reine de Saba (The Queen of Sheba) in its American premiere, a century and a half after its 1862 opening in Paris, as well as the Beantown premiere of Le Médecin malgré lui (The Doctor in Spite of Himself), Gounod’s rendition of the Molière comedy. London’s University College Opera will showcase the British premiere of Polyeucte. The National Center for Performing Arts in Beijing staged Roméo et Juliette in July, while Singapore’s Lyric Opera celebrated Gounod and Bernstein together with a selection of their greatest hits. Estonian National Opera will observe All Souls’ Day with a performance of the Saint Cecilia Solemn Mass. Warner Classics/Parlophone has issued a modestly priced 15-CD boxed set that comprises Faust, Roméo et Juliette, and Mireille, a scattering of arias from the lesser known operas, 26 mélodies or art songs, 3 sacred works, the Symphony for Wind Instruments, and the 2 full-scale symphonies. Decca for its part has released Gounod’s piano works played by Roberto Prosseda. An ordinary opera fan may be forgiven if he did not know Gounod wrote any piano music at all.
Gounod would say that he acquired his vocation with his mother’s milk, for she sang as she suckled him. Signs of an inherited musical gift—his mother, widowed young, supported the family by giving piano lessons—showed themselves even before the boy had learned to talk. His father, official artist to the Duc de Berry, made his own generous contribution to his son’s genetic endowment: Charles was a dab hand at drawing, and if his father hadn’t died when the boy was 5 years old he might have followed a different artistic path. Music pulled him inexorably in, however, and his obvious precocious talent and passion overcame his mother’s resistance to a career choice so likely to end in penury.
Under the supervision of Luigi Cherubini and Jacques Fromental Halévy at the Conservatoire, Gounod flourished, and at the age of 20 on his third attempt he won the Prix de Rome, a high distinction that financed two years of study at the French Academy in the Eternal City. The director of the academy, the painter Ingres, had known and admired Gounod’s father, and he befriended the fledgling composer. When Ingres saw that Gounod could also draw with exceptional skill, he urged him to make copies of the master’s pictures and engravings; and as Gounod drew he listened to the great man proclaim the everlasting truths of classical art—beauty for beauty’s sake, grace supported by strength.
In the opera houses of Rome, Gounod found nothing that approached these standards; and perhaps he set the bar impossibly high, for the operatic staples there were Bellini and Donizetti, whose best works have stood the test of time at least as well as Gounod’s own—though their lesser ones, which were abundant and dominated the repertory, met with oblivion, just like his. Listening to Palestrina in the Sistine Chapel, on the other hand, enraptured Gounod. “Palestrina’s music seems like a translation in song of Michelangelo, and I tend to think that the two masters are revealed to the understanding in a mutual light: the viewer develops the hearer and vice versa—so much so that after a time one is tempted to wonder whether the Sistine Chapel, both painting and music, is not the product of a single imagination.” As Gounod writes in Memoirs of an Artist, the two geniuses did nothing for mere effect and disdained seduction, so that in their art “the material agent” is forgotten and the soul alone is launched upon the contemplative heights.
Gounod’s concern for the soul would tempt him to leave a musical career for a priestly calling. When he wrote to his mother from Rome smitten with enthusiasm for the example of Henri Lacordaire, liberal intellectual turned Dominican and the most alluring preacher of his day, she replied that religion was a good thing but too much of it would lead him astray, against the truest inclinations of his “passionate nature.” Still, when he returned to Paris he turned aside from the customary path to the opera house followed by Rome prizewinners, and resolved to revive the ailing French tradition of sacred music; and he took over the music directorship of a humble church with four choristers, a wheezing organ, and a derisory salary, determined to fill the ears of his congregation with Palestrina and Bach and his own efforts in counterpoint after their example, whether the parishoners liked it or not. They disliked it sufficiently at first that he walked off the job rather than be compelled to change his ways; but the abbé convinced him to return, free to choose what music he wished. The congregants learned to like it, and Gounod remained there for five years, happy in his chosen obscurity, as though he had never wanted anything else but the churchly life. That life appealed enough that he went so far as to enter the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice in 1847.
But there was after all something else he wanted—an esteemed place in the larger world—and the excitement of the 1848 revolution drove him out of the cloister and into the theater. Soon afterward a common friend introduced Gounod to the mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, one of the hottest voices in town, who in the course of a two-hour conversation became convinced that the young man was a Mozart-like genius and that he must write an opera for her to star in. (Viardot’s lover, Ivan Turgenev, was less impressed with Gounod, whom he would describe years later as exuding “the ooze of the erotic priest that bubbles to the surface.”) Madame Viardot’s name on the project sounded like money in the bank to the director of the Opéra—the most prestigious of the five Parisian opera houses—and he happily commissioned an opera from this unknown composer who had never written one before. Three years later Sapho—with Viardot as the lovelorn and suicidal Greek poetess, the once-plush voice now sadly growing threadbare, as critics with blood in their eye and malice in their hearts joyously pointed out—proved a spectacular bust and closed in a hurry.
Gounod was defeated but not discomfited. On Sapho’s first night the neoclassical dramatist François Ponsard had asked Gounod to provide incidental music for his play Ulysse at the Comédie-Française. Jacques Offenbach, the toast of Paris, would conduct, and critics admired the music but the public refused to be charmed.
The Bach-Gounod Ave Maria changed that a few months later. The crowd went wild. As Gounod’s biographer James Harding writes, “No soirée musicale was complete without a rendering of the ubiquitous morsel. No drawing-room pianist or violinist could avoid requests for it. Gounod’s little joke ballooned into a gigantic best-seller. . . . Soon the Meditation was being punched out by full orchestras complete with big drum.” The vogue never really died out. RCA Victor’s CD The Ave Maria Album has Gounod going head-to-head with Schubert, and Placido Domingo, Rosa Ponselle, Leontyne Price, Jeanette MacDonald, John McCormack, and Mario Lanza more than ably representing the Gounod forces. What can one say? The sure-fire crowd-pleaser may draw a sneer from such as Harding, and Gounod himself might have been vexed by its excessive popularity; but it is a gem, and has lasted because it is both reverent and beautiful.
Gounod’s next opera, La Nonne sanglante (The Bloody Nun, 1854), fit few people’s ideas of beauty and fewer of reverence, but it was box-office gold, at least at first. The libretto, by the improbably prolific Eugène Scribe, was based on Matthew Lewis’s lurid 1796 novel, The Monk, and it featured the ghost of a murdered nun avid for vengeance and complicating the romance of a pair of star-crossed lovers, the young man having promised the ghost to kill her murderer, who would turn out to be his father. After seven composers, including Verdi, Berlioz, and Meyerbeer, had wrestled with the libretto and given up, Gounod accepted the challenge; and the opera was outselling even everybody’s favorite, Meyerbeer, until the director of the theater was replaced by a more austere man, who refused to dirty his hands with such “muck.” Gounod rebounded from the disappointment with his only comedy, Le Médecin malgré lui (1858), which pleased the critics, diverted the public, and put some real money in the composer’s pocket.
The gaudy triumph of Faust a year later came as the most exhilarating surprise nonetheless. Goethe’s play had bemused Gounod ever since he had gone to Rome with a copy of Gérard de Nerval’s translation in his luggage, placed there by his mother. The opera reduces Goethe’s spiritually restless and indomitable hero to a considerably less admirable specimen of the average sensual man, who in old age sells his soul to the devil for the return of youth, beauty, and virile energy: the everyday erotic rather than the venturesome sublime. The music adumbrates the natural and ordinary desire of feckless humanity for sex, wealth, violence, and other amusement. The sacred moralist in Gounod is in his element here. Méphistophélès’s great aria of hell-bent sacrilege, Le veau d’or (The Golden Calf), is the anthem of the general degradation. The devil bellows his contemptuous delight at the all-too-human preference for trash over the soul’s treasure; there are no low notes for the bass here, and much of the music he sings is set above the staff, to highlight the seductive command of a voice black and lustrous as it whips the crowd into a mindless frenzy. The Kermesse (Easter Fair) waltz that follows soon after seems to be touched as well with the diabolical flair: Its brisk aphrodisiac snap is a world away from the stately aristocratic lilt of the Blue Danube, and the music eventually careens nearly out of control, the chorus overwrought and breathless, gasping out a single quarter note per bar, declaring themselves on the point of dying for the god Pleasure.
Pleasure is rather a paltry god to die for, though there are those who eagerly do so, and Gounod’s music makes an attractive case for such self-sacrifice; the sacred moralist does not forget that he is an entertainer for a worldly audience. Faust in the opera house sells his soul cheaply, for the sexual thrill promised by the vision of lovely Marguerite conjured by the devil. But Faust nevertheless proves capable of noble tenderness in his passion, at least for a time: In Salut, demeure chaste et pure, his hymn to Marguerite’s simple, modest, exemplary home, the tenor pours out the high-altitude ecstasy of a man in love with perfect innocence. Marguerite for her part sits at her spinning wheel as she sings of the faithful love of the legendary King of Thulé, her voice comfortably fixed in the middle register, the tempo Moderato maestoso, the whole effect that of seemly self-control; but bewildered asides interrupt her song, as she recalls the handsome elegant gentleman who offered her his arm that day, calling her a lady and beautiful, and whom she refused demurely, certain she was neither a lady nor beautiful. The thought of love absorbs her, but she does not know what it is. Then she happens upon the casket of jewels that Mephistopheles has furnished Faust for his seduction. Instant transformation: the music takes on the meter, tempo, and rhythm of suddenly loosed desire, and she soars to a high A as she admires herself in the mirror with her new earrings and sees herself as beautiful for the first time—discovering the erotic power she never knew she had. One is charmed by the music, with its soupçon of deliberate meretriciousness, yet appalled at the ease with which apparently impregnable purity can be corrupted. And Faust directed by Mephistopheles will corrupt her thoroughly, though she is no pushover. When Faust comes to her and proclaims his love, she stands firm in her chastity, and he reveres her all the more for it. Mephistopheles, however, wants his protégé to get what he bargained for, and the devil intones a simple mellifluous invocation of Night and Love, in parody of liturgical recitative, long lines on a single pitch descending or ascending mostly by half-steps. The combined forces of darkness he calls on will do their work—though the exasperated demon will have to give Faust another push to get down to business.
The next time Marguerite appears, she has given birth to Faust’s child, and he has abandoned her. Darkness seems to be in total command. When Marguerite goes to church to pray for forgiveness, Mephistopheles and a demonic chorus hammer away at her faith: God shows no mercy for the likes of her. The devil is at his most terrifying here: Elsewhere a howling burlesque act or a gentlemanly ironist of rancid urbanity (as in his Serenade), in this scene he is malignancy run riot, horror-show evil incarnate, ferocious in his hatred of goodness as the demon Bertram in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable or Mefistofele in Arrigo Boito’s version of the Faust story that gives the devil top billing. In spite of her fear Marguerite prays for God’s light to descend on her unfortunate self; a coloratura flourish on “Descende” rises to a high B and tumbles nearly two octaves to a C below the staff, the lowest note a soprano can usually be expected to sing. Here is the dramatic rendition in music of the soul’s struggle between hope and hopelessness: God remains on high while Marguerite suffers a vast distance below, crying out de profundis; yet she still hopes that even there God’s grace can find her. Her outcry is met by Mephistopheles’s triumphant assurance that she is bound for hell, and he wrings from her the terrified ejaculation “Ah” on a high A, the same word and pitch she sang so exuberantly in the Jewel Song. High notes are not always just for show.
Terrible things keep happening. When Marguerite’s brother, Valentin, a soldier home from the wars, his honor befouled by his sister’s disgrace, draws his sword against her seducer, Faust stabs him, with some underhanded assistance from Mephistopheles. The dying man churlishly curses Marguerite as the cause of his death. Then the Walpurgis Night festivities to which Mephistopheles is hosting Faust are interrupted when Faust sees a vision of Marguerite in distress, a red ribbon around her neck narrow as an axe blade. She is in prison awaiting execution for the murder of their child, and has lost her mind. Faust rushes to free her with the help of diabolical magic, but she is past caring for what happens to her body and wants only divine forgiveness for her sins. She rejects him with a cry of horror, on an octave drop from a high A flat. Mephistopheles pronounces her damned with his reciprocal octave plunge from high D. But with a long-distance modulation to shining C major the angel chorus appears and declares Marguerite saved on a D of their own, with tenors and basses in unison and sopranos a seraphic octave above: The spirit that negates is thereby neatly negated. Marguerite’s soul ascends to heaven, Faust falls to his knees in desperate prayer, and Mephistopheles is overmatched by an archangel with a sword. All is as it should be.
Faust made Gounod a roaring success, and nothing he wrote afterward rivaled it in musical accomplishment, acclaim, or longevity. But Roméo et Juliette (1867), popular in its day, ought not to be forgotten, though it largely has been. The opera is a melodic feast. The lyric abundance with which Gounod showers the young lovers’ longing, fulfillment, and heartbreak is the musical equivalent of Shakespeare’s poetry, and does justice to the original. The music is by turns effervescent with imperative delight and black with tragic brooding. Brilliant touches demonstrate Gounod’s artistry as a dramatist. The orchestral music introducing Frère Laurent depicts his noble serenity and tenderness; the antic, rapidly skittering woodwinds that accompany Roméo as he bursts into the friar’s cell hint at the headlong folly of his beautiful but disastrous passion, which the excessively tender-hearted holy man will fatally abet by marrying the renegade couple moments later and attempting to engineer their flight from Verona. Gounod renders the complication of forbidden youthful love at once elevated, pure, sexually ablaze, and reckless. Juliette assures Frère Laurent with dignified gravity that her love is made to last, and the friar’s fervent prayer over the couple resounds with simple faith. The massed orchestral forces swell and exult thunderously when he pronounces the newlyweds joined for eternity and wishes them bound in good time for the heavenly kingdom; the dramatic irony here is patent, for their double suicide will cost them the hope of heaven. In the heart of beauty, tragedy is kindled. But the memory of beauty lasts.
And Gounod makes the listener feel all of it. In an 1862 letter Gounod attributes his popular success to giving the public what it wants most, which the less beloved Berlioz prefers to withhold. “The Public doesn’t want to be asked to work: it doesn’t seek to understand: it wants to feel, and to feel immediately.” And late in life he told his student Henri Büsser how to reach straight into the audience’s heart:
Melody alone counts in music. Recently I heard a modern work at a big concert: it had lots of notes and the orchestra spread itself in great waves of sound. Well, I’d have given anything to hear a melody, however short. Whether in the concert hall or in the theatre, everything is based on melody. Music-loving audiences, even experienced ones, prefer works to have clarity and ideas that go right to the heart and not only to the brain. . . . Melody, always melody, my dear child, that is the sole, the unique secret of our art.
Today operagoers’ ears have grown attuned to the sound-worlds of Berg, Shostakovich, Britten, and Stravinsky, so it is not surprising that Berlioz rather than Gounod is admired as the supreme French composer of his era. (Rightly so, one may add.) But Gounod will have a lasting if limited place in the opera house because the lightning struck him once or maybe twice, and feeling of high voltage surged into melody of genius. He will never be as famous again as he was in his lifetime, but nevertheless he has a niche in the pantheon.
Algis Valiunas is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at the New Atlantis.