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Properly Impressive

The MHS Review 343 Vol. 9, No. 1 • 1985

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David M. Greene


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On March 19, 1859-the year that saw the premieres of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera and Meyerbeer's Le pardon de Ploermel (alias Dinorah)-Faust by the 40-year-old Charles Francois Gounod was given its first perform­ance at the Theatre Lyrique in Paris. The birth had not been easy. A drama on the same sub­ject had caused a postponement of several· months. The prima donna had acted up. The tenor, a big cheese named Gruyer who had renamed himself Guardi, developed laryngitis. The audience and the reviews were tepid, chiefly because the music was so unexpected. But of course Faust went on to become Gounod's Biggest Hit and one of the most popular operas of all time.

Though Gounod had indicated a wish to set Goethe's monumental tragedy since his con­servatory days, in the event he eschewed the philosophy and settled for Part I, which he and his librettists watered down into a moral fable about illicit love. Part of its appeal was the sac­charine sweetness of the love music, which Gounod duplicated to a degree in his later Romeo et Juliette. An old reference book speaks of him as "the musician of love and of lovers," since he so correctly mirrored the of­ficial Victorian notion of passion. A later writer, however, remarks on the hymn-like quality of the love duet.

And indeed Faust contains almost as much soi-disant religious music as it does amatory. The opening prelude, Valentin's prayer (ad­ded in 1864), the Choral des epees, when Mephistopheles is routed with inverted cruciform swords, are of a piece with Gounod's religious work. The church scene with its pealing organ is very close to the music on this record. Marguerite's dying prayer ("Anges pur, anges radieux") Gounod actually lifted from his 1842 Requiem, and the final apotheosis is a grand wallow in gingerbread religiosity.

Camille Saint-Saens is said to have thought that Gounod would be remembered for his sacred music at least as much as for his operas. The old commentator noted above, however, finds Gounod's competence in both the erotic and the devotional paradoxical. As I have noted here before, Gounod was for all of his mature life torn between the sensual and what he considered the spiritual. He had had some sort of "born-again" experience in his youth and had later taken steps toward joining the priesthood. But there were love-affairs before and after the marriage he was euchred into, and indeed the odor of sanctity he seemed to exhale drove women wild. It is not unlikely that his bouts of religious fervor had something to do with repressed sexuality or guilt. Certain­ly his love-music and his sacred music were often couched in dialects of the same tongue.

To be sure, Gounod wrote reams of religious music: Masses and other works for the liturgy, oratorios, cantatas, and dozens of "sacred songs." Many of the last were to English texts by such poetasters as Fred Weatherly, author of "Danny Boy." Indeed, as a religious composer, Gounod was par­ticularly worshiped in England. The Sanctus of his most lasting major religious work, the "St. Cecilia" Mass, was premiered in London in 1851 and created quite a stir. Thirty-one years later his three part monster oratorio Redemp­tion - an inflated rubber dinosaur according to most modern evaluations-received the kind of greeting there that was accorded in more re­cent time to Jesus Christ Superstar.

The two pieces here recorded were first per­formed in Rheims Cathedral in 1888 on the occasion of the beatification of a native son, Jean-Baptiste de LaSalle. The Te Deum, a psalm of praise and rejoicing, was designed as a sort of prelude to the Mass. Gounod scored it for voices, six harps, choir organ, and grand organ, to give ii a properly celestial at­mosphere no doubt.

In these works, Gounod really does try to avoid the sentimental outbursts of some of the earlier ones. The Te Deum is properly im­pressive and ceremonial (though the caver­nosities of La Madeleine tend to swallow up the harps and lend a distant perspective to the sound in general). The Mass has been likened to some of Liszt's in its relative starkness. Gounod based it on a fragment of Gregorian Chant-as Gregorian was then understood--­and applied to it his student researches in Rome into Palestrina-as Palestrina was then understood. Some may find the results more stagy than convincing. Nevertheless, these resurrections of examples of Gounod's religious output are worthwhile endeavors, especially in helping us understand the taste of another day.

Review of Solemn Majesty and Bare Beauty Charles Gounod pg 55

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