Music Charles Gounod
by
Steven Huebner
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0234

Introduction

Charles François Gounod (b. 17 June 1818–d. 18 October 1893) was recognized as one of the most prominent composers in France during his lifetime. He wrote in almost all major genres of his day. Following a premier grand prix de Rome and prolonged stays in Rome and Vienna, Gounod first took up a modest position in Paris as music director at the church of the Missions Étrangères in 1843. His career breakthrough occurred with the premiere of his first opera Sapho at the Opéra in 1851, a commission facilitated by his association with the singer Pauline Viardot and her circle. An appointment as a director of the Orphéon de Paris, a state-funded choral society, followed soon after in 1852, and the remainder of the decade saw him compose some of his best-known work: two symphonies, the Messe en l’honneur de sainte Cécile, the opéra comique Le Médecin malgré lui, the opera Faust, and an instrumental arrangement of the first prelude of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, which soon circulated in a texted version as Ave Maria. Gounod’s output in sacred music, at first copious, slowed considerably as he continued to turn his attention to the stage, where he achieved success with Mireille (1864) and Roméo et Juliette (1867), the second of which surely marked the apogee of his career because of its immediate international exposure. In the wake of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, Gounod and his family moved to England, where, encouraged by his friend Georgina Weldon, he accelerated his already rapid pace of composition but also became entangled in legal issues with publishers. A return to Paris in 1874 brought a rekindling of interest in sacred music: Gounod wrote several masses later in life as well as the large oratorios La Rédemption (1882) and Mors et Vita (1885). Gounod also composed several operas in this period that did not do well and have rarely been revived. Despite continuing also to produce prolifically in the area of art song, instrumental music, and incidental music, during the Third Republic his reputation became eclipsed by a younger generation of more progressive composers. Gounod remained warmly regarded as an elder statesman of French music, if occasionally disparaged by Wagnerian journalists. Critics and composers identified his melodic style and deft contrapuntal hand as quintessentially French, and they admired—and derided—his facility.

General Overviews and Reference Sources

Faust may well have been the most frequently staged opera in the last quarter of the 19th century. Gounod continues to be recognized internationally for this work today, as well as for Roméo et Juliette, although neither is performed as often as it once was staged. The reputation derived from these successes combined with the sheer size of Gounod’s oeuvre (642 works in the catalogue of Condé 2009, cited under Biographical Studies) has led to the continuing appearance of Gounod’s name on concert hall programs and orders of service in church. Despite his fame in his own day and such lasting presence in international musical culture, relatively little research on Gounod has been undertaken. One prominent index of this is that, notwithstanding some excellent studies, even scholars from Gounod’s own country have paid little attention to his music. Several reasons may be advanced. Earlier grand opera and music of the generation of Claude Debussy have garnered much more attention, doubtless in some measure because of their amenability to a historical narrative centered on progress. Gounod’s mélodies, as interesting as many of them are (especially those from earlier in his career), seem pale in comparison with those of French composers later in the 19th century. Religious music of the 19th century, to which he contributed significantly, generally does not attract much scholarly attention. It might also be plausibly argued that he simply wrote too much, and that quality thereby suffered, which, in turn, has muted research interest. Flynn 2009 provides a comprehensive list of primary and secondary sources, with a substantial number of entries devoted to 19th-century scholarship and long abstracts that give a clear account of content.

  • Flynn, Timothy S. Charles Gounod: A Research and Information Guide. New York: Routledge, 2009.

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    The author provides 216 primary and secondary sources with detailed abstracts. He begins with studies of the Parisian musical milieu around Gounod and continues with sections devoted to biographical sources, specialized studies of individual works, and Gounod’s writings. The book concludes with appendixes devoted to lists of selected manuscripts, correspondence, recordings, songs, and modern editions of Gounod’s music. An additional appendix addresses the thorny problem of the chronology of Gounod’s masses.

  • Huebner, Steven. “Gounod, Charles-François.” Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press.

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    Reliable survey that incorporates research on the composer up to the late 1990s. The work list, particularly in the area of sacred music and vocal music, requires adjustments in light of new findings. Available online by subscription.

  • Jahrmärker, Manuela. “Gounod, Charles-François.” MGG Online. New York: RILM International Center.

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    An excellent introduction, more compact than Grove Music Online. Available online by subscription.

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